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Byron Shire
December 4, 2023

A rare inside peek inside the hell of Manus and Nauru

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Mia Armitage

‘What you will hear truly is about a lack of human rights,’ said Frederika Steen AM on a late May Saturday morning in sunny South Brisbane.

Ms Steen, a refugee advocate, spoke to around 40, mostly baby boomers, with some wearing bright yellow t-shirts emblazoned with Refugee Action Collective (RAC) logos.

For the next six hours they listened to eyewitness accounts of asylum seeker conditions in Australia’s offshore centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Australians sent to work in the former detention centres – now officially called regional processing centres – risk imprisonment for speaking to anyone, let alone media, about their experiences in the privately run camps.

Photo Al Jazeera
Photo Al Jazeera

Media censorship

Reporters are still denied entry to the centres, and in January 2014 Nauruan parliamentarians voted to increase journalist visa fees to a non-refundable $8,000 and lawyer fees to $6,000.

And in the 18 months up to October, 2015, the Nauruan government did not approve any visa applications from journalists.

In October 2016, the Nauruan government said in a press release, ‘The refugee advocates and extreme left activist-journalists will never be satisfied and [will] spew vitriol in the direction of the journalists who have visited Nauru and [who] report accurately, respectfully and objectively.’

‘Nauru refuses to be used by them to help them further their political campaign against the Australian government.’

Yet Nauru have staged their own managed media events.

Psychologist and trauma expert Paul Stevenson, who counselled Wilsons security guards on Nauru and Manus Island on behalf of PsyCare in 2014 and 2015, told the gathering that Today Tonight reporters (Channel Nine) were invited to the island by the Nauruan government.

Stevenson said he was invited to appear the next morning on breakfast TV, but the invitation was retracted when he expressed his disgust at the misleading footage.

‘Children were “scrubbed up” and put in “party dresses” and the crew filmed staff quarters under the impression they were asylum seeker facilities’, he said.

‘They had whitewashed the report to show us, the Australian public, that this was a holiday camp.’

Stevenson received an Order of Australia Medal for his support work after the Bali bombings and was the lead whistleblower of ‘the Nauru files’, a 2016 leakage of more than 2000 incident reports to The Guardian.

He told press at the time he was sacked via email shortly after publicly saying Australia’s offshore processing regime was the worst atrocity he had seen in his 40-year career.

The dismissal came after 16 deployments to Manus Island and Nauru between 2014 and 2015.


Overcrowding on Manus

A smuggled photograph that Stevenson said could not be published under his name, showed two small huts from the soon to be closed Foxtrot compound on Manus Island.

Stevenson told the crowd four men were housed in each two-metre-squared windowless cubicle.

The rooms were not big enough for men to simultaneously get changed and when they draped bed linen over the bunks to create privacy, staff said they were “wank sheets” and removed them, he said.

‘On the other side of those huts there is a large pond and that is the sewage,’ said Stevenson.

‘The whole camp is an open sewer, it stinks to high hell’.

It’s a view supported by Amnesty International; when officials visited Manus Island in 2013 they reported 1,100 men in a 2.5 acre space subsisting on 500mL of water a day.

More recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told members of the federal parliamentary Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee (LCARC) that refugees were allocated ‘Just… half the minimum amount of space required under international prison standards’.

And in October 2016, members of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said children and families were ‘vulnerable to dehydration and other serious health problems’.

The LCARC report, released in April, states, ‘Discrepancies remain between evidence by the department and witnesses about how much clean drinking water was available to refugees and asylum seekers.’

The ‘no advantage principle’

Stevenson continued, ‘The Australian government won’t allow [asylum seekers] any more degree of comfort than they experienced in the countries from which they came and so they can have no advantage.’

‘That’s why they’re in white vinyl tents in 40-degree heat.’

It’s known as the ‘no advantage’ principle.

