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Refugee status refused to Fiji islander (Banaban)

MICHAEL FIELD NZ Last updated 07:32 08/02/2012

An overstayer whose family island was destroyed by phosphate mining has been refused refugee status in New Zealand despite claiming he faces abuse and torture in Fiji whose citizenship he holds.

Most of the phosphate taken from Banaba (formally Ocean Island) between the world wars ended up on New Zealand farms and its 703 people were forced by the British in 1945 to re-settle on Rabi Island in Fiji.

The British forced the Fijians off Rabi to make way for the Banabans who for decades have wanted to go home.

But today they are citizens of Fiji and the island is part of Kiribati.

A 45-year-old father of five, "BG", was born on Rabi and came to New Zealand in 2006.

Facing deportation as an overstayer, he sought refugee status before the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, which refused his application in a decision released yesterday.

BG claimed Banabans in Fiji occupy the lowest rung of the socio-economic ladder.

Ultra-nationalist Fijians, linked to coups in 1987 and 2000, had pressured Banabans with demands Rabi be returned to Fijians.

Ethnic Fijians attacked the now around 5000 Banabans and they were prevented from fishing in waters near the island.

They were assaulted and harassed. Money and crops were stolen from them and Fijians. Rabi Island police are not allowed to arrest Fijians.

BG says Banabans live in fear in Suva because the military regime and its police will not investigate any harm visited on them by ethnic Fijians.

"The tribunal accepts that the 2006 coup has not led to an improvement in the political condition of the Banabans generally. They remain a politically marginalised community."

The tribunal's Bruce Burson said Banabans are one of Fiji's most disadvantaged and politically marginalised communities.

He said BG was a sincere man and a credible witness.

However one of his witnesses was criticised for "political advocacy" when he claimed New Zealand was responsible for the Banaban plight.

Burson noted the United Nations had said the fate of Banaba was one of the worst instances of colonial exploitation in the South Pacific, but he said the tribunal could not address past policy wrongs.

BG had never been politically active, even during periods of civilian government in Fiji.

Burson said the risk of violence to BG was "extremely low-level and occasional."

He refused refugee status.

Both Banaba and Nauru were rich in phosphate, needed to make super-phosphate for pasture growth.

New Zealander Albert Ellis discovered phosphate on Banaba in the late 19th century.

After World War One Banaba and Nauru was run by the British Phosphate Commission (BPC), which was a third owned by New Zealand. Its operations were a state secret but it was later discovered they effectively robbed the islands of the revenues.

Japan occupied Banaba during World War Two and shipped most of the islanders to Chuuk (then Truk) as slaves. They massacred others on the island, including two New Zealand coast watchers.

After the war the BPC picked up the surviving islanders and rather than take them home, took them to Rabi.

The Banabans sued in the British High Court for compensation. The court found the islanders' moral case was strong, but that in law they had no legal case.

Around 500 people live on Banaba today, lost among the ruins of the BPC plant on the thin bit of coast.

Banabans fear that their island will be occupied by the i-Kiribati; Banaba is the only high island in Kiribati and will survive sea level rise easily.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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