What can we learn from the 2013 Nauru offshore detention centre riot?

By Alyssia Tennant | 05 Jul 17
Barbed Wire

Nauru Burning book cover imageNauru Burning: An Uprising and Its Aftermath
Mark Isaacs

Stories of people rising up in Australian detention centres are not a new  phenomena. Despite the veil of secrecy surrounding Australia’s offshore detention centres, there are multitudes of instances of uprising which have made it into the mainstream media. However, as community worker and whistle-blower Mark Isaacs notes in his latest book, Nauru Burning: An Uprising and Its Aftermath, these stories tend to dissipate from the media as quickly as they surface. In July 2013, asylum seekers within the offshore immigration detention centre on Nauru made headlines after a protest escalated into violence, culminating in the riot and fire which destroyed significant parts of the centre. Much of the media coverage, however, failed to address the reasons the event occurred in the first place and, to a large extent, blamed the detainees in the centre.

Nauru Burning seeks to address this gap in coverage, detailing the inevitable build-up of months of growing tensions. Isaacs, who worked as a Salvation Army volunteer on Nauru, examines the events that led to the riots, and how a climate of fear and uncertainty were instrumental in the detainees’ demonstration against an unjust system. It delves into the consequent investigation, highlighting the lack of accountability for service providers within the offshore detention centres and the devastating consequences of the secretive practices linked to Australia’s so-called border protection policies.

In the introduction to the book, Isaacs asks a sobering but necessary question: “Have we learned anything at all from the July 2013 riot?” What follows is an insightful look at both the event itself as well as its aftermath, which is made stronger by Isaacs’ lived experiences in Nauru as a worker.

“Everyday life on Nauru was numbingly boring”, writes Isaacs in the first chapter, ‘Why do people in immigration detention centres riot?’.

“They were lost and helpless with no clear way of expressing their concerns.”

“People in detention lacked any power over their lives and their fate. They did not know what would become of them. They were lost and helpless with no clear way of expressing their concerns. Even if they could find a way to communicate, who would listen?”

The book builds on information drawn from reports, court proceedings, and national inquiries, as well as interviews conducted by Isaacs, to create an illuminating, in-depth narrative about what it was like for asylum seekers as they fought to prove their innocence.

“The authorities promoted a culture of intimidation during the trials. Despite it being an open court, service-provider staff were refused entry, and names were taken down if they visited, an intimidation tactic apparently to prevent the men from obtaining assistance or support”, he writes.

“During the endless court proceedings and the interminable waiting the men lost faith in the legal system, their lawyers, all service providers, and each other. Their life was ruled by rumours, and paranoia; their attitude had become despondent.”

An informative piece of long-form journalism, which serves as graphic evidence of the shame Australia’s immigration and border protection has brought upon us.

At 78 pages long, Nauru Burning is merely a chapter in a much larger story about Australia’s treatment of those seeking protection, with many issues regarding the way we treat refugees and asylum seekers not covered in depth. Despite this, Isaacs has managed to fit a significant amount of information into the very short book, which is flooded with first-hand accounts and stories of those living in the detention centre at the time of the riot.

Isaacs succinctly addresses the key issues surrounding transparency and accountability following the July 2013 riot, as well as some of the key issues relating to asylum seeker and refugee rights in Australia. Here, Isaacs has written an informative piece of long-form journalism, which serves as graphic evidence of the shame Australia’s immigration and border protection has brought upon us.

In writing and publishing Nauru Burning, Isaacs has bravely taken a stand against the policies of secrecy surrounding detention and the lack of accountability for service providers. It is a timely reminder of how far we have to go, and a push for a system which protects the human rights of all people, regardless of where they come from.