Save The Children not saving anyone

September 10, 2016
NGO’s face pressure to compromise to get contracts to provide services in detention centres.


So ends, in thunderous capital letters, another red alarm narrative on Nauru — a child assaulted with punishing force by a security guard. Two companies report the incident as in the “red range” and pipe the information back into the boarder protection central database, seemingly adrift in the digital cloud. This is the micro-story author Richard Flanagan calls the anguished literature of our troubled era — stories that are never reported publicly, even by charities such as Save The Children.

In these recently leaked stories — which immigration minister Peter Dutton refers to as fictional — NGOs play a subservient role to the state. In a revolving door situation, NGOs have come and gone from detention centres over the past 20 years. And while the progressive campaigners focus on corporations delivering unethical contracts, slowly activists are questioning the role of NGOs on the islands or, as many now referred to them, Australia’s Gulags.

Like many NGOS before it, Save The Children is the latest case study of an NGO contracted into the supply chain with good intentions, but set to leave the detention sector under a cloud of controversy. Having tendered and won the $36 million contract in 2013, Save The Children began education, recreation and child protection services at Manus Island and Nauru.

Calling itself a social enterprise one year and a charity the next, Save The Children’s vision is “a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development, and participation”. Management continued with supply chain services even as Dutton had Save The Children employees arrested and removed.

The fiercest faultfinder of Save The Children’s three years in “the abuse supply chain” is RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees. The lack of public disclosure by Save The Children, post-exit from the detention centre sector, culminated in RISE sending a formal letter in late August with pressing questions for the Save The Children — Australia & Overseas board of directors. These same international directors have faced remuneration scandals, fossil fuel conflicts of interests and their disastrous 2014 award to one of the drivers of the refugee crisis: Tony Blair.

The hard-hitting RISE letter states: “The purpose of this letter is to address the continued lack of accountability in Save The Children — Australia’s role in the Australian government’s abusive, human rights violating asylum seeker trafficking and detention supply chain in Manus and Nauru …

“We are appalled by the apparent hypocrisy in the actions of your organisation publicly condemning the detention of children, while accepting lucrative sums of money from DIBP [Department of Immigration and Border Protection], the very same abusers of both adults and children from our community, with the children under your care being caged and abused, rather than being saved.”

No formal response has been forthcoming — which is typical of the NGO sector.

Ramesh Fernandez from RISE told Green Left Weekly: "NGO agencies, such as Save the children and Salvation army, have held contracts for years in detention centres. There can be a culture of silence or secrecy and lack of accountability.”

Save The Children board members, including a Corporate Social Responsibility academic, declined to speak with Green Left Weekly on the record.

Green Left Weekly has uncovered that a corporation that provides military ships to the Department of Defence is the employer of one board member.

This is critical because one of the specific questions RISE asks is: “Paul Ronalds, the CEO of Save The Children — Australia, publicly urged refugee advocates to accept asylum seeker boat turnbacks are here to stay. Considering the fact that the operation of boat turnbacks endangers the lives of asylum seekers does your organisation endorse this compromise of human lives, including the lives of children?”

In 2013–16 Save The Children workers revolted against their management. Whistleblower Viktoria Vibhakar, a former Save The Children aid worker, appeared in the US media last month, recounting horrific stories of life on Nauru. "Three days into my first rotation on Nauru there was an adolescent boy who had been sexually assaulted. The child was living in fear of this sexual assault being repeated not just to him but to his mother who was living without a partner in the detention facility."

Vibhaker informed Save The Children management that a cleaner was accused by the family of committing the assault. “And see what was really amazing to me is here was a Save The Children manager there and she told me at the time that this person was going to be moved to a different detention facility within Nauru but that he wasn't going to be fired. And she said this just as a matter of, this was just normal, you have to accept it, this is just the way it is."

Save The Children — Australia’s Director of Policy Mat Tinkler responded: “Staff observed that kind of incident. We would alert the government, we would alert all the service providers, but ultimately it was a matter for the government then, what they did with that information. It wasn't a matter for us to determine.”

Whether it was the threat of the federal government’s two-year jail term for speaking out or fear of losing the multi-million-dollar contract, somewhat righteously Save The Children management admits to withholding crucial evidence from the 2016 Human Rights Commission hearing. Save The Children terminated Vibhakar’s job, as she admitted she consciously chose to “make a report, an anonymous report to the Human Rights Commission detailing the abuse and systemic violations of human rights of children and families on Nauru and I attached several thousand pages of documentation as well and I sent it to the commission."

RISE is calling for a bottom up boycott by calling on teachers, doctors, nurses, unionists and public advocates to boycott jobs in detention centres.

“For 23 years the minute welfare agencies walk into the camps, abuse is normalised. The non-profit sector is simply not accountable,” said Fernandez.

While many in the welfare sector might disagree, “being there hasn’t helped solve the issue over 23 years,” said Fernandez. “The social sphere is there to support people. How are you going help someone when they are being tortured or held in isolation?

“If you don’t know about the camps and what you are signing up for with the job, where have you been living for the past 23 years? Doctors and nurses and teachers are not high school students. They know about the abuses.

"Doctors, nurses, teachers — just say no. Boycott the jobs.”

Jobs may now only come from corporations as controversy has seen the charity sector and Save The Children out-tendered by Transfield (now known as BroadSpectrum) with an omnipresent $1.2 billion contract that covers catering, cleaning, security (to a subcontracted partner) and welfare.

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