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Inside Story - Allegations of violence and mismanagement in Australia's offshore processing system

SBS Dateline - March 4, 2014

Well now to damning new allegations of violence and mismanagement in Australia's offshore processing system. Not one, but four whistleblowers have come forward, providing us with an unprecedented account of life in the detention centres on Manus Island and Naura for both asylum seekers and staff. Dateline has received video, dozens of photographs and documents. Our reporter in this special investigation is Dr David Corlett. You may remember him as the host of SBS's Emmy award winning series 'Go Back To Where You came From'. A warning - David's report contains some strong language and refers to self-harm and attempted suicide.

Reporter: Dr David Corlett

The violence that saw dozens injured and the death of one man, Reza Barati, a fortnight ago has sparked outrage over this notorious detention centre, and these are the new photos of the aftermath.

Crowd: Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!.

Unrest is common here. This is video supplied to Dateline. This protest occurred just weeks earlier. But detention centre staff aside, and with media banned, no-one would have known about it. The video reveals some of the conditions. There's a lot of sitting around with little to do. For these men, the dream of reaching safety in Australia has evaporated. But inside, the protest goes on.

Marie: One of the worst experiences of my life, having to go to Manus Island.

This former Salvation Army staffer, who we'll call Marie, wants to remain anonymous. She was shocked when she arrived in the car.

Marie: We did an orientation with G4S and our orientation was where the bar was. There was no briefing. There was no, you know, this is the code you call if you see someone attempt suicide. This is the medical code for any sort of incident. There's a real sense of imprisonment there. It had a very bad smell. The smell of faeces and urine and overwhelmingly hot, dirty, the whole thing, it was terrible.

This is some of the accommodation. But most of the men are housed like this.

Reporter: What are we looking at here?

Marie: This is a shot of P Block. It's just the area where we've got 120 men living in there. You can see that they have no real privacy and no fans. The couple there, it's so hot in there. They've tried to give themselves a little bit of privacy. They often put sheets up so they don't have to be looked at 24/7 by everyone else. But the guards always take them down.

Reporter: The guards take the sheets down?

Marie: Yes.

Reporter: What's the rationale for that?

Marie: I guess they want to be able to see in everywhere at all times.

Dateline has previously aired allegations of rape in the detention centre and Marie has suspicions about what goes on in P Block.

Marie: I heard of someone having a lot of sexual activity with a couple of the other clients and I asked one of the team leaders, "How do you know if that's consensual?" And he said, "I heard it from the other guys, he wants it."

Marie claims no-one investigated what was occurring.

Marie: So I asked, "Have you spoken to him?" "How do you know he wants that?" He said, "Because I thought it's just well known that he wants it. He's gay." So I don't know how they investigate such problems. I don't think there is any investigation there. I think it's just, "He's gay, so he wants it."

These are some of the showers and toilets. But then there's this...

Marie: These are taken in the Delta compound. It's just a standard photo of what we see every day.

Reporter: It's a toilet, obviously. It looks disgusting.

Marie: Yeah, it is.

Around 300 men use toilets like these.

Reporter: Why is it like this, do you think?

Marie: There's not much I can say about this. It's just a normal occurrence. It's not cleaned adequately. It's not looked after adequately. It's just evidence of unsanitary conditions and a lack of effort to really clean it up.

And it's not just in Delta compound that facilities are like this. These images are from other parts of the detention centre.

Reporter: It just stays like this?

Marie: Yeah, until someone cleans it. Transferees often request cleaning equipment to clean it themselves, but they're denied.

Reporter: So the asylum seekers themselves, if they could, they would be cleaning this?

Marie: Definitely. They always ask for cleansers, brooms, mops, but they're just not able to be handed out.

Reporter: Why not?

Marie: Safety reasons. Any sort of reasons, really.

Reporter: Do any of the other like, do any of the management or any of the immigration department people, do they go into this sort of area?

Marie: Yeah, they've seen this. They know what it's like..

Even if those working on Manus wanted to make things better, they were hampered by a constant lack of resources.

Reporter: What did you make of the Salvation Army's efforts on Manus Island?

Marie: I think they tried their best. They had a lot of walls. Couldn't do much.

One document obtained by Dateline reads like a list of daily frustrations. On December 2 last year, case managers requested 98 hours of interpreter time and received just 30. Over the next four days, a total of nine case managers were off sick, and on it goes. Wrong languages booked for interpreting. The client database crashing. These conditions combined with uncertainty about their future, push many asylum seekers into a downward spiral. This deterioration is at times recorded in great detail.

"Disintegration of his mental health..."

"He displays acute distress and detention fatigue.... unravelled after only one week."

"... severe psychological symptoms and thoughts of self-harm and suicidal ideation..."

