Since Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison took office, workers in offshore detention centres say asylum seekers have never had it so bad.
This story comes with a warning: readers may be overcome with a condition the Australian government is counting on most of us already having or about to develop – asylum seeker compassion fatigue. Letters like the one below, obtained during a Fairfax Media investigation into offshore detention and written by 32-year-old Ali, an Iranian asylum seeker, sorely test the government’s mass immunisation plan.
“As time goes by the men are getting more desperate and more sick.”- Manus Island case worker
”The immigration told us that they are going to send my wife to the mainland, like Darwin 2 months before delivering the baby and she is going to deliver the baby there without me being next to her,” Ali writes.
His pleas to immigration authorities to allow him accompany her have got him nowhere. The only option he has been given, he says, is for he and his wife to go back to Iran.
”I have requested from the immigration officers to discuss my situation however they keep telling me to go back home if you want to be next to your wife during delivering the baby. My wife is having lots of stresses and usually wakes up at the middle of the night because of having bad nightmares. I would like to request you to help us in this matter and don’t let them separate us from each other at this very important stage of our marriage life.”
It is not a whinge but a plea to someone, anyone, who might be able to help him and his four-months pregnant wife from being separated when she gives birth. To set the scene, they have been on Christmas Island for 3½ months and according to Ali, they are suffering ”a very bad condition … physically or mentally”.
The weapon of choice being aimed at Ali and his wife by immigration officials on Christmas Island, and which is at the core of the Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy, is deterrence.
It is a word that comes up often when speaking with people working in Australia’s offshore detention system, who agreed to speak to Fairfax Media on the condition of anonymity because they have signed confidentiality agreements with their employers – the charities Save The Children and the Salvation Army, and the Department of Immigration and Border Security.
They all say the same thing; under the new world order of asylum seeker policy, the practice on the ground has shifted significantly. The pugnacious and unapologetically secretive Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, has essentially said to the Australian public ”there’s nothing more to see here, now move along”.
And as those who agreed to speak to Fairfax Media for this story claimed repeatedly, nowhere is this policy easier to put into practice than on the impoverished Pacific islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea – home once again to Australia’s ”illegal” boat people in the Australian-run and funded detention centres.
For those who work on Nauru, life for asylum seekers is divided into before the riots and after the riots. Everything changed after July 19 when asylum seekers burnt the centre down, causing an estimated $60 million worth of damage.
At first, 119 men were each charged with one count of riot and one count of unlawful assembly but gradually that number has been reduced as charges have been dropped. Now 88 people will be prosecuted in 15 trials beginning in late January next year.
Melbourne lawyer Simon Kenny, who is representing some of the asylum seekers facing charges and who acted for men in another riot case on Nauru last year, described the ”Bravo” compound where all those charged are currently being detained:
”There is literally nothing there aside from the tents and a little yard which is about 10 metres by 10 metres and that’s the common area for over 100 men. There is no shade aside from inside the tents and the men have no books, not even a table to sit at,” Kenny says. ”I think it’s pretty unforgivable that these men can’t even be given a book to divert themselves with.
”I was told the men could make one phone call a week but a security guard told me it was more like every 10 days.”
A group of Melbourne and Brisbane lawyers and barristers are prepared to work pro bono to represent the asylum seekers, he says.
He and a colleague visited Nauru in late August and although he says he didn’t have any good news to report, the men were overwhelmed when they learnt that Australian lawyers were prepared to represent them.
One caseworker on Nauru describes life now. She is young, in her early 20s, just out of university and has been plunged into this secret world where, she says, ”anything seems to be allowed to happen”.
”Everyone is living in tents and there is no privacy. Since the riots people don’t have as much freedom as before,” she says.
”There had even been talk about having an open camp but that’s all gone. Before, we used to go on excursions down to the beach, people could use the internet, now there’s not enough space for the kids to run around in, we can’t take them to the park, the beach, nowhere. And these are the families who arrived after the riot, and they are bearing the brunt of something they had nothing to do with.”
The families that began arriving on Nauru from Christmas Island since the change of government are not faring well. They had been told the facilities on their next and possibly permanent home were similar to those on Christmas Island.
”The mothers are not coping well at all, their children are running amok,” another worker explains. ”They arrived and it was a tent city because the buildings had been destroyed. Women were refusing to get off the planes, they were crying, distraught.
