Young and untrained, they were sent to work in detention centres. They saw atrocity and were harassed, returning disturbed and uncared for. By Chris Shearer.

Salvos neglect young Nauru, Manus staff suffering PTSD

The first thing Nicole Judge noticed when she arrived on Nauru was the poster on the wall. It described the procedure for using a specialist Hoffman knife, with a hook-like blade designed to quickly cut down someone trying to hang themselves. 

“I will always remember that,” Nicole says, “because that’s when it first started to dawn on me that it wasn’t like a fun holiday.”

A few days earlier Nicole was a psychology student and salesperson at JB Hi-Fi. It was through a Facebook ad shared by one of her university friends that she became aware the Salvation Army was looking for young people to work on Nauru.

“It looked really cool,” she says of the Salvation Army advertisement. “They said on the ad, ‘Come to Nauru, work with asylum seekers, meals paid for, accommodation paid for, bring your friends’, pretty much.”

Nicole called the number provided and spoke to an enthusiastic Salvation Army representative. She remembers the process as being very informal; she felt like she was the one doing the interviewing. The person on the phone didn’t ask about her experience. They asked if she could leave the next day and whether she had any other friends who could come. 

She called Chris Iacono and another friend and told them about the two-week paid adventure. Both applied. All three were readily accepted. Nicole received an email from the Salvation Army representative, which included the line, “YAY YOU’RE GOING TO NAURU!!!”

Nicole was 22 when she joined the second Salvation Army team to arrive at the then recently reopened Nauru refugee processing centre. Looking back, she didn’t really know what an asylum seeker was. But the tenor of her early exchanges was clear. “You can kind of get the idea that it was being told to us it was going to be fun.” 

‘Grave concern’

As late as September 2, 2012, the Salvation Army joined with several Christian churches in issuing a statement of “grave concern” regarding the offshore processing. A week later the then immigration minister, Labor’s Chris Bowen, announced that the Salvation Army had entered into a contract with his department to provide humanitarian and support services on Nauru. 

The following week, Nicole and Chris arrived on Nauru, three days after the detention centre there reopened. At the time, Salvation Army spokesman, Major Paul Moulds, explained that, “we cannot remain idle while this policy is enacted. We are a people of action who stand with the vulnerable and oppressed, and therefore commit ourselves to give our very best to serve those who will be transferred for offshore processing.”

The Salvation Army contract would soon expand to include the reopened processing centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. By the time it expired last February, it was worth $74 million to the organisation. “The Salvation Army recognises the enormity of the task ahead of us,” Moulds wrote at the time. “We ask all Australians of faith to pray for our personnel who undertake this important work and for all those who will come into our care.”

Nicole and Chris were not atypical of the new Salvos support workers. Of their group, the oldest was in their mid-20s and the youngest 18. One was a qualified social worker, the others from varied backgrounds. Chris had worked at McDonald’s. 

That first day a few of the recruits were shocked or overwhelmed. Chris remembers thinking to himself, I can’t believe people are living here. All the buildings, except the green military tents that housed the detainees, looked either half finished or quickly cobbled together. 

“It’d just been thrown together straight away, so everyone really was unorganised, preparing their documents and their ways to work and everything. No one really knew what was going on to begin with,” he says. 

“It was go in, find some information, run some games, do some English lessons if you can, and that was it.” 

Lack of training

Mark Isaacs, who arrived on Nauru a week after Chris and Nicole, said there was no training. “No kind of cultural awareness training, no kind of knowledge about who we’d be working with or the types of people, where they were from, why they were coming to Australia. There was no information about why the Salvation Army had taken that on, or what our roles would be or anything to do with the work.

“They didn’t seem to be following proper employment processes, like you would in Australia. Not training people who were going over there. Not providing people with suicidal ideation training, mental-health training – all these things that would be provided in Australia with the work I do now as a social worker. There was none of that.”

Almost two years later, during an inquest into the riot at the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, the Salvation Army noted that while all employees were briefed at some point before beginning work, in these early days the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship “required an incredibly rapid start-up, which meant that a formal induction was not developed prior to the Salvation Army getting their first people on the ground”. 

The organisation defended the apparent lack of training conducted during the remainder of its contract, arguing that “by their very description, support workers’ roles typically do not require individuals to have particular skills or experience”, as these roles were “very flexible” and in the main consisted of “unskilled activities”. This argument did not impress the investigating senate committee, which said in its report that there had been a clear failure in the duty of care towards some employees. 

