Australia: gagging law fails to stop refugee abuse testimonies, leaks & legal challenges

sew-lips

Asylum-seeker with lips sewn together

Yesterday the Australian Government admitted its offshore refugee detention programme was illegal by rushing through legislation that attempted to make certain aspects of that programme legal (though there may be a way of reversing that – see below). Also, thanks to another new law – the Border Protection Act – in a few days time it will be illegal for any worker – doctor, nurse, social worker, teacher, security personnel etc – employed at offshore detention facilities to report abuse and should they do so they could end up with two years jail. However, the Senate Inquiry into abuse at offshore detention centres has extended its deadline for submissions – to July 17th, which is two weeks after the new gagging law comes into effect, thus directly challenging that Act. In the meantime we provide, in full, three recent testimonies of abuse provided to that Inquiry. Finally… if prime minister Tony Abbott thinks he can stop leaks by simply bringing in laws that are associated more with dictatorships, then he’s more imbecilic than people believe. For this is no longer about just truth, but humanity and compassion and simple decency (see also Section C below).

Note for whistleblowers… After July 1st, anyone who wishes to report on abuse in offshore detention centres will, unless they want to risk imprisonment, have to do so anonymously via the various encrypted facilities available – notably: a) sites that offer GlobalLeaks secure facilities (e.g. Media Direct), b) the Wikileaks submission facility; and c) the Guardian Securedrop facility (see other Securedrop sites too). Users should follow all precautionary instructions on these sites (if those instructions are available).

A. First, some updates…

1. The new gagging law is, of course, censorship pure and simple and can be challenged. Already Julian Burnside QC has stated he welcomes the opportunity to test the law out in the courts. Also doctors have already made it clear that their ethics override the Government’s concerns. However, it would be interesting to see if NGOs and/or journalists associations and/or press organisations are prepared to seek an injunction against this heinous law. 

2. A legal challenge to the offshore refugee detention programme by the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) – which was seemingly the reason why the Government hastily brought in the amendment to the 1958 Migration Act – is still scheduled in the High Court. In the meantime there is nothing to stop a lawyer or a group of lawyers from seeking an injunction to the new legislation until the court case by the HRLC has been heard; nor, in the meantime, for lawyers or NGOs to commence prosecution of the Australian Government in the ICC or ICJ.

3. It has been announced that the Australian Senate will be setting up an Inquiry into the funding of ‘people smugglers’ by the Australian Government. Meanwhile Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said that the investigation into the payment by the Indonesian authorities was continuing, irrespective of whether Australia provided further information on the matter.

See also drawings, photos, etc from Nauru and Manus Island by Shane Bazzi.

B. More abuse submissions:

Here, are two testimonies (in pdf format) provided to the Senate Inquiry by Natasha Blucher and by Samantha Betts.

Another testimonies was given by Charlotte Wilson, who was a save the Children case manager at Nauru. In her testimony she described how detention centre workers at Nauru sought sexual favours from detainees and even taped the sex acts – see below…

Charlotte Wilson’s story…

I was employed on Nauru from February 2014 to January 2015 by Save the Children (SCA) as a case manager in the adult team, within the welfare department. I am a qualified social worker and hold a Bachelor of Social Work and a MA in Human Rights.

Prior to my employment on Nauru I was employed by the Salvation Army on Manus Island as a case manager for a period of four months, from November 2013 to February 2014. Prior to this I have been employed in various roles as a child protection case manager.

My role on Nauru was to oversee the welfare of asylum seekers (adult families and single adult females). I managed up to 25 cases at one time. I worked with a ‘back to back’ case manager; we shared a workload while we were each on our three-week rotations.

Case managers work under a key performance indicator of ‘Individual Management Plans’ (IMPs), and ‘Individual Management Plan Reviews’ (IMPRs) which are monthly documents that are broken down into sections such as ‘mental health’, ‘physical health’, ‘education’, and ‘recreation’. Each section requires a goal to be set by the client for the next month. IMPRs capture the state of wellbeing of the client during that month.

