Living Conditions

In an unbearably hot and humid environment, children, families, and single men are crowded into tents with little privacy.
They have limited access to nutritious foods.
No access to clean running water.
Nauru detention is #NoPlace4Children.

In an unbearably hot and humid environment, children, families, and single men are crowded into tents with little privacy.
They have limited access to nutritious foods.
No access to clean running water.
Nauru detention is #NoPlace4Children.

Living Conditions

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What are living conditions like for people in Australian-run immigration detention on Nauru?

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The Nauru Regional Processing Centre (RPC) is made up of three sites for accommodation. These include:

● RPC 1 ‘permanent modular accommodation’ (for staff and service providers)

● RPC 2 tents (marquees) (for single adult male asylum seekers), made up of dormitory style sleeping arrangements (each tent’s capacity is 22 people); and

● RPC 3 made up of six compounds of 10 metre x 12 metre tents (for single adult female asylum seekers and families).

The vinyl tents have a solid floor of particle board, supported by treated pine bearers.

Families are separated by thin vinyl sheets, so there is little privacy, and much fear especially among parents, that they cannot protect their children.

The Moss Review stated:

The perception of a lack of personal safety and privacy is heightened by high density accommodation in mostly un-air-conditioned, soft-walled marquees in a tropical climate.

As most have no air conditioning, temperatures in the tents can reach in excess of 50 degrees Celsius.

A former staff member attempts to capture the feeling inside the tents:

The closest comparison I can make after spending time inside these living quarters is: Standing, sitting or sleeping inside an industrial strength garbage bag in the middle of the Australian desert from dawn to dusk, for 12 hours. If a child in Australia was sleeping in these conditions their parents would be charged with abuse and neglect. The conditions are life threatening.

One report stated that the tents are infested with mice.

Families with children under the age of four are accommodated in air-conditioned marquees. Once children reach five years of age the families are moved to non-air-conditioned tents.

One former staff member clearly recalls her first impressions of the tents:

When I arrived on Nauru, I was horrified when I saw how people were residing in the RPC3 camp. The first area I went into was the only air-conditioned accommodation area in the camp – it was for families with babies age four and under. The ground was covered in sharp white rocks. The area in its entirety was unsuitable for a baby’s physical development. The shelters, were huge, excessively mouldy tents, made of thick white plastic, internally divided by tarpaulins into tiny compartments for beds. There was no shade in this area and the outside heat was extreme and debilitating …

Heat and humidity

Nauru’s average temperature never falls below 27º Celsius. Monthly lows range from 24–26° Celsius up to highs of 29–31° Celsius. Temperatures inside tents where many are housed reach 45–50º Celsius.

Mina Taherkhani who has been detained on Nauru for years stated:

We live in the heart of a fire where during the day not even the birds fly. Only from 6pm you can see them flying and hear them singing.

Leila, another woman detained on Nauru, commented:

Nauru is a hell! If you leave an egg out of the fridge, it can be cooked in two minutes. There is only one tent with air conditioning. The children, including my sons, went there to lay down. An officer came and told them they have to leave the cool tent because it is not theirs. They told the officer that outside of this tent, the heat is too much to bear and is burning them but the huge officers called in the police and they started to hit the kids so that they would get out of the tent.

The loss of forests via mining has increased the heating of the land surface and contributes to drying of the land and water loss.

Being a tropical environment means people not only have to endure heat but high humidity. A Human Rights Watch report stated:

in the high humidity environment, mould grows quickly on tent walls and ceilings, and torrential rain fall pools water on the floor.

Water shortages

Constant water shortages pose real threats on an island with such sustained high temperatures.

Water for showers and drinking is extremely limited, with shortages and rationing common.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to carry water bottles so staff have been known to place empty bottles on the ground, so that mums with small children may pick them up and fill them for use when needed.


The Nauru Files described 'meals of varying quality and subject to frequent complaints were provided at designated times in a designated area.'

One asylum seeker on Nauru states:

We have three meals everyday. The breakfast is from 7:30am to 9:00am. The lunch is from 11:30am to 14:00pm. The dinner is from 17:30pm to 20:00pm. We can't get food or anything from mess other this time even food is so horrible and it is kind of animals food also they give securities good food and they don't let us to take from it. They don't let us to bring food out of mess. Almost of time the food is poached without spices or flavour. Eating meals outside the mess is restricted. In several reports parents have alleged 'that they were prevented from taking six bananas from the mess for their children to snack on, because this did not fit the definition of “snacks between meals”.'

Toxic air and water

About 80% of Nauru’s environment has been decimated by extensive phosphate mining. It is estimated that 40% of marine life has been killed by silt and phosphate runoff. Cadmium residue and phosphate dust have polluted both air and water.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies cadmium as a human carcinogen, which has toxic effects on the kidneys, and the skeletal and respiratory systems.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance, in an urgent letter to the Committee Secretary Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee pointed to

… serious workplace health and safety concern on Nauru which could be having irreversible health impacts for refugees, asylum seekers and workers who have been sent there by Australia (and similar impacts for all other inhabitants on Nauru)…

The health consequences include irreversible kidney damage, lung damage, bone damage and cancer. There is also evidence of genotoxic effects in human cells exposed in utero.

