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As the Coalition defends offshore detention in the wake of leaked files, former Nauru social workers and government officials paint a picture of utter dysfunction. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The dysfunction of offshore detention on Nauru

A file photo of asylum seekers held on Nauru, at right, talking through a fence with international journalists.
Credit: AP

Last week, the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, responded to the leak of more than 2000 Nauru incident reports to The Guardian. The 8000 pages detailed allegations of rape, sexual harassment and intimidation, as well as cases of self-harm and suicide. Despite the scale, the leak was far from exhaustive. But Dutton tried to quell what he characterised as “hype”. “Some people have even gone to the extent of self-harming and people have self-immolated in an effort to get to Australia,” he said. “Certainly some have made false allegations.”

Staff of Save the Children, whose contract on the island was terminated late last year and whose reports were included in the leak, watched in anger. As the authors of many of the reports, they felt their professionalism and the reality of their work was being denied by the government that once employed them. Privately they began messaging each other about their frustration. Bound by confidentiality agreements and cowed by the Australian Border Force Act, which outlaws the disclosure of information from offshore camps, the vast majority had remained silent about their time on the island. But now they’d had enough. “When Dutton went on the news and said that these allegations weren’t necessarily true, I thought, ‘Whoa,’ ” Judith Reen tells me. “This is primary evidence. What Dutton said was offensive, and we all started writing to each other and it snowballed.” 

Reen was a teacher in the Nauruan camp. She is now one of more than a hundred former Save the Children staff who have come out publicly to denounce the offshore program, and to detail their time on the island. Never before have we had so many people who witnessed the operations prepared to speak about it. Many I spoke to felt exposed. Some feared prosecution. But all told me that frustration and serial attacks upon their integrity had finally compelled them to go public. “Personally I feel vulnerable,” Reen says. “I fear there could be some insidious backlash. But those kids are suffering, and you can’t un-know that reality. I saw kids deteriorate. It’s counterintuitive for teachers to watch kids in decline. It chips away at your core.” 

Quasi-military culture

Save the Children staff – and other service providers on Nauru – are not the only ones dismayed by the operations of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. I spoke with two former senior executive staff of the department, who left 18 months ago when it merged with customs and created, in parts, a quasi-military. The historic focus of the bureaucracy shifted overnight. “There’s now only about 27 [senior executive] staff left today, from more than 100 two years ago,” one of the former executives tells me. “At the time of the merger I left because of my values, and I thought I’d leave before I was pushed. Essentially it was because I had grave reservations about the ABF [Australian Border Force]. There were some good aspects to it – intelligence, for example – but I couldn’t abide the muscular rhetoric and the new disdain for our experience and the palpable disdain for resettlement and nation building.

“There’s a need for [policy] balance, but I got the feeling that they thought the mission of nation building was accomplished and now it was all about enforcement. You would get outrageous rhetoric like ‘manning the brigades’. They wanted to join the big guys at the table of national security. But to have another armed force established, without much discussion, was disquieting. Among the senior staff to leave, there was wide disquiet or even contempt and derision.” 

Another former executive of the department agrees it underwent a profound change in culture, and that its new secretary, Mike Pezzullo, was dictatorial in his approach. “He always thinks he’s the smartest person in the room,” the source tells me, “and that includes rooms he shares with Dutton. His vision for the department is very clearly paramilitary.” 

I have been repeatedly told of low morale at the department, now worsened by an AFP investigation into the leak. “Immigration had not been a leaking department in the past,” a former executive says. “They were dedicated staff, and they understood how vexed issues were. It was unlike other departments that were more prone to leaking. But when you are disenchanted, there’s a greater risk these things will happen.”

Another executive tells me he doesn’t know whether the leaks came from the department, but he’s surprised it hadn’t happened earlier. “People who raised legitimate concerns, like Save the Children, were demonised. It was a blaming culture and the department was front and centre of that.” 

‘Nothing wrong’

This week, Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said on ABC’s Q&A program that he didn’t “think there is anything systematically wrong with the system of offshore detention”.