The report noted: “It is essential that any employees being deployed to an offshore environment are given sufficient training to ensure not only that they have the qualifications necessary to perform their role, but that they are mentally prepared for working in a remote environment with vulnerable and traumatised individuals.”

Despite confusion about their role and concerns about the conditions at the camp, Chris, Nicole and Mark completed their initial contracts and sought further work with the Salvos offshore. Behind this decision was genuine affection for the detainees and a sense of obligation. “Every time I rotated in and out I didn’t want to go back, really,” Nicole says now. “But I just kept going back because I felt that I had to.” 

Over the next few months the number of detainees in the camp steadily grew. New facilities were built to accommodate them, but the uncertainty surrounding their lives was beginning to take its toll. Detainees would regularly cut themselves. Men would break down in tears, calling their families. There were protests, escapes and suicide attempts. Coupled with the stories of what had driven these people from their homelands, the young Salvo recruits were beginning to suffer themselves. 

International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) provided support to all staff on the island, and the Salvation Army employed independent contractor PsyCare to provide psychological services to its employees. As well as this, Salvos were supposed to receive both entry and exit interviews with mental-health professionals, although some claim to never have participated in these. According to some, group exit interviews were disbanded early on after one such meeting ended in crying and yelling. 

Stigma of not coping

Despite these services being available, it appears that only a few months into the Salvation Army’s contract massive stigma was attached to those who appeared “unable to cope”. Nicole experienced it firsthand. 

“One time I did talk to the mental-health guy and had half a day off, and everyone knew about it. And the manager was like, ‘Are you okay?’ It was a big deal. I had to get reintegration. He was like, ‘Are you sure you can do this job?’, and I was like, ‘That’s it, I’m never using that guy again.’ Everyone saw that happen to me – because that was early – and it scared them from using [the service] as well.” 

Mark had a similar incident. He visited PsyCare during his first four-week rotation, but found that with psychologists constantly changing he was getting bogged down repeating the same details and not making any progress. For his second six-week deployment – “a very stressful time” – he stayed away for this reason. By the end of this deployment he was exhausted, physically and mentally. 

“The Salvos said, when I came back, ‘We’re not sure that we want to give you another contract because the pressure got to you.’ So there was definitely a concern that if you were stressed or not coping very well, instead of assisting you, they’d just fire you. Instead of supporting people who were finding work stressful, they saw it as a sign of weakness. 

“You’re under high pressure to do the work in a high-pressure situation, and then on top of that you’re being told you can’t talk to anyone about what happens in the camp.”

Alongside Salvation Army staff contracts was a federal government confidentiality clause that warned of a potential two-year prison term if breached. New Salvos were also told that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation was monitoring their digital communications, although not everyone believed this. 

“They were saying it was national security and whatever,” Nicole says. “They were really hard up on it, saying we’ll end up in jail, we’ll be sued, all sorts of things like that.”

Chris remembers this having a significant effect on young and isolated workers. “Lots of people were scared. There was lots of talk at Salvation Army: ‘If you do come out, the government will come after you hard, especially if you’re the first to come out. If you’re the first person they will make an example of you.’ So everyone was really frightened to speak to anybody about what was really going on.” 

For the most part they kept silent, but the strains could be heard in quiet moments away from the centre. “Sometimes people would just cry,” says Nicole. “But you wouldn’t say anything.” 

Eventually, though, information began to leak, trickling out of the centres through former and current staff. This was encouraged by high staff-turnover in Salvation Army ranks; some would be sent home for not “joining the team” and others would be horrified by what joining the team meant. Chris and Nicole, who by August 2013 were working on Manus Island, would take bets on how long new staff would last. “I remember, like, five or 10 people not coping whatsoever,” Nicole says. “But there was a lot of people who [came once] and didn’t come back. They’d finish their four weeks and we’d never see them again.”

Chris recalls being told about an IHMS nurse who spent two hours on Manus Island before quitting. 

“I think that’s why we stayed so long, even without any qualifications or training, because they did need people,” he says. “There were staff shortages all the time. They’d always talk about it: ‘Oh, this day’s going to be tough because this many people went home today and tomorrow we’re only getting 12 people instead of the 30 we’re supposed to be.’ Always staffing issues for the Salvation Army. Never enough case managers for all the people. They used to have 60 clients each to see each week. They just couldn’t keep up.” 

