Asylum seekers and the audacity of ignorance

Maybe the intruders on the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Facebook page with their comments featured below might care to see this before they pass their judgements.

(Please note: As soon as this episode is on YouTube we will embed it here)

“NO ADVANTAGE” – Monday 29 April 2013

KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: Two remote tropical islands. Six hundred and ninety nine asylum seekers, trapped in a sea of misery and discontent.

ASYLUM SEEKERS: “We want freedom! We want freedom!”

STUART DAVEY, FORMER NAURU CENTRE WORKER: Some men were hanging themselves. There was a constant fear of men cutting themselves.

JOHN VALLENTINE, FORMER DOCTOR, MANUS ISLAND DETENTION CENTRE: For the first time in my life I felt ashamed to be an Australian, up there.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Inside Australia’s off shore refugee processing centres, welcome to Four Corners.

Little more than five years ago the newly elected Rudd Government pledged to quickly dismantle the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution, to stop the flow of asylum seekers. When Manus Island and Nauru were closed down a few months later, the then Immigration Minister Chris Evans, stated that quote: “The Pacific Solution was a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise.

Today the ghosts of the past are back with a vengeance. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has reopened the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres in an effort to stem the growing number of boat arrivals. You can argue whether this decision was cynical, but it’s already proved very costly and it’s definitely not successful. Since off shore processing began in August last year, 15,543 people have arrived in 259 boats. Seven hundred are on Manus or Nauru and the cost is heading into the billions. There are other echoes from the past. Trenchant criticisms of conditions and broken international governance. And in this program, heart wrenching descriptions of suffering people including children, from distressed staff at the centres, and from inmates themselves. Here’s another thing that hasn’t changed with government. Media access to these camps is severely limited, and the Immigration Minister, the third in five years has simply refused to front up for an interview.

Tonight with the assistance of some staff and hidden cameras we take you inside the centres. The reporter is Debbie Whitmont.

DEBBIE WHITMONT, REPORTER: It’s a Friday night and after six months on Manus Island, the Salvation Army’s Major Paul Moulds is back in Sydney, giving a service to the poor and the homeless.

(Audience clapping)

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Tonight it’s dedicated to asylum seekers.

MAJOR PAUL MOULDS, SALVATION ARMY: They have a special place in the heart of god. Do you know that?

(Band plays)

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Since last September, Paul Moulds has been the Salvation Army’s Director of Offshore Missions in Nauru and Manus Island.

(Church goers singing and clapping)

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Salvation Army has a $75 million contract with the Australian government. And it’s bound by a confidentiality agreement. But Paul Moulds is disturbed by what he’s seen. He’s decided to speak exclusively to Four Corners.

BAND FRONT MAN: Welcome to church…

PAUL MOULDS: I’ve worked in homelessness in Australia for almost my whole career, particularly with young people. I tell you I’ve had some hard days and I’ve seen some pretty ah difficult things in that role, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder job as ah, what this called for as we work with asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Paul Moulds isn’t alone.

JOHN VALLENTINE: The whole time I was there it was it was just a disaster, medically.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: For months, there’ve been children and sick adults detained on Manus Island, despite warnings from a doctor they should never have been sent there.

JOHN VALLENTINE: These people really ought not be there. They ought not be in Manus Island. It’s just ah too remote and the medical facilities are quite inadequate.

PAUL MOULDS: Look can I say quite honestly, the people I work with on the island from government and from the host countries I don’t think they want to injure asylum seekers. I don’t think they want to see more damage done to them. But Australia has to determine, it has to weigh up the consequences of what it’s doing, it has to think deeply, and I hope there is a really um you know reasoned and logical and intelligent debate about this policy.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Australia reintroduced offshore processing last year. After two asylum boats sank in one week, and more than 90 people died, the government gave an expert panel six weeks to find a way to stop the drownings.