”Families of five live in one little area of a large marquee divided only by clear tarpaulins so there is no privacy. Husbands and wives can’t have sex, can’t do anything without everyone knowing their business.”
Worse than anything else she has seen, though, is the condition of one child about four years old who has become catatonic and is refusing to eat.
”I have no experience to deal with this,” she says, ”other than report it to my line manager who says she has reported it to hers but nothing is happening.”
The single men’s camp, which is home to about 350 men, sounds especially dire. A recent outbreak of gastroenteritis shredded what remaining dignity the men may have had.
”There are three or four toilets for all those men and they just couldn’t manage. They were soiling themselves and then having to wait in line for hours to have a two-minute shower. It was really, really shocking.”
Manus Island, which is a men-only detention camp on PNG, currently has 1128 detainees. According to seasoned aid workers, the conditions are deplorable. The men live in either tents, ”dongas” – large shipping containers – or an old World War II bunker called ”Foxtrot” where 100 men are crammed in bunks lined up against each other with little room to move.
A fortnight ago, there were just 10 caseworkers to manage the entire camp, which meant that most men did not get seen.
Those that did probably spoke for the rest when they listed their complaints: snakes inside their accommodation, malaria, lack of malaria tablets, no mosquito nets, inedible food that often has cockroaches in it, no fresh fruit or vegetables and repeated requests to see a doctor or a nurse.
”It’s always the same but as time goes by the men are getting more desperate and more sick. They all complain about kidney pain, headache, insomnia, but it takes at least three weeks for a doctor to see a client,” one worker said.
All the men ask about family reunion. Will their wives and children be able to rejoin them on PNG where they accept they now have to resettle? ”The awful irony is that even though Australia has told them repeatedly they cannot live here, they are also telling these men they may never see their families again unless they go home. Or they will have to wait at least five years.”
In July, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that ”the combination of a tough physical environment, restricted legal regime, and slow processing mean that existing arrangements still do not meet the required international protection standards”.
One of the sideshows that has been played out of the public glare has been the question around whether the two charities, Save The Children and the Salvation Army, that won the contracts to work with asylum seekers in the offshore detention facilities, should ever have put their hands up for the jobs.
The off-the-record view of most of the Australian aid sector is that the two charities are effectively colluding with the government and lending their good name and reputation, and therefore implicit imprimatur, to the detention regime and more particularly, the mandatory detention of children.
Current and former Salvation Army staff who have worked offshore say they believe the agency had no idea what it was getting itself into when it signed its contract with the Commonwealth.
”They are naive at best and at worst, they are doing damage,” says a very senior and experienced aid administrator. ”It’s a long way from soup vans and caring for the homeless.”
Child abuse expert Professor Chris Goddard from Monash University, who co-authored the book Human Rights Overboard, says:
”As we have written, locking up children is organised and institutionalised abuse. NGOs such as Salvos, Save the Children, have been seen traditionally as champions of the poor, advocates for human rights. Now, important voices may be silenced and advocacy lost and they may be seen as agents of government policy.”
A spokesman for the Salvation Army says its position on detention had not changed. ”We are opposed to offshore processing and are on public record as saying so. Our preference would be that people are processed in the Australian community, without the need for offshore processing.
”But, we work where there are people in need and where there is the suffering and the vulnerable.”
History usually has something useful to offer current governments, regardless of their political hue. The Abbott government promised Australians at the last election it would turn the boats around and it would ram its message home to would-be asylum seekers by making sure that they lost any hope of resettling here.
But Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia asks: does middle Australia want to see more images of sewn lips and slashed wrists that became one of the enduring mental snapshots of the Howard years?
”There will be increased incidents of self harm – it’s started to happen. There will be suicides, hunger strikes, because if you hold people in a harsh environment indefinitely with no hope then they break.”
Power points out that the Abbot government’s deterrence-at-all-costs approach has left out the whole idea of protection of asylum seekers. ”There is no hint at all since September 18th of people who need protecting.”
The federal government seems to be counting on the rebooted Pacific island solution so conveniently put in place by the former Rudd government. But the Abbott government is adding its own flavour and tone.
As a senior executive with one of the charities says: ”I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, worried that one day we may have to face a royal commission and have to answer for the conditions under which these people were treated and which we didn’t have the guts to challenge the government on.”