A study has found cadmium levels in Nauruan soil were 'well above global averages’.

Though IHMS (the health service provider) raised the question of cadmium exposure with the department, recommendations to further investigate have largely been ignored, the department stating that

Management of cadmium risks across the island is a matter for the Government of Nauru. The Department has no legal authority to act on this.

The department has noted, in relation to the RPC, it had used 'dust suppression' measures in its construction, and 'noted that domestic water on Nauru is provided via reverse osmosis of sea water, thereby alleviating the risk of cadmium contamination via water.'

Despite the department’s assurances, numerous studies have shown high incidence of cadmium exposure, and contamination of the population and environment. The evidence suggests that the damage is cumulative. The longer we detain children on Nauru, the greater risk. (Some children have been held on Nauru for close to four years.)

Some refugee housing is located adjacent to active phosphate mining activities.

On 10 May 2017 the Greens put forward a motion in the Senate that the Australian government should test asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru for elevated cadmium levels, after 'prolonged cadmium and phosphate exposure'. The motion was passed, despite Liberal Party opposition.

ChilOut approached Senator Nick McKim’s office regarding what this means. They responded:

Unfortunately the motion does not compel the government to take action.

We received a response from the government saying it’s a matter for Nauru, which is obviously not good enough.

We hope to take it up again when Parliament resumes.

Hazardous wastes

One report highlighted the inadequacy of waste management infrastructure stating 'uncontrolled disposal of wastes', including potentially hazardous wastes such as the following could be an issue on the island:

● asbestos

● fuels

● oils

● grease

● mining wastes (eg, cadmium sludge).

A Department of Immigration and Citizenship Due Diligence Report of 2012 states:

The type, quantity and location of such wastes is unknown but the presence of such wastes within the project sites cannot be ruled out at this stage.


A severe dengue fever outbreak threatened over 10% of the population in early 2017, also affecting hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees.

One person describes his first night attempting to sleep on Nauru: I heard the buzzing mosquitoes all night. Something was moving over my body the whole night and they bit so mercilessly. In the morning, I found my body was swollen with mosquito bites. Others showed me the big wounds and marks left by mosquito bites.

In April 2016 the department confirmed the presence of zika virus on the island.

Those exposed to zika can experience fever, red eyes, joint pain and headaches. Mother-to-child transmission during pregnancy can cause microcephaly and other brain malformations.

Stray dogs

Stray dogs roaming the island pose a real threat. In 2014 an 11-year-old girl was attacked and killed by stray dogs. Salvation Army staff were also attacked, and advised to carry sticks for their safety.

Guards behaving badly

One of the greatest seeming threats to children are the guards. The following extract has been reproduced (with permission) from a submission made to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee – Serious allegations of abuse, inquiry (April 2017).

Guards on Nauru

● The rules were arbitrary depending on which guard was on duty. Rules were reactive and changed in the centre constantly.

● Guards confiscated oranges from mothers going out on open camp and binned them. They would only allow them to take 10ltr boxes of water, which they couldn’t carry along with their small children.

● Some issued punishments during curfew for circumstances beyond detainees control. For example: waiting 3 hours for a bus to get back to the centre.

● Guards did emergency drills. Ran through the camp in large numbers yelling. They ran past a group of children screaming 'fire' and 'babies'. The children ran after the guards in a panic. I ran after the children to remove them from the imminent danger. When the guards arrived at the baby area, they all laughed and said it was just training. These events contributed to the anxiety and hypervigilance that the children suffered. ● Guards regularly doing drills near the school. They stomped loudly in large groups, yelling ‘Move back’.

● Guards using excessive force – a large group of huge guards chased a small, thin man, in a manner that I can only be described as sport.

● A woman tried to walk out of the front gate she was engulfed by guards. She could have been talked around, rather than physically intimidated.

● Parents were handcuffed with cable ties in front of their children when they were returning from medivac. Children were devastated with the injustice of seeing their parents assaulted and humiliated.




More information:

While the Australian government and their staff keep saying “there are no children in detention”, there certainly still are, notably those held on Nauru.

The number of children held on Nauru has remained stable at around 45–51 – with apparently almost no processing of asylum claims over the last fourteen months.

Some children have been moved to Australia for medical treatment, and the fate of those children is still uncertain. Many of us fight to #LetThemStay. None should be sent back to Nauru.

From 4 July 2013, children of all ages began to be sent to Nauru for processing.

The majority of children currently on Nauru were moved there from Christmas Island Detention Centre in 2013.

By April 2017, 124 children have been found to be refugees and are held indefinitely on Nauru.

Forty-two children are seeking asylum and are held in the detention centre.

Children on average have spent over 995 days held on Nauru. Official numbers do not record how long they spent detained in Australia prior to their transfers. So many of the children held on Nauru have been held for over three years of their precious lives.

People on Nauru may now be part of a ‘people swap’ deal with the United States. Some were interviewed by US officials in December 2016 and January 2017. We do not know how long this process might take, nor how many people will be accepted, nor what will happen to those left behind. We do know that people cannot continue to be held on Nauru.

Australia must stand up to its responsibility.




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