ANGUS HOUSTON, EXPERT PANEL ON ASYLUM SEEKERS: We recommend a policy approach that is hard headed but not hard hearted. That is realistic not idealistic. That is driven by a sense of humanity as well as fairness.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Panel recommended regional processing and that Australia take more refugees. And there was a new principle called No Advantage.

ANGUS HOUSTON: We also believe that a No Advantage principle should apply whereby irregular migrants gain no benefit by choosing to circumvent regular migration mechanisms.

TV ADVERTISEMENT: There is no advantage in paying a people smuggler to travel to Australia.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The idea was to make regular migration more attractive, and to stop people coming on boats by sending them to Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

TV ADVERTISEMENT: Australia by boat? There is no advantage.

ANGUS HOUSTON: We think Nauru and Manus or Papa New Guinea will provide a greater discouragement effect than other places.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Under ‘No Advantage’, asylum seekers who came on boats would have to wait as long as other refugees to be resettled.

JULIA GILLARD, PRIME MINISTER: The whole Panel’s ethos, their outlook, their insight is that you need to equalise treatment for asylum seekers so you don’t get a better deal if you get on a boat. And as part of that they are saying the arrangements with Nauru and PNG should have those time frames built into them, so you don’t get a better deal if you get on a boat.

CHRIS BOWEN, FORMER IMMIGRATION MINISTER: From this point forward, anybody who comes by boat runs the risk of being transferred to an offshore processing place.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Its twelve years since I first reported on Australia’s detention system for Four Corners. Back then, we smuggled a video camera into this detention centre at Villawood to show for the first time what life was like behind the razor wire.

(Hidden camera vision inside Villawood, 2001)

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The images of a young boy so traumatised, he refused to eat or speak shocked Australians and sparked a public campaign to have children released from detention centres. In 2001, speaking from inside this detention centre, an Iraqi asylum seeker told us we were being kept in the dark.

AAMER SULTAN, IRAQI ASYLUM SEEKER: (Inaudible) these fences around are not to prevent us from escaping, these fences have been set to prevent you, the Australians, from approaching us. It’s pretty clear.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Twelve years on, the government’s changed but the policy is little different. Journalists and cameras are given restricted, if any access, to Australian detention centres. So once again, we’ve used smuggled cameras and inside witnesses to report on Australian detention. This time, off shore.

PROFESSOR GILLIAN TRIGGS, PRESIDENT, AUST HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION: It’s not as though we didn’t know what off shore processing could bring, but we know how dangerous and, and debilitating it was. We know the effect it had on people so I think there was a lot we knew before the panel ah um recommendations were implemented ah but I think frankly it was caught up in a political environment at the time and ah not enough serious thought was given to what the consequences were going to be.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The problem is that this time around, offshore processing hasn’t deterred asylum seekers. Instead, the number’s gone up, with more than 14,000 arriving since the policy began last August.

PAUL MOULDS: The feeling at the time was that this policy would lead to a significant decline in the boats and that most of the people who came after that date then therefore would be subject to offshore processing. Well in fact that didn’t happen.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Though nearly 700 people have been sent to Nauru and Manus Island, thousands who arrived over the same period have ended up in Australia. To those sent offshore, it looks like a lottery.

PAUL MOULDS: This issue causes a lot of distress amongst people. They feel unfairly treated. They can’t understand why this person is in the Australian community and they are, you know, they are here on one of the off shore processing islands.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Paul Moulds says that when people asked why they were sent offshore, he couldn’t explain it.

PAUL MOULDS: I have no idea why they’re there and their friend’s in Australia.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: A four and a half hour flight from Brisbane and almost on the Equator, you could easily blink, and miss Nauru. Only six kilometres long, and four wide. So small, that they have to close the main road whenever a plane lands. We went to find out more about what’s officially called the RPC or Refugee Processing Centre, better known by locals for the money some people are making.

