Detention centre worker tells truth about refugee camps

Nicole Judge witnessed countless instances of self-harm and attempted suicides by refugees.

Nicole Judge worked at refugee centres on Nauru and Manus Island and despite warnings from various bodies, stood before a packed crowd at a Refugee Action Coalition forum in Sydney on November 17 to give an account of her time there.

When Judge first set foot on Manus Island she knew she was not getting what she had been promised. When she first signed up to work on Manus Island, she thought it would be a “working holiday”. She was looking for a break; what she found was despair, desperation and the deterioration of minds and bodies.

She spent several months working on Manus Island before she was transferred to Nauru. When she asked why she had been sent to Nauru, they said: “We deemed you too traumatised to return to Manus”. To her “it felt like a bit of a punishment”.

At her orientation at Nauru, Judge was shown the bar and warned “not to walk through the centre drunk as it might tease the locals. That was our training,” she said.

Judge’s first impression of Nauru was disgust at the conditions of the centre. She saw men with no shoes who had fashioned thongs out of string. Others had ripped holes in their jeans to deal with the scorching heat and “there was an unbearable stench of faeces”.

Judge said a typhoid outbreak in the centre was later covered up by the Salvation Army. She said she became so used to seeing infections and illness left untreated that it was “weird to spot one of the men who didn’t have anything”.

She also witnessed “countless instances of self-harm, attempted suicides and the deterioration of men’s mental health before [her] eyes”.

When the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a report condemning the conditions at the centre, Judge was told “not to tell the men the outcome of the report even though they themselves had lodged for information”.

Judge soon learnt that the strife between the locals and staff at Nauru was a widespread problem. The trouble was a product of disempowerment and the contempt the authorities showed to the PNG locals, which was returned by the locals with violence.

“We were told they were cannibals and the asylum seekers were told exactly the same thing as well,” she said.

Judge found herself in the middle of a number of dangerous situations caused by tensions between the locals and the police. “I was told ... we could be raped repeatedly just for walking from the centre back to our accommodation.”

One of those situations was an attempted invasion by the locals, who tried to climb the back fence while carrying machetes. Her supervisor warned her to stay at the centre because “there’s safety in numbers”.

There were few other staff there, and she didn’t immediately realise that her supervisor “meant the asylum seekers”. The asylum seekers turned to her and said “don’t worry Nicole; we’ll look after you.” “But I’m supposed to be looking after you,” she thought.

When Judge later asked management how to deal with a situation like that in future, she was simply told: “look for a low point in the fence to climb through”.

The second attack Judge witnessed was two guards beating a young Iranian man for “trying to get out of the rain”. She was later locked in a room with four male PNG police who asked to her to change the details in a report she had filed on the beating. “I changed my report to say that I didn’t see the guards punching the man — just getting pushed — because that’s the situation I was in at the time.”

Judge was in Melbourne during another attack, but the men in the centre rang her as it happened. They were screaming into the phone out of fear, saying that they were “going to be killed”. All she could think to tell them at the time was “go to the library, lock yourself in and barricade yourself in with the library shelves”.

Judge rang a colleague on the island who told her that 50 shots had been fired. “I can’t describe the feeling of the men pleading for their lives and not being able to do anything about it,” she said. She described the media reports of 77 injured and one killed as “conservative”.

The man killed was Reza Barati. Judge and her colleagues submitted information regarding the circumstances of his death: “We provided information about the violence. We also provided information about the lack of adequate medical services and the prevalence of foot infections. Hamid Kehazaei died an entirely preventable death.”

Immigration minister Scott Morrison later said “he was disappointed that [the workers at Nauru] had jumped to conclusions”.

Judge said: “we were not jumping to conclusions. There is documented evidence given to our political leaders that went unheard.”

Like the article? to Green Left now! You can also us on Facebook and on Twitter.