'Aussie Guantanamo' looms over Pacific summit

Ahead of the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, national flags are seen lining a road in Yaren on Nauru. The four-day meet opens today.
Ahead of the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum, national flags are seen lining a road in Yaren on Nauru. The four-day meet opens today.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NAURU • Pacific leaders are meeting in Nauru to discuss regional challenges this week, with the host nation keen to deflect attention from its Canberra-funded migration detention camp dubbed "Australia's Guantanamo" by critics.

Official talks at the 18-nation Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) will centre on the threat climate change poses to island states and China's rising influence in the region.

But the presence of the detention centre looms large as the four-day meeting opens today amid calls from rights groups such as Amnesty International to close a facility it calls "a stain on the region".

"Pacific island leaders cannot ignore this issue any longer and need to ensure that it is at the very top of the forum's agenda," Amnesty said in releasing an open letter co-signed with 80 other groups. Critics are equating the centre with the US-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba.

The centre houses around 220 asylum seekers, including over a dozen children, who have tried to reach Australia by boat. Under Canberra's hardline immigration policies, such people are processed in remote facilities on Nauru and Papua New Guinea to prevent them from setting foot on the Australian mainland.

Australia says offshore processing is needed to stop the deaths that occur when people-smugglers cram asylum seekers into rickety boats for the treacherous sea voyage. The camp is an economic lifeline for Nauru, which has a population of 11,000 and scant natural resources.

In unprecedented curbs, the government has warned visiting journalists covering the PIF it will revoke their visas if they report on the asylum-seeker issue. "You are only authorised to report on, or take photos or videos of the PIF. Any other subjects must be approved by the RON (Republic of Nauru)," it said.

Such heavy-handed tactics have taken the spotlight off other concerns raised in the lead-up to the summit - chief among them, climate change. "Climate change represents the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of our people," PIF secretary general Meg Taylor said.

Some of the PIF's small island nations fear they will sink beneath rising seas, while others are regularly battered by devastating storms fuelled by the changing climate.

A major aim of this year's summit is establishing a US$1.5 billion (S$2.1 billion) fund to help the region respond to climate change, as well as disasters such as earthquakes.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2018, with the headline ''Aussie Guantanamo' looms over Pacific summit'. Print Edition | Subscribe