By far the biggest challenge of all the South Pacific Islands is the smallest, Nauru. The island can be found in Micronesia, but you have to look at the map very closely as it is the third smallest nation by land on Earth, larger than only Monaco and Vatican City. The island has a fascinating history; its 10000 inhabitants were at one time very wealthy due to phosphate mining, but now the supplies have largely been exhausted and the nation returned to an estimated 90% unemployment rate. For an outsider it’s very difficult to understand how a country’s economy can drop so significantly and delving into the specifics does not make things any clearer: according to the country’s Wikipedia page (admittedly not the most reliable source), a large percentage of the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust was wasted through a failed investment in a disastrous musical (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nauru).

Ill-advised musical investments aside, what makes Nauru unique (and the reason why many people have heard of the island) is that it is host to one of Australia’s refugee detention centres. The Australian government provides Nauru with aid in exchange for the island hosting an estimated 1200 refugees from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. The people in these camps are by no means criminals. Their only ‘crime’ was to flee the horrifying conditions they were born into, only to find themselves in what is widely reported to be a kind of hell on Earth. Conditions in the refugee camps are said to be appalling, with troubling reports of violence, sexual abuse and regular suicide attempts, including amongst children who receive very limited education and have no hope for the future. All children should have the freedom to play. They should be able to access open space and equipment however basic this is; children are resourceful and imaginative. Instead these children are confined to small spaces in which they are believed to be subjected to treatment we can’t even imagine.

If the refugee camp didn’t give us enough of an incentive to try to help, Nauru also boasts the unenviable statistic of the highest obesity rate in the world, a staggering 97% in 2012 (although no more recent figures are available). It is worth noting here that Nauruans dispute this statistic, claiming that genetic factors lead to them being heavily built. It is true that the BMI is a much criticised measure of obesity, but either way, the diabetes rate in the nation is very high, which of course can lead to a multitude of serious health problems. As a PE teacher by trade, I firmly believe that building physical activity into people’s day-to-day lives can be a total game-changer. If we can introduce the islanders to structured and regular opportunities to be active, it may well be the case that the uptake at first is largely young people. However, we are looking for a long-term impact; those young people will evolve into healthier older people and act as role models for the next generation of young people, breaking the cycle of obesity and sedentary lifestyles.

Unfortunately, due to fairly recent media coverage exposing the shocking conditions the refugees experience, it is now very difficult to get a visa to enter Nauru. We have made several attempts to contact Nauru government officials – after all, we are not journalists – but have so far been unsuccessful at getting a response. This has resulted in us reluctantly moving Nauru further down our list, in the hope that with a bit more time and a few more islands’ worth of experience, our luck might change.

Under different circumstances perhaps Nauru would seem a step too far for us at present; there are other islands we can access much more easily and without having to find an extortionate visa charge. However, the challenging situation on Nauru is exactly what makes us so determined to get there and see what we can achieve. Whatever their situation is, we believe that if you give any child a football, they will want to kick it around. This year Paul launched a twitter appeal to send trainers and footballs to the refugees and, thanks to the kindness of twitter users @CelticResearch @Blackwater1888 and @StRochsJuniors, a large delivery of equipment was sent there.

We want to go beyond this though and create structured opportunities for the people of Nauru to play football; in the detention centre, outside it and ideally uniting the two populations of Nauru by combining the two together. We want to give the children of the refugee camp something to look forward to. We want them to be able to play. We want them to be able to feel like children, even if it’s just for an hour each day. So we will not give up on our goal of getting to Nauru, the most tantalising prospect of all the Pacific Islands.

 

For more information on the Nauru Refugee Detention Centre, please see these articles which explain the situation far better than I am able to (please note some of this is harrowing and very difficult to read):

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/08/australia-cruel-fate-of-refugees-forsaken-on-nauru/

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/aug/10/the-nauru-files-2000-leaked-reports-reveal-scale-of-abuse-of-children-in-australian-offshore-detention