JULIE OLSSON, NAURU ASSOC OF NON-GOVERNMENT ORGANISATIONS: We call it the revenue processing centre because I think that is the view of most people. We are milking the, the golden goose.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Though Nauru’s now one of the poorest countries in the world, it used to be one of the richest. Nauru’s blessing and it curse, are the marine deposits that gave the island the world’s highest grade phosphate. When Four Corners first visited in the early nineteen sixties, the island had been mined almost to extinction.

(Four Corners footage of Nauru mining, 1963)

FOUR CORNERS REPORTER, 1963: For more than fifty years now, ships have loaded at Nauru and returned to Australia, where the phosphate is processed into super and railed to hundreds of country centres.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Australia grew rich on tens of millions of pounds worth of Nauruan phosphate, paying the Nauruans only a few shillings a ton.

FOUR CORNERS REPORTER, 1963: Generations of farmers have enriched their land from spreaders drawn by horses, tractors, and now from the air. The wheat and the barley country, the grazing lands, in fact the whole of our agricultural economy depends on phosphate supplies from Nauru.

NAURU OFFICIAL: The Nauru Independence Act, 1967…

DEBBIE WHITMONT: When Nauru became independent, it made its own fortunes, and then lost them. Australia’s first John Howard era detention centre opened in 2001, and closed seven years later. When offshore detention was reintroduced last year, Nauru was given only a month to reopen it.

PAUL MOULDS: From the time that ah the policy was announced and the um – and things got moving, really we were on the island in weeks getting ready to receive the first transfers to the island.

KEIREN KEKE, FORMER NAURU FOREIGN MINISTER: We always felt that it was unrealistic. And we felt that it was pushing the, the boundaries. Um, it was, ah, ah, an imperative that came, ah, from Canberra.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Because of the rush, almost 400 men spent nearly five months in tents.

KEIREN KEKE: The tents were far from what we expected, far from what many people expected. And it wasn’t just the fact that it was tents, it was cramped, it is cramped, there’s minimal space between the tents.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Day time temperatures in the tents soared over 40 degrees, and then there were the torrential rains.

PAUL MOULDS: I don’t think Australia means to put people in hot tents and give them inadequate facilities. I think again, the need to start fast lead to decisions being made that um, that have made it difficult for people.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: There’s now more permanent accommodation, but Nauru says that, too, was done in a hurry.

KEIREN KEKE: The reality is that officials in Canberra raced on them, made plans, had plans funded, had materials bought, had buildings purchased and on the wharf and ready to go. We, we said that there’s deficiencies or there’s issues in the design, but by that stage it was too late to make major changes because the materials were on the way.

(Footage of protests in Nauru)

DEBBIE WHITMONT: But the real problem in the detention centre is the uncertainty of processing. Protests like this one, filmed on a camera smuggled in for Four Corners, have been going on weekly, often daily, since last October.

PROTESTERS: We want freedom! We want freedom!

PAUL MOULDS: They’re looking for processing information. What’s gonna happen to me? How long’s it gonna take? That’s the thing. That lack of clarity really causes them great anguish.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: What do you tell them?

PAUL MOULDS: Well I can’t tell them anything.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: These interviews were done for us secretly inside the detention centre.

(Footage inside detention centre)

ASYLUM SEEKER : I want to die. I don’t want to live more, because we don’t have anything to do here. Your questions doesn’t have answer, your fate is not clear, what will happen to you?

ASYLUM SEEKER II: As soon as we arrived here we started a hunger strike. It was very hard you know. After three days you wish for one drop of water. Not water, a drop of water. Every second you wish for one drop of water, it is very hard.

ASYLUM SEEKER III: Why did I burn myself? Well I felt sad and mad. I didn’t know what to do. So I felt like I was going to stay here for life or something.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Stuart Davey worked in the Nauru centre shortly after it opened.

STUART DAVEY: Um there was a constant fear of men cutting themselves. There’s a lot of regulations about the razors, um, and try to initiate a, a, an inventory of the razors.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Stuart Davey was there during a visit from the then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen. When detainees were told that Nauru which didn’t have any laws for processing refugees, was still developing its system.

