Refugees on Nauru have staged several peaceful but desperate protests in recent weeks to call attention to their worsening conditions. Several refugees have attempted suicide.
But allegations have surfaced that staff inside the centre have made attempts to obstruct and interrupt their bid to be heard by the Australian public. One asylum seeker held on Nauru told Green Left Weekly that Salvation Army staff stationed in the centre had torn down protest signs assembled by the detainees.
A young man held in the camp spoke with me by phone on October 30 about the protests and conditions in the camp.
During the protest, he said detainees carried “paper that we had [written] what we wanted. Many men here are already walking with terror, already crazy and ill, there are many diseases. Our Friday protest [on October 26], was very peaceful, we ask for freedom and processing.
“They took them [the signs] from us, they pull them out of our hands.”
When asked who took the signs, he replied: “The Salvation Army.”
But the organisation has denied its staff were present at the protest or had taken anything from the refugees.
Territorial Director of Social Mission and Resources, Major Paul Moulds, told Green Left Weekly that a “detailed investigation” had found that no “Salvation Army staff member has been involved in removing any signs during any protest at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. Such an action would not be sanctioned or condoned by our organisation and we do not believe that it has happened.
“Salvation Army staff are not present on site when protests take place.”
Moulds said in September, when the Christian organisation first accepted the government contract to run services on Nauru, that “our primary concern is to provide the best possible care in these circumstances”.
He told GLW: “The Salvation Army fully supports the rights of asylum seekers to engage in peaceful protests and to communicate their views and feelings.”
The organisation also released a statement on October 30 defending the conditions in the Nauru camp, saying medical services, mental health support and the “menu” were “adequately provided” for the men held there.
It said: “Three meals and adequate water are provided each day. Food is ample and nutritious and prepared to a high standard.”
However, the Pakistani asylum seeker that GLW spoke to is adamant that Salvation Army staff did indeed take the signs. His account of life inside the camp, and refugees’ continued protests, also contradict the Salvation Army’s assurances.
The Nauru refugees said on November 1 they would collectively maintain an indefinite hunger strike, refusing food and water. They described their situation as “intolerable”.
In our phone conversation, the young Pakistani refugee said their treatment “is not always bad”, but “resources are very limited, it is so crowded, some 14 people in tents. We are living with one single bed.
“It is too hot, no one can stay in the tents during the day. In the rain the tents are leaking. [For] a few of the guys there is chest pain and headaches: it's very common here. Condition of food is very bad, very bad. Water is OK because we are drinking bottled water.
“But [access to] showers and toilets, just like phone and internet, all the time we need permission.
“When we say [we are] sick, they give us panadol and paracetamol and tell to drink a lot of water. An emergency patient in the night [has] have to wait, they say they can only handle one patient at a time. The doctor only handles emergency, only nurse sees us [for other medical complaints].
“Don't see any immigration [officials]. We are helpless and hopeless. So much stress. Everyday they tell you, you will be here for months.
“In the hope of a good life, we left our country. So right now we don't have any option. In our country, our life was in danger always. But here also our life is in danger. Here for only one month, and all the time, especially in the night, the [detainees] are weeping. The guys are weeping in the night.”
But even as the official response defended conditions in the camp, Salvation Army workers already returned from Nauru have painted a picture much more similar to that described by refugees.
In an article published on “My Salvos” on October 16, Lieutenant Tara McGuigan said she was “surrounded by desperation and hopelessness” during her time in the Nauru camp.
McGuigan was among the first to arrive on Nauru on September 10, but returned to Australia soon after. She asked: “How could I say I made a difference when nothing had really changed for my brothers?”
Another person who identified themselves as a worker that visited Nauru with the Salvation Army said on the Nauru refugees’ Facebook page on November 1: “I am NOT going back, because I cannot be party to this behaviour.”
The allegations made by refugees surely warrant an independent investigation that goes beyond a government contractor absolving itself of wrongdoing.
The Salvation Army’s presence in the camp, claiming to be helping refugees' wellbeing, helps legitimise the offshore processing of asylum seekers and allows the government to distance itself from the systemic abuse taking place in Australia’s detention centres. The immigration department is yet to comment on the growing unrest and rapidly worsening situation on Nauru.
Another suicide attempt on the evening of October 31 led to an unconfirmed altercation between frantic asylum seekers and security guards in the centre.
A man jumped from a power pole with a bed sheet around his neck, saying “I want to die,” and “I am tired of life”. A detainee held the man's weight while a guard tore the sheet. But in the mayhem, refugees say, a security guard punched a detainee in the mouth, damaging his teeth.
This incident has not led to any transparent investigation.
Australian and Nauruan security guards are working in the camp. The guards are becoming increasingly wary of refugees using the internet and phones. One refugee said that because he talked to people in Australia, two guards now watched him constantly.
The immigration department said on November 1 that four Iraqi and Iranian nationals had been “voluntarily” deported from Nauru. This follow several groups of refugees from Sri Lanka that have decided they could not face more time on Nauru and were returned to Sri Lanka.
The government claims these are steps forward, but in truth it shows how brutal Australia's refugee policy is. It is designed to make refugees’ lives even worse than the conditions from which they are fleeing.
The federal Labor government has lurched even further to the right on refugees, putting forward amendments to the Migration Act to excise the entire Australian continent from the migration zone. This allows the government to process all refugees that arrive in Australia by boat in offshore locations.
Former PM John Howard had to abandon the same policy in 2006 due to a Liberal backbench revolt. At the time, Labor strongly opposed it, with now-immigration minister Chris Bowen calling it “a bad bill with no redeeming feature" and "a stain on our national character”.