7 Sep 2018

Refugee debate overshadows Pacific Islands Forum

10:36 am on 7 September 2018

Journalists who attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru have been criticised for focusing on the plight of refugees, overlooking other items that one academic says were probably of greater interest to Pacific people.

Children outside RPC3 tents.

Children outside RPC3 tents. Photo: Refugee Action Coalition

At the close of this week's forum summit, Nauru's president Baron Waqa, who has taken upon the Forum's rotating presidency, launched an extraordinary attack on reporters at a forum news conference.

"You'd rather talk about the issues and refugees - things that only interest you but not the Pacific," he said.

"You again the media are impressing your will on us. Don't tell me about refugees being an issue. How can it be an issue for Tonga? For Kiribati? No, it's an issue for Australia and all those refugee advocates."

Nauru's President Baron Waqa.

Nauru's President Baron Waqa. Photo: AFP

But refugee advocate Ian Rintoul argued it was the responsibility of journalists to probe the refugee story.

"The fundamental problem I think is that the Australian government, the Nauruan government is doing everything it possibly can to avoid any kind of scrutiny of what really is the business that keeps Nauru in operation," Mr Rintoul said.

"It's an irony that celebrating 50 years of independence, Nauru should be a neo-colony dependent on money from Australia to warehouse refugees and asylum seekers."

New Zealand's foreign minister Winston Peters also condemned journalists for overlooking climate change and regional security.

"This is a meeting of the Pacific island countries. These people have been here thousands and thousands of years," he said.

"So please do not have all the critical issues like climate change, economic sustainability, security, cyber security - all those issues sidelined for your preference as to what the PIF should be saying now."

Barbara Dreaver released after being detained by Nauru authorities

Barbara Dreaver released after being detained by Nauru authorities Photo: RNZ / YouTube

The $US8000 application fee for a journalist visa to Nauru prohibits reporters from visiting the country to interview refugees exiled there by Australia.

But with the fee waived for the forum, Massey University Pacific academic Malakai Koloamatangi said it was predictable the media would want to meet refugees.

While he could understand Nauru wanting the media's focus to be on the forum, police detaining New Zealand journalist Barbara Dreaver for talking to a refugee only back-fired on Nauru, Dr Koloamatangi said.

Massey University's Dr Malakai Koloamatangi

Massey University's Dr Malakai Koloamatangi Photo: Massey University

"Because journalists were prevented from interacting with refugees it made it news worthy. It was ironic," he said.

"Perhaps it would have been better for Nauru to allow journalists to talk to refugees rather than preventing them because that became bigger news."

Coverage of the refugees came at the expense of issues more pertinent to Pacific people like climate change, Dr Koloamatangi said.

"To their minds I think there are things that are more important such as putting bread on the table and getting kids through school, rather than worrying about these camps, which I think is the kind of stance you would expect from wealthier societies," he said.

"So perhaps they are not as important to Pacific people as they are to New Zealanders and Australians."

New Zealand and Australia needed to work together to end refugee detention in the Pacific before war and climate change forced more refugees into the region, Dr Koloamatangi said.