STUART DAVEY: After the Minister visited there was a lot of depression. Self harming increased um, at that point. Um, yeah.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Recently, Nauru has passed new laws and some asylum seekers have had preliminary interviews.

ASYLUM SEEKER I: They are processing us but we don’t know that it is real processing or not until they transfer some of us to Australia. They say that you shouldn’t be sure you will go to Australia when you become a refugee. I hope the Australian government doesn’t make us toys for their politics for election.

ASYLUM SEEKER II: You see many guys here do suicide or hurt themselves, just because they don’t want to harm the others. They just harm themselves because of bad situation, or because they show – they want to show their feelings.

MARIANNE EVERS, FORMER NURSE, MANUS DETENTION CENTRE: They start to scream at each other because this one has heard this and the other one has heard that, and it is all speculation. You know it is the not knowing of what is going to happen to them.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Nurse Marianne Evers worked in the Nauru detention centre health clinic.

MARIANNE EVERS: The very first night that I was on duty there, there, there was a person that attempted to hang himself, and it finished up that this poor soul was crawling on the floor like an animal looking at me saying please let me die, and that made a big impression on me.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: By last November there’d been reports of mass hunger strikes and at least eight attempted suicides. And a 35 year old Iranian man, near death after a 50 day hunger strike, had to be evacuated to Australia.

MARIANNE EVERS: He looked like somebody in the end stages of cancer. You see that – he was totally wasted away.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: By then, the camp was reaching capacity and there was nowhere else in Nauru to detain women and children. So they were sent to Manus Island. Manus Island is a few hundred kilometres north of Papua New Guinea. It’s close to the equator and mostly a jungle.

JOHN VALLENTINE: Visually, the site is gorgeous but there are uh hoards of mosquitoes. There are temperatures in the 40s and humidity around 100 per cent. Heavy rain, no air conditioning and ah, insufferably hot. Um muddy tracks, um and when it rained a faecal smell of inadequately you know drained sewage effluent.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Last November, Doctor John Vallentine was sent to Manus by International Health and Medical Services, or IHMS, which the Australian government pays more than $2.5 million a month to run offshore health services. Doctor Vallentine arrived before the asylum seekers, to prepare the clinic.

JOHN VALLENTINE: Almost from the day I arrived it was obvious to me that it was not a clinic that would work in its current state.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The army was still fixing the family accommodation. Derelict World War Two cabins and containers left over from the first Howard era detention centre. They put up tents for the single men.

PAUL MOULDS: You got to remember that these facilities had not been used for many, many years. I think on Manus Island it was a jungle when they started working um to you know really reclaim the centre back from the jungle.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: John Vallentine says there was some good equipment but an appalling lack of medical supplies. Concerned, he wrote to IHMS.

JOHN VALLENTINE: From early on I was sending lists both through my health services manager up there and directly to the medical staff of IHMS in Sydney saying “look, we desperately need this stuff.” Stuff being oxygen, antibiotics, bladder catheters, suckers, tracheostomy equipment, ah anaesthetic agents, sedatives, morphine, ketamine, um, and these things didn’t arrive.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Dr Vallentine warned IHMS the clinic had no oxygen. When the army left they lent him all they had, half a bottle.

JOHN VALLENTINE: The oxygen was terribly important and it didn’t arrive. “Where was it? Where was it?” We kept asking, “Could we have it? Send it up.” It never came.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: IHMS has told Four Corners that medical supplies and replacements are supplied as required. One night, just before the asylum seekers arrived, a local PNG worker employed at the camp had a cardiac arrest.

JOHN VALLENTINE: We were in a room, it was half a container with ventilators and suckers and fellas squeezing in and out doing cardiac massage and trying to read ECGs and the like, it was just hopeless. It was just too small. Foreseeable too, all foreseeable stuff.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The clinic ran out of supplies. So at 3am Doctor Vallentine had to wake up the director of the nearest hospital, an hour’s drive away, and the hospital had to lend the clinic anaesthetics, sedatives and oxygen.