Reporter: Did you see incidences of people hurting themselves?

Marie: Yes. I saw a man trying to slit his wrist open and G4S tried to get to him, but it took some time to unlock the gate and they couldn't find the key and he had significant blood loss and there was just blood all over the concrete the smell.

The situation is grim for asylum seekers but according to Marie, they can't count on much sympathy from the G4S security guards.

Marie: I've seen a large group of clients complain that the water was dirty, the water was yellow and grey. We went to G4S and the catering company to ask what's wrong with the water. They said, "It's good enough for you. Why would you expect clean drinking water?" They use comments like, "We should just piss in it".

Detention centres are supposed to provide safety and security to asylum seekers. But the death of Reza Barati and injury to dozens shattered that myth, despite what Scott Morrison initially said.

Scott Morrison, Immigration Minister: Well, the centre is built to ensure people remain safe within that centre. We have built that complex in a way where people are most secure and most safe inside the centre.

He later corrected his statement on what happened that night, but as with the riot on Nauru, there was reason to question the minister's confidence in the level of protection asylum seekers were provided. Late last year, Marie, a Salvation Army worker, thought the compound was about to be invaded. She noticed some of the asylum seekers there had rushed to one side, speaking to men in another compound.

Marie: They had seen people trying to climb into the compound with machetes. They were scared, they thought people were going to break in. I went to the G4S ex-pat guard and asked him could I please leave the compound because everyone was getting upset and scared and large groups were forming. He said no. I asked, "Why?" He said it's safer for me to stay inside the compound rather than leave right now because the locals from outside, armed, trying to break in. So he asked me to stay calm and help calm the asylum seekers, who were getting upset.

Reporter: So were you pad locked into the compound at that time?

Marie: Yes.

Reporter: So you're pad locked in. Are you the only Salvation Army person in there at the time?

Marie: Yes.

Reporter: And how many asylum seekers are there with you?

Marie: 500. The asylum seekers were saying things to me like, "Don't worry, we'll look out for you. You're our sister." But at the same time, we were pretty frightened.

The incident followed a previous gun fight outside the centre between the PNG army and police.

Marie: I remember that day clients were very upset. There was an evacuation and maybe one or two G4S guys were left with them. So they were left to fend for themselves. Some were asking, "We fled our country for safety and we don't feel safe here. We don't understand. Are we looking after ourselves? Who runs this place? What do we need to do to make sure we're safe?" Questions like that. I don't know what to answer them because in my mind, we're supposed to be looking after them. Something, definitely, was wrong that day.

This is the edge of the detention centre and the front gate. It's not possible to linger outside without attracting the attention of security guards. But this video, provided to Dateline, takes us inside. These are images that both the Nauruan and Australian governments don't want you to see.

Reporter: What's that saying?

Marie: Highly distressed and worried about safety of his family. It's very common.

Marie, the university student we met before the break, began her work for the Salvation Army in an offshore detention system here. To her surprise, the salvos appeared to be in unseemly haste to hire her, and anybody else they could find.

Marie: I applied online. There was a number and they rang me and asked me when I could leave and they asked me if I could leave the following day I told them I couldn't. Then they asked me if I knew any friends who could come as well.

Reporter: What was the application process?

Marie: There was no application process at all.

Reporter: What were you expecting?

Marie: When I arrived in Nauru, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. This is inside the camp looking out.

Reporter: Everybody gets metal-detected?

Marie: Everyone.

Movement around the centre is tightly controlled even young children are not exempt from scrutiny. When Marie first arrived at the camp, she was overwhelmed.

Marie: I was shocked and wanted to go over straightaway. I did not want to be there. We didn't know what to expect and we had no training and they put us into the camp and said, "Just go and mingle." And I didn't know what to say to them or how to speak to them. I was so hot...

The Salvation Army says support workers don't require particular skills or experience and that staff engaged were adequate for the duties required. In the stifling heat, this is where many of the detainees live. The tents are divided by makeshift partitions as people try to eke out some privacy.

Marie: There's a family living behind that sheet, so they've made a sign requesting to be quiet. It's hard living in thin walls. I don't know how they do it.

There are stories of temperatures inside the tents reaching 50 degrees Celsius. It wasn't long before Marie noticed a marked change in the detainees, or transferees as the immigration department prefers to call them.

Marie: Sometimes you would see the most friendly, outgoing man just looking at a wall or lying in the dirt not speaking. So you definitely saw a decline in mental health very rapidly.

Reporter: How long did that take, do you think?

Marie: I think about six weeks.

Sue Todd: It's a breeding ground for tension. There's nothing to do. There's got to be some breaking point. It's just appalling.

Reporter: You're on a much smaller space in Nauru?

