Refugees – to Nauru, to Rwanda, from wherever

Tuesday, 14 May 2024

‘Stop the Boats,’ it’s been a political war cry for both Australia and the UK. Look at a map and it’s easy to see why ‘stopping the boats’ is an easy story for Australians: Indonesia to Australia, the usual route, is a long way – 2000km across the Indian Ocean with plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong en route. I should know, Maureen and I crossed from Bali to Exmouth in Western Australia on a New Zealand yacht back in 1972.

Calais in France across the English Channel to Dover in England, on the other hand, is about 25 miles, 40km, and lots of refugees are willing to try their hand at that crossing. Why they don’t like life in France remains a mystery, however.

If you – a refugee aiming for Australia – manage to make landfall in Australia the government then whisks you away to the remote island nation of Nauru, north-east of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and makes your life so thoroughly miserable you wish you’d never managed to set foot in Australia. This ‘stop the boats’ policy is something lots of Australian – me included – are very ashamed about, but the British government decided it was a good idea to imitate and if you – a refugee aiming for the UK – manage to make landfall in England the government would like to whisk you away to the African nation of Rwanda – not for a spot of gorilla watching, a mainstay of Rwandan tourism, but for a thoroughly miserable time, just like Australia plans for their refugees.

In fact as of yet not a single refugee has been flown off to Rwanda and if Rishi Sunak’s hopeless Conservative/Tory government does fall over the projected new Labour government of Keir Starmer promises to shut down the whole crazy refugees-to-Rwanda idea on Day 1.

▲ Saibai Island is low lying and in danger from rising sea levels, the Australian government is trying to keep the sea away

Refugee arrivals in Australia are certainly not frequent – as they are in the UK – and I blogged (Tracking Flights, 19 February 2024) about the first group in a long time, who arrived in Western Australia and were promptly sent off to Nauru. On 10 May five more refugees arrived in Australia after a much shorter crossing, it’s only 5km from the coast of Papua New Guinea to Saibai Island in Torres Strait. I did a little trek around Torres Strait in late 2019 (The Islands of Torres Strait, 2 November 2019) including a short visit to Saibai.

◄ The island is so close to PNG that people day trip across and some local trading is allowed between the two countries, like this basketwork.

What was truly weird about this refugee arrival, however, was the would-be-refugees were Africans from – wait for it – Rwanda! So the UK is insisting that Rwanda is a wonderful place to send refugees and at the same time citizens of Rwanda are making the long trip to escape to Australia?

▲ A warning if you bring your pikininis to Saibai Island

This truly amazing connection barely got mentioned by the UK or Australian media although there is a Guardian story on the arrival. Reportedly the Rwandans have been sent back to Papua New Guinea? A story on their trek from Rwanda, which it appears was made via the Democratic Republic of Congo to Indonesia then to Papua New Guinea and finally to Saibai Island, would definitely be worth reading about.

Of course I’ve visited Nauru as well – back in 2011.