Part of my duty was to submit information and incident reports about any incident I was involved in or that was disclosed to me. Whilst employed in Nauru I lived in accommodation in Regional Processing Centre (RPC) 1. During the course of my employment, ‘Offshore
Processing Centre’ (OPC) was re-named ‘Regional Processing Centre’ (RPC). RPC1 is made up of staff accommodation and offices, SCA School, staff mess, IHMS services, and ‘MA’ (managed accommodation), ‘RA’ (restricted accommodation) and ‘SA’ (supported accommodation). This was for asylum seekers who had self-harmed, were unwell, vulnerable, or were removed for security reasons from the general camp. These facilities were made up of small rooms with a fan and bunk bed, and in a small block with a fence around the outside. The rooms had no curtains and were directly on the path of staff members travelling between their accommodation blocks. There was no access to privacy in these facilities. Only recently was black mesh fencing placed between SCA accommodation blocks and MA. There is no barrier between SA and Transfield accommodation blocks, with staff and asylum seekers being in direct view of each other 24 hours a day. It was very difficult for clients to have access to phone and internet services whilst they remained in RA, SA or MA. There were often families in these blocks.

I travelled everyday by bus from RPC1 to RPC3, where the majority of asylum seekers live. This journey is approximately 15 minutes on a rough dirt road. RPC3 is isolated from the rest of the Nauru community. Entering required going through a security checkpoint where Security staff checked IDs and conducted a scan with a metal detector. We were required to sign in and out when going between the Save the Children tent offices and the RPC3 camp.

RPC3 is made up of large white tents which are separated into different compounds. I worked mostly in the SAF area (single adult female) and areas 1 and 3, which is where the families lived, and the most accessible area of the camp. Areas 5 and 9 are where families with younger children were housed, although young children (under 5) also lived in areas 1 and 3. Single Adult Males (SAMs) were housed in RPC2.

Although in our office and within Save the Children we identified clients by name, the system used on Nauru by all the other service providers was to identify asylum seekers by boat ID numbers. It was common for children to wear their ID’s on a lanyard around their necks. Upon returning to RPC3 from the School, children were required to go through security checkpoints to their respective accommodation areas. Wilson’s employees would make a record of the children who were returning from School. On countless occasions I observed children walking through and calling out their ID numbers to identify themselves, which were then recorded by Wilson’s security staff. When asked for their name, both children and adults will respond immediately by reciting their boat ID number instead of their names. It is also typical that children will sign their pictures or drawings with ID numbers rather than names.

Environment

RPC3 is surrounded by pinnacles and rocks. The ground is made up of gravel, which is very sharp and rough. The weather conditions are very hot and humid. This humidity caused condensation to build up inside the tents, which would then drip onto asylum seekers belongings, causing constant dampness. Often it would rain heavily and RPC3 would flood. I have observed the tents filling up to knee level. The tents were covered in mould, both inside and out. There were lizards, crabs, cockroaches and mice visible to me when walking around RPC3 and within the tents. Asylum seekers frequently reported mice running through their rooms and all over their belongings at night.

The tents were divided into separate rooms by partitions made out of tarpaulins. There were communal lights. Each room would have bunk beds or camp stretchers, a fan, and maybe some plastic chairs. The tents were very hot during the day, to the point where they were uninhabitable. There was no privacy available. Couples and families were placed next to each other. Teenagers as well as older children were housed in the same spaces as their parents with no partitions and therefore no privacy.

During my employment the fencing was changed from temporary metal fences, to high secure metal fences. With the environment of high secure fences, tents and gravel, there was no natural, green or open spaces to spend time in. The environment was extremely monotonous. The sun is very bright and reflects off the grey rocks and I was unable to go outside without sunglasses on. Many asylum seekers reported deterioration in their sight. Asylum seekers who had attended IHMS regarding these concerns were put on a list to see a specialist visiting ophthalmologist and were waiting for over six months. When the ophthalmologist did visit Nauru it was a further three-month wait to get prescription glasses.

There were frequent water shortages and power cuts, making it very difficult for asylum seekers to maintain a basic level of hygiene and cleanliness, further contributing to a deterioration in mental and physical health, and impacting on their dignity. Accessing women’s sanitary items was extremely difficult, with limited amounts being provided and women having to queue for long periods of time to access these necessary items.

Health

A common condition I became aware of when working with the single adult females was that many of women who described being healthy previous to their detention, had stopped menstruating and were experiencing hair loss due to the stress on their bodies. The single adult female population are a vulnerable group within RPC3.

Health issues were one of the main causes of distress to people detained within RPC3. Many asylum seekers reported that their health issues were not being addressed and what started out as small problems had deteriorated to the point that irreversible damage had occurred. Asylum seekers reported feeling that they were not listened to during their consultations, were not afforded privacy or access to interpreters and had to explain their conditions over and over again to each doctor or nurse. Many asylum seekers expressed confusion to me over any treatment given to them and did not feel that they were able to ask questions.