Sue Todd: Yes, yes.

Sue Todd is prepared to reveal her identity. He's a trauma counsellor with more than 30 years of experience. Tasmania is a long way away from Nauru, but for this psychologist, the memory of what goes on there still haunts her.

Sue Todd: They were all struggling. I had a case load of 40. There would be maybe two out of that 40 who were actually okay. This is the road into RPC1...

Many of her clients were Afghanistan Hazaras. Some had worked for the allies in Afghanistan and had become targets for the Taliban.

Sue Todd: One young man told me that his father had his throat cut in front of his family, so you can only begin to imagine what that would do.

Sue had many Tamil clients injured in Sri Lanka's recent war one in particular needed better medical help. Sue tried her best, but to no avail.

Sue Todd: Nothing happened and you feel like you're shaking a cage.

Shaking a cage on Nauru means dealing with Australia's immigration department, it is ultimately responsible for what happens there.

Reporter: What about the immigration department's response to the men complaining or the government's response?

Sue Todd: I found them very cold they took a very hardline approach.

It was not only information that asylum seekers were denied. According to Marie, who worked for the Salvos, women were subjected to shortages of the most basic necessities underwear and sanitary items.

Marie: There was escape attempts by women because they felt degraded because they had no underwear, no bras.

Reporter: How has it happened that people can't have access to really basic things like underwear?

Marie: It just wasn't organised. They would fill out request forms and the request wouldn't be fulfilled.

Reporter: Were the items available on the island?

Marie: Yes.

Reporter: And what about other what about sanitary items?

Marie: They were available but in limited supply. I was told it was a potential fire hazard to give too many at one time...

Like Manus Island, there are many damaged people here. Claire, not her real name, also worked for the Salvation Army.

Claire: He went to take a phone call and came out holding a fluorescent light. He smashed it and went at his neck and arms, screaming.

Marie tells a similar story.

Marie: Hangings, men cutting themselves open with glass, cutting their wrists, cutting their necks, trying to suffocate themselves with plastic bags, stitching their lips, cutting across their eyes.

Reporter: And what was the response to those things?

Marie: I think, depending on the incident, security would come in and medical as well. We were told if we saw people protesting or self-harming, not to look at them because it empowers them. So we were told to walk away.

Reporter: Were the Salvation Army told to report it?

Marie: Yeah.

Reporter: What is the response from the immigration department to these sorts of incidents?

Marie: I never heard any response and their attitude was that it's normal because of the place that they're in.

In July last year, asylum seekers on Nauru rioted, destroying the detention centre, causing an estimated $60 million damage. The destruction of the detention centre created understandable outrage but was it preventable? As with the recent violence on Manus Island, the asylum seekers were receiving little information or mixed messages about their future..

Sue Todd: These men have been waiting for months and months and months, and continue to wait. You know, so it's just to contain yourself, to manage yourself in that situation is horrendous.

Marie: Even a meeting to address their questions may have helped.

Reporter: Was the immigration department trying to help answer the questions or the concerns of the men?

Marie: Not that I'm aware of. They didn't want them to have any information.

153 men were rounded up and charged as a result of the riot and taken here, to the jail. The charges against 67 of those were later dropped. Dateline has obtained letters purporting to be written by some of those accused. They allege mistreatment.

"The Wilson's guards were hitting the people so hard that some were bleeding and had bruises."

"The jailer gave him a hard time and he was beaten hard..."

"...One or two of the guys were beaten and were nearly suffocated."

If those beatings occurred, then it may not have been the only time the asylum seekers were mistreated. Marie, from Salvation Army, says that detention centre guards were bragging at the bar.

Marie: You know, this guy was injured or, "I beat this guy," they joked at. There was a queue 45 minutes long for the toilet. I would ask, "Isn't there a risk of gastro or something like that?" And they would say, "I hope they get dysentery", things like that, "I hope they get sick. That's what they deserve."

Dateline has received a recording by comments of an ex-patriot guard who was on Nauru during the Nauru riot. This is an edited extract.

"We were hitting them with fire extinguishers and everything it was all on. Been another one here since I've been back, right in the middle of the camp, except I wasn't being nice this time. It was a jam at the throat and a smash up under the jaw. This place, somebody is going to die here. It won't be me "

Some of the guards took to social media to vent their anger.

"It's all sweet now, they had their moment of fun and then we had ours and fuck it was sweet justice."

"They want to fucking act like criminals dogs they can fucking live like it now."

The riot reinforced divisions between those working in the detention centre.

"Good riddens Salvation Army fuckheads... you and your bleeding hearts will not be missed in this place, I hold you responsible for almost getting us all killed"

For asylum seekers, the riot confirmed fears they had harboured about what would happen to them should violence break out. As with Marie, the Salvation Army worker on Manus Island, Sue Todd on Nauru heard similar fears.

