It'll Cost You $7,000 to Report on Australia's Refugee Crisis

To the cynic, it might look like the island nation of Nauru doesn't want journalists snooping around anymore. The tiny Pacific island nation, which has become a focal point in Australia's increasingly ugly attempt to deal with asylum-seekers routed through Indonesia, has increased its fee for a journalist visa from $180 to about $7,000 -- a roughly 4,000 percent hike.

"I understand the fee is for revenue purposes," government spokeswoman Joanna Olsson told Reuters, though Nauru reportedly issued no more than four journalist visas last year. The fee is non-refundable if the application is rejected.

The sudden aversion to the press on Nauru is most likely tied to the part it plays in Australia's so-called "Pacific Solution" -- a policy that entails shipping asylum-seekers intercepted at sea to "offshore processing" sites on Pacific islands. There, would-be refugees are held in detention camps while their claims are processed. The plan was initially introduced in 2001 and operated on Manus Island until 2004 and on Nauru until 2008, when the facilities were closed amidst criticism of insufficient medical care, poor conditions, and years-long waits for processing. Both were reopened in 2012.

The criticisms that dogged the first iteration have followed the new facilities. Many of the seekers come from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and journey to Indonesia in order to attempt the passage to Australia. A journalist who visited Nauru in 2005 detailed the psychological toll that weighed on detainees, many of whom displayed "a history of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm" during their time there.

More recently, the United Nations Refugee Agency noted in November of last year "a sharp deterioration, during the course of the year, in the overall quality of protection and support available to asylum-seekers and refugees who come to Australia by boat." The "arbitrary detention and harsh physical conditions" suffered by "survivors of torture and trauma and unaccompanied children," it said, failed to meet international standards. According to a December report from Amnesty International, only 55 of the roughly 1,000 people at the camp on Nauru had been given refugee status.

In July, detainees rioted, setting fire to accommodation buildings, medical facilities, and offices, causing some $55 million in damages and leading to 125 arrests. The protests began as a demonstration against the slow processing times but escalated, ultimately destroying 80 percent of the facility.

Nauru's population of 10,000 survives largely through Australian aid, which is slotted at $26.6 million for the coming year, roughly a third of which is directly tied to the detention facilities.

The hike was discovered by Australia's Global Mail, when a staff photographer seeking a visa was informed of the new price. The previous fee of $180 is still listed on the government's website, but the new rate is supposed to go into effect sometime this week.

Scott Fisher/Getty Images


Exile on Jihad Street: Can Mali’s World-Famous Music Festival Ever Go Back Home?

Not even Mali’s music-hating Islamists can the keep the country’s musicians from throwing a king-sized show.

Musicians in the country have been embattled since 2012, when a triumvirate of militant Islamist groups groups seized power of the country and launched an offensive against a range of popular entertainment, including dancing and music. While a French military intervention last year ousted the Islamists from power, concerns remain about openly performing music, especially in the north where the jihadists' retain some influence and control. But Mali's world-famous musicians are resisting the threats to their craft, most recently by taking their world-renowned music festival on the road. The Festival au Desert, which was originally scheduled for Jan. 9-11 in Timbuktu, was canceled at the last minute due to security concerns. The organizers of the show announced that it will resume abroad and on Wednesday, the festival began a three-day appearance in Berlin.

Music and musicians are central to Malian society. More than just storytellers or musicians, a class of griots are tasked with guarding generations of oral history and resolving local disputes. Traditional Malian music is also a well-known export. Scholars have traced early blues to traditional West African music, and the Festival au Desert has become so well-known during its 14 years of existence that Bono has even put in an an appearance. The Malian president has said the festival is the country's premier tourist attraction, and it received the Freemuse award for freedom of musical expression in 2013 for "keeping music alive in the region" despite the efforts of extremists.

The concert and the rich musical culture in which it takes root came under fire when Islamists seized control of Mali in 2012, banning secular music and dance and forcing griots underground or out of the country. Music of all kinds became a target. In just one example, after Ansar al-Dine, one of the jihadist groups, took control of the Malian town Kidal, the local radio station started to broadcast only Quranic chants and Islamic messages. Amidst the crackdown, last year's celebration was canceled entirely. Some speculated that the Festival au Desert was resigned to the same fate suffered by Pakistan's Basant Kite Festival, a celebration banned since 2007 that faces continued opposition by Islamic extremists in the country.

The loosening of Islamists' grip on power since 2012 had raised hopes that this year's festival would return to its native Timbuktu. With jihadists beaten back by French troops in much of the country, the ban on music has become largely ineffectual and the beginnings of a reinvigorated music scene are slowly stirring. Still, the disruption of the tradition and widespread fear has made the musical rebirth less than robust. Many Malians remain apprehensive about what will happen after most French troops withdraw this month. And indeed, lingering concerns over security ultimately ruined the festival's plans to return home.

The festival's leap to Berlin is just the latest in the show's increasing internationalization. After being canceled in Mali last year, the concert took to Chicago in September 2013 and stopped by New York, Scandinavia, and Morocco afterwards. The music festival continuing outside of Mali holds troubling implications for the future of music in the country, where the Islamist ban may have been the last straw in an industry already plagued by problems like drying sources of income and feeble intellectual property protection. But for the musicians who are performing in Berlin today, moving the performances beyond Malian borders is also the ultimate act of resistance.

"If they've closed the doors of Timbuktu we'll open up the rest of the world. We'll go and sing in Tokyo. We'll play igbayen in Rio de Janeiro, we'll sound the tindé drum in Dubai and dance the takamba in Toronto," Manny Ansar, the festival's director, told Freemuse for a report published in February last year. "Today it'll be heard in all the big festivals in the world ... It's our victory and your defeat."

The show will be in Berlin through Jan. 10 and is slated to culminate at the end of the month in Burkina Faso. In a recent press release announcing the appearance in Berlin, Ansar expressed hope that the festival might be able to return to Timbuktu one day.

See a performance by famous Malian musicians Ali Farka Touré (now deceased) and Toumani Diabaté for yourself below.  Diabaté reportedly comes from more than 70 generations of griots before him.