When asylum seekers are transferred to Australia for medical reasons, there were often family members left behind in RPC3. Some of the clients I was working with were separated from their immediate family members for over 9 months. In these cases there was little or no communication from DIBP to explain any plan for the family to reunify. For most of my employment, asylum seekers received two 10-minute phone calls per week. It was my experience that this separation caused significant emotional distress. In some cases the person
removed was the main family support, leaving the remaining family members vulnerable. Families would often not be told where their family members had been transferred to.

I worked with asylum seekers who were elderly and suffered greatly in the RPC3 environment. They relied on their family members to look after them and had great difficulty accessing the care and support they needed. There was no respite from the heat and there were no physical aids to assist them moving across the rough rocky ground. Often these elderly asylum seekers became extremely socially isolated because they were unable to participate in classes or activities.

Attending IHMS appointments required walking to the bus stop, waiting in the heat for the bus, which left once an hour, travelling on a rough road for 15 minutes, and then waiting at the IHMS clinic in RPC1. It was not uncommon to wait for 2 hours for the appointment. This meant that many asylum seekers did not attend appointments at IHMS because they did not feel as if they were well enough to make the journey. It was also common to attend an IHMS appointment and be turned away for a number of reasons. I observed a significant deterioration in the physical and mental health of my elderly clients. Both expressed that they felt they would die in detention. The remaining family members were under huge pressure to look after their family members with no resources or support.

I worked with a client who was years old. Her daughter and son had been transferred to Australia on medical transfer and had been there for over 8 months. Other family members had been separated from her on Christmas Island although they had arrived on the same boat. During the 6 months that I worked with this family I witnessed a significant decline in her physical and mental health. She was unable to walk unaided, was refused any extra fans or air conditioning, felt as if she would die in detention and never see her other family
members again. A -year-old member of this family showed me the cuts on her wrists where she had self harmed due to the extreme anguish she felt at being separated from her family members. She was placed on a 24-hour watch with two adult security officers constantly sitting next to her to prevent her from self-harming further. This was not an isolated incident of self-harm for this particular young family member. Another family had a single parent who was transferred for medical reasons leaving behind four children. The eldest two children were left in sole charge of the two younger children (both under the ages of 10). The eldest children were greatly distressed at the separation of their parent and were engaging in acts of self-harm (cutting wrists with razor blades). DIBP refused for any of the children to accompany their father to Australia.

Pregnant women were refused any special treatment. Pregnant women were expected to queue for meals for approximately half an hour, standing, in the mess tent, which was extremely hot. It was forbidden to remove food from the mess and this was enforced by security. It was common for case managers to take cold water bottles to pregnant clients daily, as cold water was not available in the camp.

In one instance I was told directly by a woman that she chose to terminate a pregnancy, as she did not believe that she, or a baby, would survive a pregnancy to full term in the harsh conditions in the camp. She travelled to Australia for the termination in 2014 and was then returned to Nauru, experiencing significant distress.

Self harm

Self-harm was a common occurrence. Due to the confined area of RPC3, and the high rate of self-harm, children witnessed or were exposed to self-harm frequently. On numerous occasions I have seen men and women become so distressed that they have started screaming, crying, banging their heads against walls or other objects, hyperventilating to the point of fainting, cutting themselves with razor blades or sharp rocks, and ingesting washing powder or insect repellent. An incident such as this could occur in RPC3 on a daily basis.

Whilst working in RPC3 I was told almost daily by clients that they were thinking about harming themselves, or that they no longer wanted to be alive. I have had to physically stop asylum seekers from harming themselves on more than one occasion. I have witnessed daily patterns of self-harm with a number of clients that I worked directly with.

On countless occasions I have debriefed with asylum seekers who were first on the scene of attempted hangings, who themselves have self-harmed, or who have witnessed their neighbour or friend self-harming. On more than one occasion I have been present when an emergency code was called by Security due to an attempted hanging. I have observed children at these scenes, which parents are unable to shield their children from due to the close proximity of tents.

It is also common when walking through the camp to observe men and women with cuts and bandages over their wrists and arms, or marks around their necks, as a result of self-harming.

I have worked directly with clients who have experienced complete breakdowns in their mental health and are displaying signs of confusion, hallucinations and severe depression.

Moss Report

I felt disbelief when my colleagues were stood down. Although no reason was given I surmised from the leaked intelligence report that it was related to the protests. Many of my clients informed me that protesting was the only way they felt they could express themselves and they felt there were no other channels available to them.