Staff from Transfield (now Broadspectrum), the company paid to run the centres on Nauru and Manus Island, told officers from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in February 2015 tented accommodation on Nauru failed to meet Australian Mould Guidelines, with more than 10 metres square of visible mould growth in all tents.

The LCARC report says, ‘The department agreed that mould is a persistent problem in tented accommodation.’

Other government information online confirms a ‘no advantage’ principle was introduced to asylum seeker policy in 2012 upon recommendation from an expert panel advising former prime minister Julia Gillard.

Barefoot and bitten on Manus

Food was ‘inedible’ in the Manus Island centre, Stevenson said.

Kitchen staff often added ‘foreign objects’ to meals and would spit and/or urinate in them, he said.

‘The [asylum seekers] also described food rotting quickly in the high heat, and the infestation of food with insects… these claims reflect similar evidence presented to the committee in December 2014,’ the LCARC April report stated.

Disease-carrying mosquitoes were rife, particularly in an isolated swamp area used as a medical centre called Chaulka, said Stevenson.

Staff wore long-sleeved shirts, trousers and enclosed shoes but asylum seekers wore shorts and t-shirts and went barefoot, he said.

Stevenson said the special concrete gravel used in the compound wore out donated thongs after about two weeks of use.

Chaulka: The Manus Island swamp hospital

‘I actually worked with a man who broke into tears and pleaded with me to not let them take him to Chaulka,’ said Mr Stevenson.

‘It was almost a “leper colony”.’

The LCARC April report confirmed Manus Island centre staff needing medical treatment initially received ‘the same standard of care…. as would refugees and asylum seekers attending the clinic’.

‘But there was another use for [what was commonly called] The Swamp,’ said Mr Stevenson.

Journalists including David Marr and Ben Doherty have described a number of ‘critical incidents’ in The Swamp, said Stevenson.

‘People [were] taken down there and tortured to get them to behave, to not be ring leaders, not to incite others’, he said.

‘Particularly after the February 2011 riots, people were systematically taken down there and systematically broken.’

‘There’s a book to be written just on the atrocities that occurred at Chaulka.’


Nauru: an island paradise rubbish dump

Stevenson says nothing grows on Nauru; it’s a phosphate mushroom dangling in the Pacific Ocean.

He described Nauru as a “moonscape” covered in decades-old litter including rusted cars and abandoned mining equipment.

There is no fresh water, proper sewage outside the asylum seeker camp or natural electricity supply on the island. Millions of water bottles were provided for staff in the processing centre while asylum seekers drank from desalination tanks, Stevenson said.

‘Nothing ever leaves Nauru,’ he said, adding that certain supermarkets sent expired food products to the island.

Grey daze

‘When they run out of fuel [supplied by Australia], which is often, everything goes dark,’ Stevenson said.

Yet stargazing on Nauru was impossible owing to a constant haze of dust fogging the sky and when Stevenson shared a photograph of the sun setting over the ocean, all that could be seen was a dim ball of grey light.

‘You never see the sun,’ he said.

Asylum seekers on Nauru are now theoretically allowed to come and go as they please from the camp but Stevenson said ‘mad dogs are everywhere, you’re taking your life in your hands if you walk anywhere in Nauru for fear of packs of wild dogs’.

Australia Director of Human Rights Watch Elaine Pearson told the LCARC women and young girls rarely leave the camp alone for fear of harassment and violence.


Instant cops on Nauru

Another featured speaker at the Brisbane event, Mark Isaacs, was in the Nauru centre for nine months from September 2012 as an untrained social worker for the Salvation Army. He has written two books based on his accrued knowledge: The Undesirables and Nauru Burning.

Isaacs said a colleague asked him to write about the 2013 Nauru riot because he was ‘horrified’ by the way Australian and Nauruan authorities treated male asylum seekers in the aftermath but was ‘too frightened of the repercussions’ to speak up himself.

Other colleagues were reportedly too traumatised to discuss the time a small group of asylum seekers used whatever fuel they could find to burn down the buildings in the centre.

