Forty of the 300 refugees who left Nauru to resettle in the US have contacted the island nation asking to come back because life in America was harder than expected, the Nauruan President has revealed.
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Refugee life on Nauru can include holidays in Fiji, business ownership, free housing and healthcare and jobs in government departments and at the local hospital, The Australian was told during a four-day visit to the Pacific island nation to interview refugees and government officials.
Nauru’s President Baron Waqa said refugees who resettled in the US had contacted his nation’s Department of Justice and Border Protection and asked to come back. He said that did not surprise him because Nauru was a cheap place to live, warm with a relaxed lifestyle. “The US — it’s a difficult place to live, a lot of competition for work and jobs,” he said.
However, Nauru is also a place of uncertainty for some of the remaining 450 refugees and 50 asylum-seekers who feel unwelcome, highly visible and left behind, as the last of the refugee couples with children are airlifted from Nauru to Brisbane on commercial flights.
In an interview this week, Mr Waqa said he took his responsibility to care for refugees seriously.
He believed Nauru had matured in the role and was good at it.
Mr Waqa said, overall, the economic benefits of the nation’s second foray into the business of regional refugee-processing outweighed the hurt of being labelled a prison and a hell-hole in the international media.
Mr Waqa said his people’s history of exile and persecution made them sympathetic as a nation to refugees. Claims the government mistreated or neglected refugees were untrue and painful, he said.
“We try and understand the situation because there are people that have their own political agendas overseas and want to attack us because of our involvement in the process centre and our partnership with Australia. So we get caught up in the middle.”
Mr Waqa said he believed few people outside Australia understood that refugees moved freely around the island, that they owned businesses including a barber shop and a cafe, and worked for his government or had fallen in love with locals.
At the $27 million hospital that Australia built in 2016, refugee Mohammad Noor works as a nurse using the qualifications he gained at the International Medical Corps in Afghanistan. The 37-year-old, who is skilled in the operating theatre, is planning the day he can be reunited with his wife and seven children, who remain in Afghanistan. One option open to Mr Noor is to seek to bring his family to Nauru.
The island’s government officials say one refugee has already successfully applied for a Nauru visa for his spouse to join him.
This year, a Pakistani refugee, who has since been resettled in the US, flew from Nauru to Fiji to celebrate his 21st birthday on a passport issued by the Republic of Nauru.
“Yeah, they go on holidays — you didn’t know that,” the President said.
Nauruan parents Maverick and Ziki Eoe don’t recognise their country the way it is depicted in some media reports; they say their island home has adapted well to the government’s decision in 2012 to take 10 per cent of its population as refugees.
“The refugees are good people, and people on Nauru are welcoming and laid back,” Ms Eoe said.
“It is working much better than what is portrayed. We are a graceful people so we accept the criticism but it still hurts.”
Mr Waqa lashed Australian-based advocates he claimed had stirred up anxiety and false hope among refugees, while Nauru’s police commissioner, Corey Caleb, said at times more than half of all callouts on the island of 10,000 permanent residents had been for incidents involving refugees and asylum-seekers whom he believed “got the wrong advice” about how to bring attention to their plight and get to Australia.
Mr Caleb said the police force had increased from 110 to 130 officers to deal with the cases, which had included allegations that unknown Nauruans committed serious crimes against refugees.
He said police found no evidence of such crimes and the alleged victims did not want to give a statement. He said Nauruan police were routinely called to incidents of attempted self-harm by refugees that were then photographed by other refugees. “They got the wrong advice, you know — that’s my point,” Mr Caleb said.
Some refugees approached by The Australian this week are deeply troubled. Hazara refugees Sayed Zaidi and Yasin Zadeh have been on the island for five years. Mr Zadeh, 29, has been told he will soon go to the US but finds it hard to say if he is pleased about it.
His flatmate, Mr Zaidi, 23, said he did not know whether he would be accepted. He said he barely ate and had stopped caring about what his future holds.
“We are forgotten,” he said.
“They call America the land of the free and all that but (there are) a lot of catches and they soon find out that it’s not that easy.”
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