Sue Todd: They were terrified that if there was some major incident that they would be left, that the security guards wouldn't look after them. Which is exactly what happened in the riot.

For those facing serious charges after the riot, it was up to this man to ensure they received a fair trial.

Peter Law: We have some defendants in one section...

Peter Law, an Australian, was Nauru's resident magistrate. This was the scene at the airport in January as he was man-handled off the island. He had made a decision that the Nauruan government disapproved of. With the Chief Justice also exiled, what chance do the asylum seekers have of a fair trial?

Peter Law: It's effectively a dictatorship. The government maintains a majority but it is abusing its power. So it is a very alarming development in all respects and does call into question whether democracy is in existence in Nauru.

Reporter: Not only is justice on trial in Nauru, there are serious allegations about the role of the Salvation Army. Dateline has been given access to a number of documents. What is it?

Marie: It's an individual management plan. Basically, it's a wellbeing plan.

It was the Salvation Army's responsibility to draw up the individual management plan or IMP for every asylum seeker.

Marie: Before the riot, we were expected to meet with clients once every month minimum, sit down and have a discussion for at least one hour, and from this we derive a wellbeing plan.

But following the riot, this Transfield Weekly Trend Report for last October marked 'Confidential' highlighted a growing concern...

"It is possible incidents may continue to rise as transferee numbers increase resulting in the reduction of communal space."

It was the policy of the previous Labor government to transfer more asylum seekers from Christmas Island to Nauru and Manus Island. And that policy was accelerated under the new Abbott government. Another Salvation Army worker, Angelina, claims there was increased pressure from the immigration department to meet agreed performance targets. She claims the Salvation Army's response was to begin fabricating the individual management plans.

Angelina: There was definitely a lot of pressure to meet these targets because they were the key performance indicators of the Salvation Army, and meeting those would mean keeping the contract on Nauru. After the riot, my colleagues were told to copy and paste generic statements from a particular IMP to other IMPs. So there were as many individual management plans completed in as short a time as possible. This would then be uploaded onto the computer system and would show the department of immigration we were meeting those targets, regardless of the quality or content of those wellbeing plans.

The Salvation Army strongly denies the allegation, saying it never instructed or expected caseworkers to fabricate the individual management plans. It also says that all IMPs were regularly audited by the immigration department. And it wasn't just the Salvation Army who are alleged to have failed to administer the management plan system properly. At least one highly disturbed man almost died when a carefully drawn up plan to manage his condition was abandoned without consultation. The plan had been agreed to by the Salvation Army, Wilsons security and the Department of Immigration.

Angelina: The client earlier in the day had stated that he would stab himself in the neck if he got the opportunity.

The man was supposed to be closely monitored but security allowed him out on a walking excursion with two guards.

Angelina: And on that walking group, the client ran off and found a piece of glass and stabbed himself in the neck. Thankfully he didn't die on the road, but it came very close.

Reporter: So you're saying that was against the express case plan that all the stake holders had negotiated?

Angelina: Absolutely.

Reporter: Who overruled it?

Angelina: Well, Wilsons Security let him go on the walking group.

The guards also stand accused of racism and bullying towards the asylum seekers.

Marie: They'll speak about them in a very, very racist way. Make comments. I remember some of them, who are ex-army, who are pretending to line up gun shots when they are on the internet, pretending to shoot them.

Reporter: What do you mean?

Marie: They would just make a gun at their hands and point at the back of their heads and make gunshot noises.

Reporter: Did the asylum seekers know that they were doing this?

Marie: Yeah. They would say things like, "You're boat people. People don't care about you."

The government's tough policy of deterrence may be popular. But the human cost is mounting.

Anjali Rao: Disturbing claims in that special investigation, reported by Dr David Corlett working with our chief producer Geoff Parish. The Salvation Army contract to provide services on Nauru and Manus Island has not been renewed. Of course, we sought an interview with the Salvos, the Immigration Department and Wilsons Security. They declined our offer, but you can see their written responses along with that of G4S Security on our website. Plus, read some of the documents obtained by Dateline for that story. And there are more of the photos from inside Manus Island and Naura. That's at our website.

Reporter: Dr David Corlett
Producer: Geoff Parish
Researcher: Melanie Morrison
Camera: Edoardo Falcione David Brill Tom Gelai
Translations/Subtitling: Saber Baluch Dalia Matar
Editors: Nick O'brien Wayne Love

Additional footage and stills courtesy of Clint Deidenang

Source: http://www.sbs.com.au/dateline/story/transcript/id/601816/n/The-Inside-Story.

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