‘The Nauruan president announced that [Nauruan citizens] had to go to the police station, swear themselves as voluntary police officers and go up to the camps to defend their island,’ Isaacs said.

‘So they came with bats and poles and weapons and they attacked people.’

‘We had [male asylum seekers] evacuating the camp, hoping to be helped by the security guards but instead being stripped into their underwear and arrested and being taken off to the prison in Nauru.’

Arbitrary arrests

Arrests seemed to be ‘arbitrary’, Isaacs said, based upon whether or not guards said they’d ‘seen [people] cause trouble before’.

‘One security guard said “we cordoned people off into the guilty and the perceived not guilty”.’

‘They arrested as many people as they could up until the point where they tried to arrest someone and they were told the jails [were] full.’

More than 150 men were arrested.

Isaacs said the investigation, ‘was run, more or less, by the Wilsons security company and not the Nauruan police force.’

The ensuing legal ‘process lasted a year or two since the actual incident, when people were kept in detention under… dubious charges and eventually every single person who was ever charged originally on the day or in weeks after was let off’.

The Nauruan Supreme Court later found the investigation lacked due process and procedural fairness.

Other complaints about the cops

Amnesty International representatives told the LCARC in the April report of other incidents whereby Nauruan ‘police had [allegedly] torn up a refugee’s written statement, forcing them to sign a statement the police had pre-written, robbed asylum seekers, and assaulted them’.

‘Amnesty International submitted that on several occasions, authorities on Nauru have engaged in inappropriate practices in relation to children.

‘It alleged that in 2015 the Nauru police force hired a convicted paedophile as a reserve officer, and that a young girl had been questioned by police twice without a child protection specialist having been present.’

Suicide attempts on Nauru

‘It’s not an overstatement to say that 1,200 people on Nauru would attempt suicide each week and it would take 600 security officers to stop them’, said Stevenson.

The psychologist said the number was about 400 times Australian averages.

‘That’s because places of incarceration provide absolutely nothing for which the asylum seekers can use to protest except their own bodies,’ he said.

‘I’ve seen people hang [from] fences using a chux rag.’

‘Common suicide attempts involve drinking of toxic fluids like bleach, laundry powders, detergents, soap, finding anything they can that might give them an opportunity to try to kill themselves.

‘Very primitive suicide methods are choking. Imagine trying to choke yourself… head butting, swallowing rocks and stones and if you can hang around where builders are, after they’ve left in their negligence, pick up nails and screws that you can also ingest, knowing full well that it might be a long and painful experience.

‘There are some very primitive attempts on a daily basis.’

Mr Stevenson submitted evidence to the recent LCARC investigation.

‘Several [other] individuals interviewed by the Stanford Law Clinic also described widespread self-harm, alleging that self-harm was ‘everyday business’ in the RPC, and depression was a constant battle,’ the LCARC report stated.

Critical incidents downgraded

Critical incidents such as suicide attempts had to be reported to Transfield’s Melbourne office within three hours, Stevenson said.

He said Transfield executives fined Wilsons security an $80,000 fine for each belated critical incident report.

Major incidents were to be reported within 24 hours and minor incidents within three days.

‘What I found was a systematic downgrading of incidents… [including] life threatening incidents’, said Stevenson.

He said he found 37 incidents that met criteria for critical classification but were downgraded when reported.

Actual self-harm

Members of the LCARC found 62 recorded instances of ‘actual self-harm’ between 2014 and 2015.

Aslyum seekers had reportedly poured petrol over themselves, drunken insect repellent and/or cleaning fluids, swallowed screws and/or stones, taken baby bottle sterilising tablets, cut and/or hung themselves, the April report stated.

Centre staff variously rated the 62 self-harm incidents as critical, major, minor or information.

But DIBP officials told the LCARC ‘the classification of incidents is generally appropriate’, and that ‘there was no indication of systemic issues such as the deliberate downgrading of severity’.