It was a statement at odds with his own government’s Moss inquiry, the 2000 leaked incident reports and the many conversations I had this week with the authors of those reports. The various crimes and squalor of Nauru camps were not aberrations – they were systemic, practised within a regime of child welfare that falls well below best practice. One problem was the reporting regime. Service providers would never directly report to the department, but to Wilson Security which “triaged and downgraded” the reports. An obvious conflict arose if Wilson staff was the subject of those reports. “The reporting process was ridiculous,” Tracey Donehue tells me. Donehue was another Save the Children teacher on the island. “I can’t exaggerate how intimidating it was to head to the security command room with 15 or 20 burly guys and they’d challenge your reports. A large majority of those reports were about Wilson, so you would file the complaint and then Wilson would investigate themselves.” 

Another former staff member, Evan Davis, told me the security staff they dealt with daily were “good blokes” but the investigative response team – a “quasi-military group” – were despised by most people in the camp. Additionally, multiple former staff complained about a process of reporting that emphasised paperwork over the incident itself. “A big problem,” said a former senior staff member, who wished to remain anonymous, “was when kids had problems with Wilson staff and there was a reluctance amongst them and their parents to report. We had occasions of the person complained about approaching the complainant. Very unfair and inappropriate. But this was never taken seriously enough.”

This same person tells me that her colleagues’ mental health deteriorated alarmingly, as did other former workers’. “Staff’s mental health really declined,” teacher Jennifer Rose says. “I witnessed staff break down. They had difficulty sleeping. They had anxiety. And amongst this, their professionalism was called into question by our government.” 

The anonymous caseworker tells me she attended daily briefings on the mental health of refugees. At these meetings, held with multiple stakeholders, she says, department staff showed sympathy but were ultimately ineffectual. “But what broke me specifically,” she tells me, “were the meetings with Australian Border Force. That ate into my soul. We were discussing attempted suicides and they laughed all the time. We would leave in tears at this disregard for human life. They treated refugees as criminals.”

Perhaps most alarming were descriptions of professional inertia among officials. Davis tells me there were many allegations of rape and sexual abuse within the male camp but, because of shame, cultural prohibitions and the fear of retribution, there was also a great likelihood of many unreported incidents. 

The inertia was pronounced among local police, too. “The unaccompanied minors,” Davis says, “were in a lot of trouble outside the camps. Locals would assault them, kick in their doors. Police aren’t interested. There was a time when Save the Children staff were threatened by a guy wielding a machete. I was there. I witnessed it at the hotel. It took four guys to restrain him: he was totally off his mind on drugs by the looks of it. Well, that guy was released by police the next day.” 

Davis says Nauru has received tens of millions of dollars from the Australian government, and yet he saw no evidence it was being invested in the country. “There’s asbestos everywhere,” Davis says. “There’s only one public toilet on the whole island. Very little capital works going on. Of the 10,000 Nauruans, I’d say 9800 wouldn’t derive any benefit from that money.”

Closing schools

When Save the Children were told their contract would be terminated, it coincided with the government’s decision to close the camp’s school. Teachers were appalled – their classes were always well attended, the result of children gratefully relieving their woeful under-stimulation. But the teachers argued their integration would be problematic in the local schools – they were inadequate and the refugee children would be harassed. Their prediction has been fulfilled – refugee school attendance rates have collapsed. But, senior teachers tell me, their advice was never heeded. Not only was it ignored by the government – contained in a long document regarding the transition of teaching services to Connect and the Brisbane Catholic Education group – but they were forbidden from communicating with the two new service providers. I have seen the transition document, and subsequent correspondence between Save the Children and the department of immigration. Senior teachers proposed a child-protection framework, improvements to the hygiene and safety of an asbestos-riddled school, and an adequately tailored syllabus. They were far from controversial suggestions, but the department wasn’t interested and didn’t forward the material to Connect or BCE. 

“Why? Because they wanted us out,” Rose tells me. “Each step of the way we raised issues about the safety and education of students and the government would have preferred that we didn’t. So they kept us separate so we wouldn’t taint the process.” 

Many former staff feel vindicated by the leaked reports, even if they are now anxious about making themselves public. Perhaps the easiest, saddest illustration of the gross inadequacy of these camps is the damaged mental health of those who merely worked there. “With my health issues, I was fearful about how I might feel seeing these reports again,” an anonymous source tells me. “But I felt validated when these reports were summarised in the media. This is the real deal of what’s going on over there – the ground-level, hard-hitting reports.” 

Whether it shifts public opinion or political orthodoxy is another matter.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 27, 2016 as "Cruel detentions". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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