DEBBIE WHITMONT (to John Vallentine): What would have happened if you hadn’t been able to get those things from the hospital?

JOHN VALLENTINE: Oh I know that he would have died within 20 minutes.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Doctor Vallentine had to keep his patient alive nearly 24 hours, until a plane could evacuate him to Port Moresby. The 24 delay convinced Doctor Vallentine that Manus was no place for children.

JOHN VALLENTINE: Well, the thing about children from a medical point of view is that they get sick very quickly. You don’t have nearly the same luxury of time to sort things out and one of the problems at Manus Island is its remoteness. We had very little in the way of paediatric equipment and facilities there, and worst of all this established 24 hour delay between calling for a medical evacuation by air and the plane arriving and getting the sick person out is just too long for kids. So I was worried about, about children being there at all I must say.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The first children and their families arrived in Manus last November.

JOHN VALLENTINE: They were frightened, bewildered, confused, sad people. And a number of them said to me, “what is this place? Where are we? Where have we come to?” Ah, they hadn’t been told.

(Hand held camera footage of Manus Island conditions)

DEBBIE WHITMONT: There are now thirty children in the Manus camp. Most have been there more than four months. Nearby, nearly 200 single men are living in tents. A young English teacher describes it:

FORMER SALVATION ARMY TEACHER: There’s a lot of people who were not very happy to be there and the family section’s very close to the men’s section. There’s just a fence really between them. So there’s just a lot of tension. There’s a lot of, a lot of pressure on the kids and there’s no way that kids would come out of that unscathed.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Journalists, cameras, and even photos are banned from the Manus camp. These pictures were filmed inside, secretly for Four Corners. Nearly 200 men have spent four or five months in these tents. There’s no privacy, the ground is often flooded and the camp has to be constantly sprayed, called ‘fogging’ to keep away mosquitoes. There’s often no power, and or no water.

FORMER SALVATION ARMY TEACHER: If there’s any sort of code called, any kind of problem then the kids will hear the radios. They’re going to see the G4S guards running through. They’re going to know what’s happening. They’re going to know if someone’s just hanged themselves. They’re going to know if there’s a fight or if there’s an escape or something so yeah, they can see, they know exactly what’s going on.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: According to the detainees, the camp’s health service is still very limited. This interview was recorded inside the Manus camp in secret.

(Secret footage inside Manus Island detention centre)

ANONYMOUS ASYLUM SEEKER: The services provided by the medical staff are basic and do not cover all the needs of the patients or the diseases they get. They lack the simplest medical tools and equipment. Also, there’s no lab or x-ray machine to detect diseases which means they send some cases to the hospital on the island. And here lies a bigger disaster, because the hospital also lacks the simplest equipment.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: When you were there, what were the health services like at the camp, were they adequate?

SHANE FENWICK, FORMER SALVATION ARMY WORKER: Nup. Totally inadequate, Um, there weren’t – and I mean it wasn’t the fault of the workers there they were doing their absolute best, but I think it was just incredibly under resourced and incredibly unsustainable, there wasn’t enough doctors, mental health nurses.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Staff working at the camp have told us about attempted hangings, men self harming, and a man who poured petrol over himself in an effort to commit suicide. Five men swam out to sea in an attempt it’s believed, to drown themselves. It’s happened more than once.

MAN: Did he go to the sea, or what? Where did he go? Did he run away?


