The fuse was lit three weeks ago, when seven teenagers living in the family compound of Nauru’s detention centre began to protest. They had written a letter to the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, and daily would sit on the compound’s roof awaiting a reply. Relations between asylum seekers, their guards and Nauruan locals have long been embittered, and they continue to deteriorate. In the week before this week’s riot, graffiti appeared on a compound wall that placed the initials of the Australian Border Force beside a Nazi swastika. It is a febrile atmosphere.
This Wednesday, a representative of the department presented a letter to the protesting boys and their families. The letter attempted to answer their anxieties about their limbo and conditions on the island. “It is important to note,” the letter read, “that people who arrived illegally by boat on Nauru can elect to return to their country of origin or, if found to be a refugee, apply for resettlement in Cambodia.”
On another matter of concern to the families, the letter said: “The education you are receiving in Nauru is similar to Australia and follows the Queensland state curriculum.”
The boys were distraught. The department official – and the letter itself – made clear that they would never be relocated to Australia, nor did the department give the impression that their concerns about living and education standards were legitimate. The boys began pounding the walls of the meeting room with their fists. Then they began to throw chairs. “They did not throw at anyone,” the teenage sister of one of the boys, and who was present at the meeting, told me by phone the following morning. She sounded drowsy, the result of only being released from the compound’s medical centre at 3am. “They were just taking out their anger. This has been three years of our lives. Guards came in and started hitting them. We hugged the boys to stop the punching of them. After the meeting there was one guard who started hitting a kid and two guards had to hold him. They couldn’t control him, he was that bad that other guards had to go to him. They later beat one of my friends so hard.”
Things disintegrated rapidly. There was a conflagration of violence. Asylum seekers began to hurl objects at Wilson Security guards who, according to the sister, had been indiscriminately beating people regardless of their threat. “Fighting began,” she told me, “and guards hit anyone who was near. Later, after chairs and stones were thrown, guards left and locked a gate behind them.”
The girl told me that the mother of one of her friends appeared to collapse from a heart attack, brought on by stress, and the mother of another friend was rushed to the medical centre after attempting suicide by consuming washing powder – a common method in the camps. “Most of them were Australian, some New Zealanders, some locals,” she told me. “They were a special team, not normal guards. They were trained. Most of them are trained in army. How do you expect them to treat kids? They were in wars. They don’t think that they’re children, they just fight. They hate us. More and more, they hate us. And the locals hate us more and more.”
At time of writing, Wilson Security was yet to respond publicly.
This week, Wilson Security was ensnared in history’s largest leak – the so-called Panama Papers. For the past year, hundreds of reporters combed the voluminous documents that detailed the workings of legal firm Mossack Fonseca – creators of shell companies, the preferred repository for the finances of tax cheats, drug barons, terrorist patrons and despots. On Monday, Four Corners reported that within the papers were damning documents concerning former Wilson directors – the billionaire brothers Raymond and Thomas Kwok. In 2012 they were both charged with bribing Hong Kong officials, whereby they resigned their directorship of Wilson’s holding company. The Panama Papers revealed that the public resignation was theatre, and that via Mossack Fonseca’s house of mirrors, the two remained in control of Wilson Offshore Group Holdings. Thomas Kwok was convicted last year of massive bribery and sentenced to five years in jail. His brother was acquitted.
Wilson Security is subcontracted by Transfield to provide security services on the offshore detention centres in Nauru and Manus. Within Australia, their guards protect government buildings, foreign embassies and politicians. Since Tony Abbott was elected prime minister in September 2013, Wilson Security has successfully bid for $478 million worth of contracts.
But controversy has dogged the company. During a senate committee hearing about Nauru last August, it was revealed that at least one Wilson guard – Jason Kahika – had spied on Senator Sarah Hanson-Young while she was visiting the country. Kahika was called to appear before the committee but he never did. Wilson admitted to the incident, characterising Kahika as a wayward individual operating without management consent. Regardless, Kahika remains employed by the company. Musing on whether he acted alone, Hanson-Young told me: “I don’t know what to believe. The only person who can answer that is Jason.”
In the same hearings, two former Wilson guards – Jon Nichols and Stuart Thompson, who were employed on Nauru – alleged the widespread abuse of refugees by guards and a culture of secrecy. Nichols said he was ordered to shred unflattering incident reports. He obliged. “It’s a wannabe military scenario,” he told me this week. “It’s run like black-ops. Everything is hush-hush. Jason Kahika is a perfect example. The guy couldn’t run a chook raffle; his only qualification was that he was ex-New Zealand army. If Wilson were actually serious about amends, his position would have been terminated. But Jason was a scapegoat. He took the fall. Management were well aware of what was going on.
