The smallest island nation in the world is Nauru, twenty-one square miles completely encircled, lying northeast from Papua New Guinea, paired with Banaba. It is an archetypical Micronesian reef island, palm fringed, yet one bearing the marks of its own history since being first settled by twelve tribes of legendary seafarers in canoes. Over the centuries, traders and beachcombers landed, and by the nineteenth century, the islanders fell into warfare after the European introduction of firearms and alcohol. A German protectorate from 1888 and British, Australian, and New Zealand mandates from 1914 built up a rich, singular mining economy in phosphates, as in Peru. A Japanese air base during the Pacific War and the center of intensive American bombardment, the island became one of the earliest independent Pacific states in 1968, but with the phosphate fields dwindling, heavily dependent on external aid and support.
In 2001, the Australian government received a distress call from international Pacific waters and requested any nearby vessels to search and rescue. A Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, came upon the floundering Palapa, an Indonesian fishing boat packed with more than four hundred sick and desperate passengers, including pregnant women and almost fifty children. They were, it turned out, refugees and asylum seekers, largely from wars, conflicts, and persecution in Afghanistan and Iraq.