Doctors For Refugees representatives told the LCARC they were ‘aware of claims of sexual assault and abuse against children… where there was no evidence that [centre staff] had escalated the claim’.

The LCARC report has recommended an external audit and investigation ‘into all incident reports over the life of the Transfield Pty Ltd and Broadspectrum Australia Pty Ltd contracts at the Manus Island and Nauru Regional Processing Centres, including an analysis of:

(a) incidents which were downgraded in severity; and

(b) any inconsistencies in relation to incidents being downgraded in severity; and

(c) evidence of follow-up activities in relation to reported incidents’.

Another government inquiry

The LCARC April report, available online, was called ‘Serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect of asylum seekers in relation to the Nauru Regional Processing Centre, and any like allegations in relation to the Manus Regional Processing Centre’.

The LCARC held six public hearings around Australia in the lead-up to the report and referred to 61 submissions.

‘Some [regional processing centre] workers may have risked prosecution under Australian law by providing evidence,’ stated the report.

‘The committee heard evidence about widespread allegations of abuse and neglect both within RPCs, and in the Nauruan and Papua New Guinean communities.

‘The committee also heard that self-harm and suicidal ideation among refugees and asylum seekers of all ages is extremely common.

Duty of care

LCARC chair senator Louise Pratt (ALP, WA) described the report in her introduction as ‘deeply concerning’.

‘Collectively, these reports paint the picture of a deeply troubled asylum seeker and refugee population, and an unsafe living environment—especially for children,’ she wrote.

‘The Australian government clearly has a duty of care in relation to the asylum seekers who have been transferred to Nauru or Papua New Guinea. To suggest otherwise is fiction.

‘Secondly, the secrecy surrounding RPC operations must cease.

‘Thirdly, a much greater degree of transparency is needed in relation to the costs of administering this policy and the services provided as part of any contracts.’

But after a similar review on offshore asylum seeker conditions in 2015, former prime minister Tony Abbott said ‘there is absolutely no place in any institution with which the Australian government has any association whatsoever for the kind of activities that were found’.

The AHRC recommended at the time for all children and their families in immigration detention to be released into the Australian community within four weeks of the tabling of the Moss Review and for new legal limits on the detention of children.

Two years later, children and their families are still living in camps on Nauru at the expense of the Australian government while politicians and DIBP officials deny responsibility for all asylum seekers there and on Manus Island.

Company executives in charge of Broadspectrum and Wilsons Security have publicly stated they will not be renewing contracts with the Australian government to run the centres.

Echonetdaily offered to send the draft of this story through to Broadspectrum for comment but they declined to provide an email address and did not reply by deadline.

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  1. Some of their stories will be read at Lennox Head on the beachfront, near the bus stop on Sunday, June 18 at 11am to mark the beginning of refugee week. The authors of the stories are people in on and offshore detention. They have written about their reasons for leaving their homelands and their experiences since trying to reach safety here in Australia. Our aim is to give them a voice because our government has silenced them and tried to make them invisible for so long.
    We’ll also be entertained by local group Bronny and the Bishops.
    Please join us to stand for them where they cannot. Also learn how you can help.

  2. I’m a Nauruan and I do find parts of this article true especially about the way the Nauru Government have gone mental themselves in handling the media and the complaints of asylum seeeker , refugees the workers and lawyers.
    i have replied to similar articles like this in the past to give the other side of the stories like how some of the refugee stories should be taken with a grain of salt. I have also spoken to several media directly like the ABC and the Guardian and though they listen to my side of the story they only publish the refugees side of the story. I only wish this Nauru government would grow a pair and allow freedom of the press to come here and report first hand and take all the criticism on the chin and sought out any issues that needs to be done.

  3. Wat the heck does paul Stevenson mean by the zany description of Nauru as a phosphate mushroom dangling in the sea?

  4. Also, his (Stevenson’s) strange, incorrect, comments about never seeing the sun, and packs of mad dogs everywhere, make it sound as if he never went out of doors at all.


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