Whistleblowers challenge Border Force Act

August 5, 2015
The cost of keeping someone in detention on Nauru is about $530,000 a year, 10 times what it would cost to look after a person i

It was standing room only as more than 250 people packed an auditorium in Sydney, to hear speakers discuss conditions in the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.

As speaking about conditions in these detention centres has now been criminalised by the federal government's Border Force Act, the three speakers were whistleblowers. Two speakers, who had worked in or visited the detention centres, risk prosecution.

Michael Dudley is a lecturer in psychology. Dudley said the Border Force Act emphasised security and secrecy over welfare. Holding children in detention is child abuse. The problem was the system of detention and "there is nothing that can be done to remediate it". Individuals working in the camps who wanted to improve matters were "powerless in this hostile environment".

Alana Maycock is a nurse who specialises in refugee health and infectious diseases. She had recently spent time on Nauru, and spoke about conditions for families and children in detention. She described the tents that people had to live in, mouldy from the high humidity and sweltering in temperatures of up to 50°C.

Maycock quoted the cost of keeping someone in detention on Nauru as about $530,000 a year, 10 times what it would cost to look after a person in the community in Australia.

She described the reports of rats and poor sanitation in the camp. Some of the tents were 120 metres from the toilets. Some women were incontinent, something she had not come across in normal nursing, unless the woman had a medical condition. She put this down to trauma and having to walk past the guards on the way to the toilet.

Maycock described the supervised showers, where women and children were separated from the male guards only by a thin curtain. She believed these were conditions "that lent themselves to the abuse of women and children". Because of a shortage of water on the island, showers were restricted to two minutes, but she had heard of cases of a longer shower being offered by guards in return for sexual favours.

She asked a nurse why detainees were referred to by their boat number and was told: "there are too many Muhammeds”. This is not a problem in the Australian population with common names where the last name and date of birth are used. But, said Maycock, it is easier to mistreat and dehumanise people when they are called by a number, not their name.

She had a "dark, chilling feeling of lawlessness" in the Nauru detention centre, where guards had "free reign to behave as they liked". She remembered a six-year-old girl with marks around her neck where she had tried to hang herself with fence ties, and a seven-year-old clinging to her, begging her to put her face on the internet to let people know she was there.

Maycock told of sleepless nights wondering what she should do. "Breaking our contract was one thing, but the Border Force Act was something else altogether." When 40 detention centre workers signed an open letter to the government, protesting against the criminalising of whistleblowers, she decided she had to speak out.

Nicole Judge is a former worker on Nauru and Manus Island and a participant in the new series of Go Back To Where You Came From on SBS. Judge applied for the job on Nauru advertised by the Salvation Army, believing that the experience would be "amazing".

She described the distress of those imprisoned there. Sixty Sri Lankans did not know why some from their boat had been sent to Nauru and others had been sent to Australia. The staff were also distressed, as they did not understand their role. She stayed at Nauru until after the riot of July 2013. She remembered papers being shredded by Wilson Security in the aftermath.

Judge was transferred to Manus Island. She told the audience that while conditions on Nauru were bad, Manus Island "was a whole different ball game". On one occasion she witnessed an inmate beaten unconscious by a guard. She made an official complaint but was then physically threatened by Papua New Guinea police to force her to change her account. The injured man sustained a broken cheekbone and collarbone.

Judge told the audience that if they were arguing with someone over conditions in the detention centres, to ask why would staff have to sign confidentiality agreements, if not to keep conditions in the camps secret.

One audience member asked: "What should we do ... sign another petition?" The response from the chair was she could act collectively with the Refugee Action Coalition that met every Monday at 6pm at the NSW Teachers Federation.

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