FORMER SALVATION ARMY TEACHER: Radios would go off and you’d hear it and you’d hear people get up and start running and the, the interpreters and the guards. I was stressed and I chose to be there as an adult, you know, for a paying job so I can’t imagine kids and families who, yeah, didn’t want to be there.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: I think it’s very hard to understand how anybody could imagine that sending children to this environment could possibly be in their best interests. And one has to argue about not only the legal but the ethical dimensions of using some children and some families to send some sort of deterrent message that clearly is not being effective.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs hasn’t been to either Manus or Nauru. Though they’re both funded by Australia, and part of an Australian policy the Australian solicitor general told her she had no jurisdiction outside Australia.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: This is a curious phenomenon. What is absolutely crystal clear as a matter of international law is that Australia is responsible for the lives and well being and legal rights of these people and as human rights law is at the core of my job, I would have thought it appropriate that I be invited to go there and to make some kind of visit to the people concerned.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: In Nauru, when Four Corners asked to visit the detention centre it seemed unclear whether Nauru was running it, or Australia. Though we first approached the Nauruan government, it was hard not to think when we were refused access, that it was the Australian department of immigration that was pulling the strings. Several days ago we asked the then Nauruan Justice Minister if Four Corners could go into the detention centre. His response was positive. But a few hours later, there was a flurry of phone calls from the Department of immigration in Canberra. After that, we were told letting us into the detention centre would be too disruptive. The only way we could even see the detention centre was by hiking through a phosphate mine and clambering up to a rock platform. The Nauru detention centre is almost completely isolated, surrounded by steep rock pinnacles and deep crevasses. To many Nauruans, the lack of transparency is perplexing.

MADELEINE DUB COMMUNITY LEADER: We have locals that have family that are working up there. Now I’ve tried to get information out of them. I cannot, because it’s either a signed contract or verbal I’m not sure but if they say anything about the camp, what goes on inside the camp and they go out, they get the sack.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Dominic Tabuna was the Nauruan Justice Minister.

DEBBIE WHITMONT (to Dominic Tabuna): Can you explain to us why it is that anyone who works, everyone who works in the detention centre is not allowed to talk about it, not just to us but to anyone else here in Nauru?

DOMINIC TABUNA, FORMER JUSTICE MINISTER: I don’t know. I can’t explain it actually.

KEIREN KEKE: Our view has been, or my view in particular has been to have an open centre where media and other advocates have access. We accept that there’s going to be criticism. There’s people that do not agree with the whole arrangement in the first place. In my view, the best way to address that is to include them as much as possible, have the centre open as much as possible, let them see what everybody else is seeing, and in that way I’m sure that everybody will be able to find ways to improve the whole process.

(Nauruans sing church hymns)

DEBBIE WHITMONT: It’s Palm Sunday, and in the Presbyterian Church the traditional hymns are sung in Nauruan. Among the congregation, is the man some say might be Nauru’s next President Matthew Batsui. A decade ago, Matthew Batsui was running Nauru’s first Howard era detention centre. Though it’s not well known in Australia, back then, after the first few years, the asylum seekers were free to come and go with a curfew.

MATTHEW BATSUIA, NAURUAN MP: Look I think it worked really well last time. It was an open centre in that they were allowed to move into the communities and do social activities. And when people started seeing these people who were just normal, people like you and I with every day challenges and problems and then things like that, people accepted them.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: This time, though some detainees, like these, are allowed out for exercise, Nauru would like to open the centre as soon as possible. But it says it’s waiting on security clearances from ASIO.

KEIREN KEKE: Security information has been extremely slow to come across from Australia and that has caused delays.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: But many Nauruans are worried about opening up the centre.

COMMUNITY LEADER: My worry is that these asylum seekers if they are released that they come from a different culture. We don’t know where they’ve been.

MADELEINE DUB Nauru is very small and there are hardly any jobs on Nauru. we are already on aid, we’re already asking for assistance from abroad so I do not know how, how we can cater for more. I’m not so sure. Our phosphate is supposed to be running out.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: And there’s one thing. Nauru and Australia don’t agree on: The No Advantage policy. While Australia says the asylum seekers will have to wait years in Nauru, the Nauruan government wants to process and resettle them as quickly as possible.

KEIREN KEKE: The No Advantage policy is an Australian Government policy. It’s not been a policy that’s been discussed as a joint policy between the two governments. In fact I don’t recall any discussions specifically about that approach with us, as an – as a government.