Messaging from DIBP was delivered to asylum seekers every few months. This was done by handing out information sheets, verbally, by video or by disseminating information through ‘cultural leaders’. Usually Wilson’s staff would assist or run the information distribution. On the days when ‘messaging’ would occur, there would be an atmosphere in the camp of nervous excitement, always with the hope that the news would be good. As case managers, we would prepare ourselves to go into the camp after the messaging to support our clients. Often we (case managers) were not informed of what information was being distributed. I observed a direct correlation between DIBP messaging and self-harming and protest by asylum seekers.

There are vast amounts of documentation in Nauru from all service providers that record self-harm incidents, sexual abuse allegations, and the decline of physical and mental health. Case notes, recorded by SCA case managers after every client interaction, and monthly IMPRs, all document the deteriorating mental health state of asylum seekers in RPC3, and indicate the pressures and conditions they are experiencing in detention as the cause of self-harm and distress. Incident reports which are written by any staff member and processed by Wilson’s security, will clearly evidence daily patterns of self-harm.

Requests and Complaints and Incident reports

To request an IHMS appointment (physical or mental health), clothing item, make a complaint or any other request, asylum seekers were required to fill out a Transfield request and complaint form. IHMS did not accept request forms written by case managers, even in cases when the person was illiterate or did not have a written language. Often asylum seekers were experiencing such significant mental health issues that they did not feel able to submit a referral form themselves.

All incident and information reports are submitted to Wilson’s Security, after being signed by an immediate manager (in my team the Case Manager Manager) according to their time frames, which was decided by whether the incident was minor, major, or critical.

For at least the first four months of my employment there were no shoes available for asylum seekers. The gravel is too jagged to walk on in bare feet, and the thongs that were provided to asylum seekers wore out after only a few weeks. A female asylum seeker told me that she was sharing one pair of thongs with four women, and they would take turns wearing them to go to the toilet block or English classes. Asylum seekers were not able to attend the gym in RPC1, the walking group or excursions without a pair of running shoes, which were impossible to obtain. Asylum seekers were repeatedly instructed to fill in a request form for shoes, when it was known there were none available. Clothes were also very limited during this time, and it was not uncommon for men and women to only have only one change of clothes.

Incident reports were filed with Wilson’s security according to the necessary time frames. It is my belief that information was withheld by asylum seekers who were fearful of retribution from security staff over any complaints. Any incident report or information report that was submitted went through the Wilson’s chain of management to investigate. This was also the case if the matter involved inappropriate behaviour by Wilson’s staff.

Security

The above systems created an environment where both asylum seekers and SCA staff were intimidated to not take action against security services. Asylum seekers held the valid fear that if they received refugee status and entered the community there would be retribution from Nauruan security officers. Asylum seekers were aware that it was possible that any complaint they made against a security officer could be seen by that person.

It is my belief that both Australian and Nauruan security guards frequently abused their positions of power within RPC3. It was very common for asylum seekers to be told to ‘go back where you came from if you don’t like it’ by both local and expat Security staff. It was common knowledge within RPC3 that there was bartering and trading, including of sexual favours within the camp. This was most apparent when cigarettes were a contraband item.

In December 2014 and January 2015 there was an investigation by Wilson’s into marijuana use in the single adult female area. Several of my SAF clients informed me that Wilson’s officers were supplying this.

I have witnessed a Nauruan security guard telling a group of single Somali women that if they run away ‘you will get raped by the local boys’.

In January 2015 there were many rumours circulating that there was solicitation occurring in the community between female refugees and Australian security officers employed by Wilson’s. I was told that this was acknowledged in management meetings between service providers and that it was also established that these acts had been filmed and circulated around Wilson’s staff. I was also told that because prostitution is legal on Nauru that no action was being taken against the staff members involved.

I firmly believe that the level of trauma that asylum seekers have been subjected to has caused profound damage to nearly every single man, woman and child who has been arbitrarily interned in Nauru. RPC3 detention camp subjects extremely vulnerable people to prolonged depravation of freedom, abuse of power, confinement in an extremely harsh environment, uncertainty of future, disempowerment, loss of privacy and autonomy and inadequate health and protection services.

Charlotte Wilson, Case Manager (adult team) Nauru Regional Processing Centre, January 2014 – February 2015.

C. Letter to Australians from a Rohingya detainee at Manus Island detention centre

This letter from a detainee at Manus Island detention centre, courtesy of Shane Bazzi (click here for story relating to letter).

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8 Responses to Australia: gagging law fails to stop refugee abuse testimonies, leaks & legal challenges

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