The island that got rich off bird sh*t is now a total train wreck.
Nestled in a cluster of islands in the central Pacific Ocean is Nauru, a small country with a totally insane story.
This is a story of a country that journeyed from rags to riches and back to rags. It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when a nation exploits its natural resources at the expense of people’s lives.
Making billions off bird poop
One thousand and four hundred miles off the coast of Fiji you’ll find Nauru?—?a tiny coral island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Clocking in at just eight square miles, Nauru’s landmass is only slightly larger than Los Angeles International Airport. Unlike LAX, however, Nauru is blissfully uncrowded?—?its population is just over 10,000.
But before humans discovered the island, it had another purpose: bird bathroom. For 4 million years, the local seagull population used Nauru as a glorified rest stop. As the years went on, the guano calcified, leaving the land rich with phosphates, which companies use to produce fertilizer and other commodities.
With the discovery of Nauru’s phosphate resources in the early 1900s, several countries attempted to colonize the island. Control of Nauru passed from Germany to Australia to Japan before the country finally declared its independence in 1968.
Nauru’s history takes a bizarre twist
Selling fossilized bird excrement was lucrative business. In the late 60s and 70s, people on Nauru were living large: In 1975, the country earned the equivalent of $2.5 billion?—?more than enough to satisfy its then population of 7,000 people.
With its newfound wealth, people in Nauru bought cars and houses; the country built a hotel, a golf course and founded an airline so it could import Western food. But as the 80s became the 90s, Nauru’s phosphate resources became depleted?—?and its pile of unpaid bills grew higher.
It was around this time that Nauru’s financial strategy took a turn for the weird. Duke Minks, one of the country’s financial advisors, convinced Nauru’s president to invest in a new piece of musical theater. Before embarking on his finance career, Minks served as a roadie for an obscure British pop band called Unit 4 +2. Together with the band’s lead singer, Minks co-wrote and co-produced a show loosely based on the life of Leonardo da Vinci.
Perhaps the best way to sum up “Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love” is with this line from The Independent’s review of the show: “Art historians in the audience may have felt queasy midway through Act One when Leonardo da Vinci slapped the Mona Lisa on the bum, and asked her to ‘help me with my research.’”
The show closed only a few weeks after its debut in June of 1993, costing the Nauruans approximately $7 million in today’s currency.
Nauru began brainstorming additional ways make money. Like everyone else in the 90s, Nauru recognized the value of the internet?—?only they didn’t use it to build a website. Instead, they published ads offering anyone with $20,000 the opportunity to open a bank on the island. The Russian mob took them up on the offer and used Nauru’s liberal banking policies to launder over $70 billion from the former Soviet Union.
Nowhere left to turn
By the early 2000s, Nauru had exploited most of the country’s natural resources, except for the island’s space and isolation.
Immigration is a hot-button issue in Australia?—?since 1945, the country has accepted over 800,000 refugees and displaced persons. Between 1999 and 2001, the number of refugees entering the country increased significantly. Australians put pressure on their elected leaders to come up with a solution to “stop the boats.”
In August 2001, a wooden fishing boat with 434 Afghan, Sri Lankan and Pakistani refugees on board got stranded in the Indian Ocean. A Norwegian cargo ship rescued the passengers, but when the ship tried to enter Australian waters to deliver the refugees to shore, they were refused entry.
The incident?—?which became known as the Tampa Crisis?—?only ended after Australia agreed to pay the countries of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to temporarily house the refugees. In September of 2001, the 434 refugees?—?including 43 children and 4 pregnant women?—?landed on Nauru and the Pacific Solution took effect.
Here’s where things get ugly.
The Pacific Solution allowed Australia to enforce its new refugee policy?—?asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat were no longer allowed inside the country but were instead diverted to detention centers in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
These offshore processing centers were designed to deter future asylum seekers. Conditions were wretched. The refugees?—?77% of whom were fleeing persecution from cruel regimes like the Taliban and Saddam Hussein?—?were treated like criminals. In a 2003 segment recorded for This American Life, reporter Jack Hitt compares the conditions in these camps to those at Guantanamo Bay.
In 2007, the Nauru camp shut down due to overcrowding and a lack of available water. Australia spent billions redeveloping the camps (and another in Papua New Guinea that was also closed around this time).
Both facilities reopened in 2012. Despite the new additions, conditions at the camps did not improve.
The refugees are not allowed to leave the camps, work, or mingle with the local community. They are issued travel documents that do not permit them to travel anywhere. The poor conditions, lack of freedom and general uncertainty that comes with remaining in a detention camp long-term has caused many of the detainees to become depressed and suicidal.
The Australian and Nauruan governments have kept the injustices perpetrated against these refugees quiet by limiting access to the island. Nauru’s location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes it uniquely difficult to reach and the government keeps journalists at bay by charging $8,000 to apply for a media visa. Taking pictures inside the detention center is forbidden; so is carrying a smart phone with a camera. In 2015, Australia passed the Australian Border Force Act, which makes speaking out about the conditions inside the camps punishable by a two-year prison sentence.
Despite the government-imposed secrecy, word got out. In 2014, chief psychiatrist for the camps, Dr. Peter Young, told The Guardian that the conditions at the centers are akin to torture. He added that he sees these processing centers as more harmful than prisons, saying:
“In prison those with mental health problems generally improve. People are more well on their release than when they entered. What we see in detention is the opposite of that. Over the course of time in detention, they get sicker.”
In May of 2016, Omid Masoumali?—?an Iranian refugee who lived at the Nauru camp for three years?—?covered himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in front of officials visiting from the United Nations. He had recently learned that he would be expected to live on the island for the next ten years.
Three months later, The Guardian published over 2,000 leaked incident reports from Nauru’s detention center in an effort to provide transparency into the way these processing centers treat detainees. The files include over 255 reports of sexual abuse, physical assault and self-harm involving children. The files also include allegations of rape and sexual assault reported by female detainees against the camp’s guards and bus drivers.
Nauru in 2017
If the Polynesian and Micronesian tribes that initially settled Nauru could see it now, they’d find the island unrecognizable. All those years of mining took their toll and 70% of Nauru is now uninhabitable. The interior section of the island is stripped of all forestry and covered in trash?—?removing it is a luxury too expensive for the Nauruans to afford. Any traces of the island’s tropical beginnings are now gone.
Nauru’s fall from grace hit the residents hard. The continuous phosphate mining left the island unsuitable for farming, so inhabitants consume only imported food (usually out of a can). These unhealthy eating habits have contributed to the decline of the country’s health and many residents suffer from heart disease, obesity and diabetes. After the phosphate boom ended, unemployment rates reached 90% and the country’s school system almost completely collapsed.
In April of 2016, Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that the Manus Island center was “illegal and unconstitutional.” In response, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, released a statement, promising to shut it down. On March 13, 2017, Papua New Guinea’s chief justice announced that at last, the center had closed. He made no mention of what would happen to the 800-plus men that still remain inside the facility.
As of today, the Nauru detention camp remains open, despite protests from the Australian public. Australia is a five-hour plane ride from Nauru and Nauru only has one plane?—?the rest of its airline assets were repossessed years ago. Long distance aside, these two countries are forever linked?—?if only by the 442 people still detained inside the Nauru processing center.