DOMINIC TABUNA: We don’t, we don’t have that policy here on Nauru so, what we have is we tried our system with the processing, try to get them an outcome and from there we want the system, we hope that the system will allow them to be resettled as soon as possible.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Across the Pacific on Manus Island, the best view of the detention centre is from the naval base next to it. But local authorities didn’t want us filming. While preparing this program, Four Corners has received increasingly disturbing reports from Manus Island. From power, water and food shortages, to an allegation of sexual assault and distressing images like these of men with their lips stitched. Above all that, is the sense of unfairness.

(Footage of men from within Manus detention centre)

FORMER SALVATION ARMY TEACHER: It’s just the uncertainty of “I’ve been singled out for this and what did I do?” They would just go crazy thinking ‘Was it because I was helpful? Was it because I offered to interpret for people? Was it because I never gave them any trouble? Was it because I’m healthy? Is it because I don’t have a family? Why? Why? What did I do? What is the reason?’ And I would just tell people “I don’t know. God knows. There’s no reason.” But people can’t just accept that because the difference is so huge.

SHANE FENWICK: They knew what was going on they were smart they knew that millions and millions of dollars are being put into these centres and that so again they were asking “why, why would you waste that much money on punishing us? We just – we’re not criminals.”

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Department of Immigration doesn’t say how it chooses who will be sent offshore. But there are troubling questions about those sent to Manus, especially the children.

JOHN VALLENTINE: I had decided that this was not the sort of place where children ought to be from a purely medical point of view and I wrote to my superiors at IHMS about that. And then when the asylum seekers started arriving, my concerns turned to alarm because we were getting sick people who doubly ought not to have been there.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Doctor Vallentine says that among the first arrivals were a severely anaphylactic young boy and a nine year old girl with anaemia and a reported history of blood transfusions.

JOHN VALLENTINE: That child should never have been sent. IHMS at Christmas Island is in charge of the selection process and um, I was really quite upset about that.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: There were both children and adults with medical problems.

JOHN VALLENTINE: The little boy with anaphylaxis, ah that child um, the chap was sent over with a mass in his neck requiring investigation. I mean how can we investigate a mass in a neck? We don’t even have x-rays let alone anything else. Ah a young woman with ureteric and kidney stones on both sides.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Doctor Vallentine emailed IHMS in Sydney, but he says nothing happened.

JOHN VALLENTINE: These people really ought not be there.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Did you raise this with IHMS?

JOHN VALLENTINE: Oh yes, yes. I wrote a letter setting out all of these, all of these things.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: In Nauru, there’s new accommodation for detention centre workers, paid for by Australia. All Salvation Army staff have to sign this confidentiality agreement with the Department of Immigration. But more than a dozen young Salvos have spoken privately to Four Corners. And many are disturbed by what they’ve seen.

ANONYMOUS WORKER (Actor’s voice): I was wondering how do you stitch your lips together? And um the next time I saw it, I well, I have problems talking about it yeah. They had needles, which they got from somewhere and they, they put the needles through their lips and some of them pulled their lips tight so they couldn’t drink or eat or talk in any shape or form. Now others they left small gaps so they could drink with a straw and they could mumble, not speak but mumble, and when they were mumbling their thread cut into their flesh, yeah. I, I have problems talking about it.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: This Salvo watched one man having a breakdown.

ANONYMOUS WORKER (Actor’s voice): He was a kind of a leader in his ethnic group. He was a very considerate, religious person and people looked up to him.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: In early January after two bomb blasts killed hundreds of Hazaras in Pakistan, the man suddenly snapped.

