Asylum seekers at Nauru. Photo: Angela Wylie
With the swearing-in of Australia's new Border Force officials on Wednesday, the new Border Force Act came into being, along with its controversial secrecy provisions. This act forbids "entrusted persons" such as doctors, teachers and other staff working at Australia's detention centres from speaking out about 'protected information'. If they go public about what they witness in the centres without the express permission of the government, they could be jailed for two years. Although the government claims the Act is not intended to gag whistleblowers speaking out in the public interest, the signatories of Wednesday's open letter are (understandably given its record on the treatment of Save The Children staff and Gillian Triggs) not convinced.
"This government is one renowned as a bully boy government," paediatrician and whistleblower Dr David Isaacs told AAP. "If the government is saying it's us being paranoid, then why did they pass the bill?"
Whether prosecution occurs or not, the threat is there and its aim is undoubtedly to chill the flow of information. Any way you look at it, this is a dark moment for Australian democracy; but what's even darker is the fact that workers have already been blowing the whistle on the horrors of our offshore detention centres for two years now and nothing - not murder, not rape, not the sexual and psychological abuse of children, has been deemed an evil enough result for the government to change its mind, for the opposition to drop its bipartisan support for mandatory offshore detention, or for this policy of deterrence to lose favour with the Australian public. The idea that the boats have been "stopped" by indefinitely incarcerating people who've committed no crime continues to be lauded as one of the few great "achievements" of the Abbott government's first term. Never mind the cost.
Swearing in the new Border Force, Tony Abbott made it clear that from the government's perspective, these officials are doing 'God's work'. "You have a heavy responsibility, you have a challenging job," he said. "May God bless you, may God bless your work, may God bless the country you are helping to protect and prosper."
With these blessings in mind, it's worth reminding ourselves of what workers have already told us about what's been going on at our offshore detention centres for the past two years.
1. Manus Island not fit to "serve as a dog kennel" with instances of rape and sexual abuse known to staff - July 2013
The former Head of Occupational Health and Safety at Manus Island, Rod St George, told SBS' Dateline the facility isn't fit to "serve as a dog kennel" and working there made him "ashamed to be Australian". He also described instances of rape and sexual abuse that were known to staff, and how victims were forced to remain in tents with perpetrators. This was two years ago.
2. Manus Island's processing system 'fake', Reza Barati's death consistent with centre's 'active creation of horror' - February 2014
Elizabeth Thompson, former migration agent on Manus Island, was the first to resign after the protests and subsequent violence that left Reza Berati dead. She told Dateline that the 'processing system' at the centre was fake, and described Manus Island as "the active creation of horror in order to secure deterrence." As such, she said "Reza Barati's death is not some kind of crisis for the department, it's an opportunity to extend that logic one step further."
3. A security guard exposes horrendous conditions on Manus Island, says guards are regularly having to cut down inmates trying to hang themselves - April 2014
The officer who did not wish to be named described Manus Island as a "horrendous chicken pen" and said guards are regularly cutting down inmates who are trying to hang themselves, before herding them into "tin sheds" to recover.
4. Authorities sending sick children to Manus Island despite being told it has insufficient medical facilities - April 2014
Dr John Valentine, a former International Health and Medical Services worker who worked on Manus Island, told Four Corners that despite warning authorities the Manus Island camp did not have sufficient medical supplies and equipment to care for children, authorities still sent children with chronic medical conditions to the camp.
5. Bloodshed an inevitable outcome on Manus Island camp - April 2014
Steve Kilburn, former G4S security guard, told Four Corners that within a week of arriving at Manus Island he knew that the only possible outcome was bloodshed. His account of what happened on the night of the deadly protest is harrowing. "What we are doing up there is too much," he said, "Regardless of what your beliefs are, regardless of what you believe about the policies of the previous government or this government, what is going on in Manus Island is cruel, unnecessarily cruel, and wrong."
6. Manus Island guards inadequately trained, incompetence rife - April 2014
Former Manus Island G4S Guard Martin Appleby spoke to The Guardian about the poor training security guards received and the incompetence and chaos with which the centre was run.
7. The Immigration Department attempted to cover up statistics showing the alarming rates of child mental health problems - April 2014
Chief psychiatrist Dr Peter Young tells the Australian Human Rights Commission inquiry the government asked for figures to be withdrawn from reporting.
8. The immigration department deliberately sets out to make asylum seekers suffer - August 2014
Dr Peter Young told The Guardian that the psychological harm being done to detainees cannot be mitigated "because the system is designed to create a negative mental state. It's designed to produce suffering. If you suffer, then it's punishment. If you suffer, you're more likely to agree to go back to where you came from. By reducing the suffering you're reducing the functioning of the system and the system doesn't want you to do that.
"Everybody knows that the harm is being caused and the system carries on. Everybody accepts that this is the policy and the policy cannot change. And everybody accepts that the only thing you can do is work within the parameters of the policy."
9. Medical team speaks out against the "appalling" conditions on Nauru - February 2015
A paediatrician, a nurse and another doctor detail the shocking conditions women and children are subjected to, including a shortage of sanitary items for women who are menstruating, along with a lack of privacy and poor washing and toilet facilities in general. It's so bad women as well as children are wetting the bed at night because they are afraid to use the toilets.
10. Nauru guards paid for sex with asylum seekers and filmed it - June 2015
Charlotte Wilson, a former senior social worker on Nauru, alleges security guards circulated videos of themselves having sex with asylum seekers who they had paid to participate. She says she was told that "because prostitution is legal on Nauru that no action was being taken against the staff members involved." Be interested to find out if Australian prisons treat guard-inmate relations the same way.
11. Children on Nauru are identifying more with their boat number than with their names - June 2015
A submission to an ongoing Senate inquiry said children are signing artworks with their IDs instead of their names, blaming Wilson security staff for refusing to use names either out of insufficient training or a deliberate intent to be cruel. "Boat IDs were even used when the employee talking to an asylum seeker had a piece of paper in front of him/her which specified the asylum seeker's name."
This is not an exhaustive list of the claims that have been made by Australians whose experience working on Manus Island and Nauru have compelled them to come forward and speak out about the shocking things they've witnessed. Nevertheless it paints a dire picture, not just of what goes on at these camps, offshore and out of sight, but of what we've now become comfortable with looking away from, fully aware that it goes on, in the name of the most banal of outcomes: stopping the boats.
Border Force Act or no, doctors and staff on Manus Island and Nauru will continue to speak out about the horrors we are inflicting on innocent, vulnerable people who sought our protection. The question is: when will we start to listen?