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Old disco hit strikes a poignant note for Nauru asylum seekers

'Conditions are improving' ... Salvation Army Lieutenant Tara McGuigan yesterday.

'Conditions are improving' ... Salvation Army Lieutenant Tara McGuigan yesterday. Photo: Joe Armao

FEW would have heard it, but on a recent balmy night in the hilly centre of Nauru, the tune of Gloria Gaynor's '70s disco hit I Will Survive was drifting on the Pacific breeze.

Given it was coming from the first offshore immigration camp built under the Gillard government's reinvigoration of the Howard-era ''Pacific solution'', and was being sung by asylum seekers, it was not without irony.

And that song - being taught to asylum seekers by the Salvation Army as a way to improve their English - is only one small part of the daily existence of the would-be refugees on Nauru, revealed for the first time by a group of Salvation Army workers.

There are 28 Salvation Army staff on Nauru, a number that will remain relatively steady until the camp moves towards its full capacity of 1500.

The Herald spoke to two staff, Tara McGuigan and Paul Perrett, who described life in the camp on the same day 20 Iranians and four Sri Lankans arrived, and one Sri Lankan abandoned his hopes of living in Australia and left the island bound for his country.

Ms McGuigan and Mr Perrett, who were interviewed along with the Salvation Army's spokesman, Paul Moulds, said while conditions were far from ideal, they were pleased by rapid improvements they were seeing.

''Is it how we would love it to be, today? Absolutely not,'' Major Moulds said. ''But I can tell you, daily, things are being transformed.''

A week ago the Salvation Army said the camp was still basic and asked the government not to send women or children - something the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, has refused to rule out.

''We certainly would be keen to see more development happen with facilities prior to that happening,'' Mr Moulds said.

Mr Perrett, along with another Salvation Army worker, provide a basic school for the detainees, which offers three English lessons a week, as well as art and sustainable living classes.

Some issues remain unclear, however. Despite statements by Mr Bowen that asylum seekers would be free to move about the island, the Salvation Army has been told that an agreement has yet to be reached with the government of Nauru. Yesterday, the Department of Immigration was unable to say when that agreement will be reached.

Ms McGuigan is particularly able to empathise with the majority of the camp's inhabitants, as she moved from Sri Lanka to Australia in 1988.

She said she wanted the Australian public to understand that, while she could not talk about whether individuals qualified for refugee status or not, they were a vulnerable group who had endured much to try to come to Australia.

''These guys for generations, they put their roots down in a place, it means a lot to them to be there,'' she said.

''Their culture is very different to Western culture. Leaving home for them is a big deal. Many of them are the breadwinners in their families, so it's not been an easy decision to make.''

Mr Perrett agreed. ''I've heard them say they've sold their houses, they've sold their farms, they've sold all their possessions [to come to Australia],'' he said.

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