Nauru’s systemic dysfunction
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Alanna Maycock was a nurse, employed briefly last year in the Nauruan detention camps. One day, her senior nursing colleague stood at the threshold of the waiting room and called for the next patient. She did so by referring to his boat number – each asylum seeker is assigned one.
Maycock was shocked. “But what’s the patient’s name?” she asked, but the senior nurse repeated the number.
Maycock was consulting this man also, and wanted to know his name before she met him. That much was standard. “No, can you tell me his name, please?”
“We call them by a boat number,” the senior nurse replied.
“Why do you do that?”
“Because there are too many Muhammads.”
“Well, in Australia we get around that,” Maycock said. “There are quite a lot of Bens, but we try to find out a date of birth and a surname.”
A few days later, another of Maycock’s colleagues – Professor David Isaacs, a paediatrician – gave a lecture to medical staff contracted by the Australian government. Its subject was compassion.
Halfway through the speech, a nurse stood to register her disgust at Isaacs. She then implored all nurses in the audience to walk out with her. The next day, Isaacs asked the nurse what her objection was. She told him his lecture was offensive.
It was the same nurse who had insisted to Maycock on the use of boat numbers for patients.
Isaacs’ and Maycock’s contracts weren’t renewed after they filed their reports. They had also spoken to the media about the inadequate medical services they discovered. Giving evidence in the June hearings of the senate inquiry into the Nauru camps, Isaacs said that his employers, International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), would have “invited us back if we had not gone and blown the whistle”.
To which the Liberal senator Linda Reynolds responded: “Maybe another way to put it is ‘breached a contract’.”
Politically, our praise of nurses and doctors is malleable; their deference to the Hippocratic oath is not.
The chief magistrate of Nauru was in his car when the local police found him. They signalled for him to pull over. Constable Bop left his vehicle and arrested an incredulous Peter Law, coaxing him into the police car. Law was no longer the chief magistrate but a state pariah, and he was driven home to pack his bags. He had just two hours to do so, he was ordered, before he would be forced to catch the next flight to Brisbane.
Like so many senior officers in Nauru before him, Law was Australian. Since Nauru’s independence in 1968, Pacific countries have deployed judges, lawyers, police officers and bureaucrats to the island in what’s known diplomatically as “capacity building”. In 2013, the chief justice, magistrate and police commissioner were Australian – appointed to oversee the democratic and professional dispensation of justice.
All would be expelled from the country.
Law also served as the coroner. When the justice and immigration minister’s wife was burnt to death in her garden in 2013, Law responded to what he later described as a “scandalous” lack of investigation. He wrote to the Nauruan police, asking them to conduct interviews with the minister, his son and neighbours. It never happened.
Months later, Law objected to the expulsion of two foreign residents. According to Law, they had not breached the conditions of their visa and their expulsions were illegal. Law later received a text message from the justice minister: “Don’t you realise I’m authorised by cabinet to make this decision?”
By now, slanderous rumours about Law were circulating the community and internet. While Constable Bop drove Law home, the police officer was apologetic. “I’m simply obeying orders,” he told his passenger.
“Well, why don’t you obey court orders?” Law replied.
“I can only obey my boss’s orders,” Bop said.
He was referring to the head of police.
The Australian high commissioner, Bruce Cowled, was notified of Law’s arrest. He went to Law’s house, where he saw officers “manhandling” the magistrate. Cowled suggested they allow Law to pack unmolested. This was summary justice on Nauru. Law had two hours. Then Constable Bop followed him to Brisbane.
The next day, the Nauruan government passed a law that prevented the judicial review of the minister’s expulsion of residents.
“The independence of the prosecution service is absolutely essential to having a proper and competent justice sector,” Law said at the senate inquiry earlier this year. He was describing a deep and systemised contempt for the law.
Released into this environment are refugees. “We only have to look at what has taken place this year, since January,” Law said. “There have been a number of reports about people who have been granted refugee status in Nauru who have been subject to assaults. That is a very sad fact.”
Law’s evidence illuminates another’s – the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Mike Pezzullo. In June, the secretary emphasised matters of jurisdiction. “The Australian government does not run the Nauru regional processing centre. It is managed by the government of Nauru, under Nauruan law, with support from the Australian government,” Pezzullo said. “The government of Nauru assesses asylum claims and, where persons are found to be in need of protection, arranges settlement. The government of Nauru is specifically responsible for security and good order and the care and welfare of persons residing in the centre.”
Jane is back home in Australia now. She’s left Nauru for the last time. An aid worker, Jane – not her real name – feels guilty about what she describes as her abandonment of the children. “But then, that’s very egocentric – others can do my job; I’m replaceable.”
There is also relief. Jane is reluctant to admit it, but she’s traumatised. A friend of hers in the camps attempted suicide, and her words tremble when she talks about it. Jane still dreams about her, dreams about the humidity and the wild dogs and the security guards. They startle her from her sleep.
She received no counselling on Nauru. She was never asked if she would like such a service. She may speak to someone now she’s returned permanently. “It’s hell there,” she says. “You have no idea.”
Rumours were the report from the senate inquiry would be released early, although it hasn’t been. The hearings have received bleak evidence from judges, magistrates, doctors, nurses, counsellors and security guards. There are patterns. Independent evidence has conjoined, and provided a picture of regulatory deficiency in the camps, and of corrupt opacity within the government responsible for its governance.
The evidence of Wilson Security regarding the surveillance of Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young while on Nauru has shifted under questioning. It is, at best, irresolute.
It now appears – via multiple submissions from former employees – that a minimum of six Wilson employees were involved in the illicit stalking of the senator – and later boastfully shared their footage. Certainly, the evidence contradicts the original line suggesting a lone, regrettable rogue. “Their evidence has changed over time,” Hanson-Young tells me. “And I just don’t believe them.”
Multiple whistleblowers have submitted evidence about Wilson’s secrecy – how opaque their procedures were, how the office’s document shredder was used so often it was referred to as File 13. Evidence has emerged of a guard framing an asylum seeker for assault, and of a hyper-masculine and immature culture. “There is a strong culture of what has often be referred to as RAR – Royal Australian Regiment,” Jonathan Nichols, a former Wilson Security guard, said in last week’s hearings. “A lot of the staff over there are ex-military, whether it be the New Zealand Defence Force or the Australian Defence Force, and a lot of them still harbour the hatred towards whom they perceive to be the enemy – which are the people that they are supposed to be providing care for.”
We wait for the report, and news of the new successful bidder for garrison services. Transfield Services’ $1.2 billion contract expires in October. There are conflicting rumours of who will win these tenders. What’s certain is the length of the contracts – five to seven years. The federal government has no intention of closing these camps for some time.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2015 as "Pacific breakdown". Subscribe here.