Subjected to harassment

Increasingly, the relationships between service providers became strained, especially between the security company G4S and the Salvation Army. Salvos were seen as “bleeding hearts” and “goody-two-shoes” by the local and expatriate guards on Manus. Often their concerns for detainees’ wellbeing were brushed aside, and sometimes they would be the target of verbal abuse. 

Nicole says sexual harassment was common from the guards. Often it was in the form of openly rating female staff and making unwanted advances – “Hey, do you want a Manus boyfriend?” – but sometimes it could be more threatening, such as inappropriate touching during metal detecting inspections. 

According to Nicole, Salvation Army management was aware of these incidents, but could do so little to prevent them that some of their own managers became targets for harassment, too. Others simply encouraged her to put up with it. “One of my managers said, ‘What do you expect? They are men living on an island away from their partners.’ I was like, ‘What?’, and they said, ‘Well, when you go to a bar, does anyone hit on you?’ That was the environment. That was accepted. When I think about it, it was just me and my circle of friends that dealt with everything on our own.”

In February 2014, the Salvation Army’s contract to provide humanitarian and social services on Nauru and Manus Island came to an end and was not renewed. Transfield, the Sydney-based construction firm that had already been providing security on Nauru, won the contract to provide “garrison and welfare services” on both islands. Wilson Security was subcontracted by the company to provide security on Manus Island. At the time, the company stated the contract – for 20 months on Manus and 12 months on Nauru – would be worth $1.22 billion “based on the current occupancy of each centre”.

Former Salvos have several theories as to why the organisation lost the contract. Some believe that the steady stream of information flowing to the media from former Salvos made the organisation a liability; some that the organisation had never been a good fit for the role from the start; others that it was an excuse to remove the “bleeding hearts” and show that the new Coalition government was committed to being tough on “illegal” immigrants. 

But for those Salvation Army employees who worked offshore between September 2012 and February 2014, the misery of the camps followed them home.

“It was pretty traumatic,” says Zoe, whose name has been changed. “I think what I experienced on Manus and Nauru will always be a part of who I am. It’s hard trying to explain it to people who weren’t there, because it is such an unusual experience to have, and such a disturbing one.

“I was often talking to people about their wishes to commit suicide, trying to convince these people there was hope and they had something to live for. I saw mental breakdowns, I saw the aftermath of self-harm, I saw men waste away during hunger strikes, I saw children protesting, I saw broken people. It messes you up after a while.”

No follow-up care

She claims that after finishing their contracts, neither she nor any of her colleagues received check-in calls from PsyCare, which they were told to expect. Within weeks she knew she was having trouble coping, and sought independent counselling.  

“I’ve been seeing a counsellor a bit since my return, who believes I’m experiencing PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and anxiety over what I saw and experienced during my time in the centre.”

Every former Salvo spoken to for this story had either sought independent counselling themselves or knew someone who had. Or both. Another former Salvo, who also wished not to be identified, explains that many of their colleagues felt so unsupported by management offshore that approaching them for help after their contracts had ended seemed ludicrous. 

It is known that in August last year the Salvation Army was approached by a small group of former employees who were still experiencing mental-health issues directly related to their time spent in the offshore detention centres. When presented with independent evidence of their ongoing conditions, the Salvation Army agreed to compensate some for out-of-pocket costs they had already incurred, as well as paying for any further counselling needed. 

“I was so excited to go and work for the Salvos,” Zoe says. “I really believed they were a great organisation who cared about people. It made the whole thing feel a lot more safe for me, as they are a well-respected organisation. I found that dealing with the Salvos was often more stressful than the work in the camp. 

“Myself and fellow colleagues had to work so hard to get anything done and it felt like we were fighting against the Salvos the whole time, despite them supposedly being an organisation that cares for those in need. They tried so hard to maintain their image that it felt like they lost sight of what they were there for. 

“The Salvos let all of us down and are not being held responsible for what was really a huge, disorganised mess.”

Postscript: The Salvation Army rejects that staff were neglected or uncared for. A spokesman said: “The Salvation Army had a range of initiatives in place to support staff. These included extensive pre-employment screening and psychological testing, pre-deployment briefings, and further screenings and psychological follows up on-island and post-deployment.”


The reporter on this story was assisted by a grant from GetUp’s Shipping News project.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 14, 2015 as "Nauru: Salvos neglect PTSD staff". Subscribe here.

Chris Shearer
is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist.