back to the Immigration Detention Monitor

30 September 2020 – Nauru

Aerial View of Nauru, (Getty Images,
Aerial View of Nauru, (Getty Images, "Nauru Refugees: The Island Where Children Have Given Up on Life," BBC News, 1 September 2018,

During a near 20-year period (2001-2019), the tiny island nation of Nauru hosted a controversial offshore processing centre for Australia that confined asylum seeking men, women, and children in order to prevent them from making their journeys to Australia. Since the facility officially closed, refugees and asylum seekers on the island have faced a precarious accommodation situation. This situation has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic as the 210 people still on Nauru, many of whom have had either medical transfers or resettlement requests approved since 2019, have seen their cases stalled–due to delays, government inertia, and COVID-19 travel restrictions–and their services curtailed, including healthcare.

As of September 2020, Nauru remained one of only a small handful of countries that had yet to report any COVID-19 cases. However, there is concern that a COVID-19 outbreak would quickly overwhelm the country’s health infrastructure. In April, the Refugee Council of Australia stated that health systems in Papua New Guinea and Nauru could not withstand full-blown outbreaks. It said: “There is ample and overwhelming evidence of the inadequacies in healthcare provision in those countries, even with financial support from Australia. … Further pressure on those fragile health systems could result in their falling apart, with serious consequences for the refugees … many of whom already have chronic illnesses and are immunocompromised.” It recommended that refugees be evacuated from regional processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea to Australia.

According to a report by BuzzFeed News, the International Health & Medical Services (IHMS), which the Australian government contracts to provide medical services to the refugees on Nauru, is responsible for the care of any refugees who contract COVID-19. However, the country has seen a rapid exodus of interpreters, caseworkers, security guards, and doctors because of ongoing fears over the island’s inability to handle an outbreak of the coronavirus. In late March, one group of refugees met with their caseworkers (who are employed by a Nauruan government entity) and demanded to know who would be responsible if they were infected with the virus and what treatment was available. One refugee criticized the Nauru government’s response to the pandemic: “All the refugees and asylum seekers thought that if [they] were infected by coronavirus, nobody would look after them. … The Nauru government only looks after Nauruans.” The caseworkers promised to take the questions to the Australian Border Force (ABF), but the group did not receive a response. Another refugee told BuzzFeed News, “If someone gets coronavirus here, there’s no solution. There’s no good treatment… We will suffer and we will die here.”