“Wilson Security is in effect the on-island Gestapo. [Because of Nauruan police apathy] Wilson becomes the be-all and end-all. You take ex-military members just returned from Afghanistan, Iraq and put them in charge of care for the same people they were fighting six months before and expect them to be compassionate? You’re an idiot.”
Nichols told me that since testifying before the senate committee last year, he and his wife had been serially threatened, harassed and stalked by aggrieved former colleagues. They have changed their phone numbers and social media pages. “I’ve been abused. They found out where my wife worked and rang her there. On her work phone. They made allegations of affair, that I was having an affair. That she was having an affair. They were being disruptive arseholes. I’ve heard stuff like, ‘Next time I see you you’re gonna get hurt.’ It’s changed my life forever. And the senate committee doesn’t leave a good taste in my mouth. I risked jail, my job and my health to detail what’s going on over there, then I got kicked to the kerb when they had what they wanted.”
During that senate hearing, Wilson’s executive took the simplest questions under advice and offered what committee chairman Senator Alex Gallacher later described as “deliberate and continual obfuscation”. In November last year, Wilson Security was referred to the senate privileges committee, which will determine whether the company was in contempt of parliament. “There was sufficient disquiet about their evidence to refer Wilson,” Gallacher told me this week. “And it’s unusual for a large public company like this to be referred to the committee.
“I thought Wilson’s entire operation [on Nauru] was based upon a false premise, all of this surveillance, etc. The asylum seekers there are now free to roam. [Wilson] constructed their own problems, in a way, through their interventionist and militaristic approach. They feared some kind of uprising there, I think. But there was no significant threat from asylum seekers. It was dealt with in an over-the-top fashion.”
Gallacher told me it would have been very useful to have Kahika appear before the committee, but that the senate did not have the power to compel non-Australian citizens before it. A New Zealander, Kahika appears to have relocated to Queensland.
“Wilson is a culture of cover-up and secrecy,” Hanson-Young told me. She had hit the hustings this week, arguing that the company was morally unfit to enjoy its contract on Nauru and Manus. “On Nauru, children are abused then left in the environment with their abuser. Women are harassed. There are shredded documents. Then we hear about the Panama Papers – it’s a culture of cover-up. And Transfield can’t be let off the hook here, either. They had some idea that this was a remote mining camp. No. You’re dealing with refugees and children.”
The senate privileges committee is yet to rule on Wilson Security, but elsewhere there are legal proceedings against the company. Lawyers this week told me of many aggrieved and injured former employees of Wilson who say they were inadequately trained, protected and insured for what was often traumatic work in offshore camps. Nichols told me he is now on medication because of the anxiety and depression that followed his time on Nauru. Martin Hill, another former employee, is the first to sue the company – along with Transfield and the Commonwealth – for damages sustained on the island. Within days of arriving on Nauru, Hill was cutting down a man hanged in his cell. Later, he would talk about negotiating with a man threatening to impale himself. He had no training for such things. “I just winged it.”
A lawyer told me that many employees were not adequately insured for damages, that most were covered merely by travel insurance rather than full health cover that would include mental anguish. United Voice, the union that represents Wilson Security staff, has engaged a law firm to take up the cases of former employees. In a statement last year, United Voice said of Wilson employees on Nauru and Manus: “Staff are being mistreated all the time and are forced to endure horrendous conditions.”
Its statement included excerpts of an interview that former guard Chenoah Rose had given Guardian Australia. Rose alleged that she had been sexually harassed by colleagues on Nauru, but that Wilson did not take her complaints seriously – even after she had shown them screenshots of lewd messages. She said she was forced to work with the man she alleged had been harassing her. “The perpetrator has since been promoted,” Rose told Guardian Australia. “That’s the kind of culture we’re dealing with here. Bullying and sexual harassment are just rife, but there’s no one you can talk to and nowhere you can go to report it. The strain on workers is just huge.”
Nichols said a similar thing. “It’s a boys’ club there,” he told me. “Women don’t stand a chance. And where would you go? There’s no women in management. And HR would brush complaints under the carpet every time.”
A lawyer asked me if I had heard of the book Lord of the Flies. It was his analogy for what was occurring on the island, a primitive struggle between the strong and the weak. Jon Nichols described Nauru as a modern Stanford prison experiment. In that experiment, conducted in the early 1970s, volunteers were arbitrarily assigned the role of either guard or prisoner. Over time, the boundaries of role-play dissolved. Guards became violent, prisoners diffident. These were now psychological states, not mere roles. The guards saw their power as a natural function of their superiority; the captivity of the prisoners a reflection of inferiority. Though not all were subsumed. Some revolted against the tide.
I think again of the teenage girl, shielding her brother from the blows of guards. “They hate us. More and more, they hate us.”