While the offshore processing and detention centres on Nauru and Manus island have been central to political discourse in Australia over the past few years, the conditions on the islands have largely escaped scrutiny. Occasionally someone will speak out, but on the whole journalists have been barred entry. When I was attempting to go to Manus Island with the Salvation Army last year (I was rejected on health grounds), it was made crystal clear that I was not allowed to speak to the media about the conditions there (they were initially hesitant to take me after they found out I work at a radio station). In order for the Salvos to continue to support Asylum Seekers on Nauru and Manus Island they obviously need to remain on good terms with the powers that be. I do know a few people who did go, but while they are willing to speak to me as a friend about the horrendous conditions they witnessed, they have all refused my requests for an interview or to go on record. However, since Saturday’s massive riot at the Nauru detention centre, that reportedly caused $60 million in damage, a press release has been released by a group claiming to be “current and former” Salvation Army staff from the centres. Here are some of the juicier (read: horrendous) bits:
“this riot although shocking, was an inevitable outcome from a cruel and degrading policy. Since the opening of the Nauru Regional Processing Centre (NRPC) there have been incidents of unrest that have reoccurred in escalating seriousness. Salvation Army staff in Nauru have been predicting such a tragedy for a long time.”
“We watched their numerous peaceful protests against the uncertainty of their future. We saw the scars of self-harm, and suicide attempts. We tried to motivate the hundreds of men on hunger strike to eat again.”
“Countless men have suffered physically and psychologically. The mental health impact of detention in this harsh physical and policy environment cannot be overstated. The service providers in Nauru have been unable to prevent the marked deterioration in health in wellbeing. Previously healthy, resilient men have been worn down. We have witnessed a man scrabbling in the dirt, suffering a psychotic breakdown for several days without treatment, read another man’s suicide note apologising to his family, and seen countless others who suffered similar mental breakdowns. Thousands of tax-payers dollars have been spent on flying asylum seekers to the Australian mainland for medical treatment on ailments suffered in detention.”
“The support and kindness that the men detained in Nauru offered to each other and the staff never wavered, even in the face of increasing injustice and frustration. There are countless examples of their good nature, not withholding the Tamils indicted in this current unrest. The Tamils who were always the men who put their arm around you in a friendly gesture and assisted in labour with no thought of reward.”
“The most recent incident in Nauru was not borne out of malice. It was a build up of pressure and anxiety over ten months of degrading treatment, and a planned peaceful protest that degenerated. It was a reaction to a refugee processing system that is devoid of logic and fairness. While we do not condone these actions and are horrified by what has happened, we can understand the frustration and the anger that led to such a demonstration. We would also like to offer our sympathies to the Nauruan people who have suffered during this period.”
“For those people who sit outside of Nauru, who have never met an asylum seeker, it is easy to judge these men as dangerous, destructive or ungrateful. But anyone who has worked in Nauru will see them as the desperate souls they are. Fathers, sons, brothers, who are trying to forge a life for themselves and their family. Frustrated and down-trodden by the degrading bureaucracy implemented by our government.”
Hopefully this can awaken a debate about what exactly we are doing to the people held indefinitely. So far around 125 of the close to 600 Asylum Seekers previously held on Nauru have been arrested for Saturday’s riot. Is it really possible that a quarter of Asylum Seekers are criminals (the general trend is 90% are found to be genuine refugees), or is this just what our policy has (allegedly) turned them into?