ANONYMOUS WORKER (Actor’s voice): He was laying on the ground in a foetal position. He couldn’t control his bowels. I think of a, of a crazy person who cannot control himself who has no power over his actions then I’m thinking of him. I think back about people in a mental asylum who have no will of their own, who have no control.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Mental health is our greatest concern, and we know from past experience in Nauru that this is really the most damaging aspect of being held on the, on these islands.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: There’s no doubt that offshore processing is making some in Nauru a lot of money. Everything that is used, or built or eaten in the detention centre has to be imported. But many of the goods come from Australia, and most of the money goes back there. There are big contracts, like more than $200 million to Transfield for running the centre, $75 million to the Salvation Army, and $70 million to Australian construction firm Canstruct. Australian government contracts for the Nauru detention centre alone already total around $400 million. Though many have a few months to run or may be for long term infrastructure, so far, that works out at a cost of nearly $1 million for each asylum seeker.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: I think frankly if you would put aside all the arguments that I’m making on the basis of human rights law. And look at it purely as an economic and financial matter, you would have to say this policy um, is one that Australians should challenge.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Overall, in the next four years, offshore processing is expected to cost Australia at least $2.3 billion dollars.

RICK TOWLE, UN HIGH COMMISSION FOR REFUGEES: They are matters for the government to decide how they can most usefully use it. I would say however that UNHCR’s global budget for this year is $3.7 billion, and with that money we’re expected to respond to the crises of Syria, Mali, Afghanistan, for 25 million people globally.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: On Manus Island, Australia’s already spent more than $90 million on the camp, and has plans to spend another $170 million on new buildings. At the local, desperately limited, hospital, it seems and unimaginable sum.

DR OTTO NUMAN, CEO, MANUS LORENGAU HOSPITAL: If the Australian Government is serious I would like to see them looking at the things we need to improve our services here. Then it would not only help those people over there, the asylum seekers, but also help our people.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: The Manus provincial governor told us he’d seen it all before.

CHARLIE BENJAMIN, MANUS GOVERNOR: This is just like 2000-2001 happening again. There’s really nothing constructive, nothing in black and white, no agreements between us. It’s just them saying “we might do this, or we might to this. It might happen, it might never happen.”

DEBBIE WHITMONT: As for Doctor John Vallentine, he got into trouble for trying to lend the local hospital some unused medical equipment left over from Australia’s first Pacific Solution detention centre. IHMS gave Dr Vallentine the sack and even threatened to charge him with theft.

JOHN VALLENTINE: For the first time in my life I felt ashamed to be an Australian up there, seeing this squandering of money but it’s just a remote silly place to be putting people.

(Guitar strums)

PAUL MOULDS: It’s so good to be back although you leave part of your heart back there when you um, when you move on I have to say that. Part of my heart is still on Manus Island.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: Major Paul Moulds is very clear that after seeing offshore detention, he doesn’t support it. But many do. Even so, neither the Immigration Minister nor key members of the panel that recommended offshore processing would agree to be interviewed for this program.

PAUL MOULDS: You know we’re very clear in our public statements about our sense of off shore processing, that there is a better way.

DEBBIE WHITMONT: For Paul Moulds, it’s all about the people.

PAUL MOULDS: We can’t, however much we’d like to, determine the policy that Australia makes. But we can add our little bit to make a difference to that policy.

KERRY O’BRIEN: I do feel a need to emphasis the minister’s refusal to front up for an interview for this story with no reason given, other than we could turn up for one of his doorstops if we liked. So much for accountability. As a post script, a constitutional challenge has been lodged against the Nauru detention centre and the Papua New Guinea opposition is challenging the establishment of the Manus Island centre in the PNG Supreme Court.









An open letter to Scott Morrison

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An open letter to Scott Morrison

Posted by Vince

On Monday this week reports began circulating regarding two recently arrived detainees on Christmas Island who had been diagnosed with typhoid.

Media outlets such as The Australian jumped on these reports and played into inaccurate perceptions of asylum seekers and migrants as dirty, diseased and generally posing a threat to the wellbeing of other Australians.

The most egregious example of this media beat-up was the press release issued by Shadow Minister for Immigration & Citizenship Scott Morrison. In an extreme case of hyperbole, Morrison wrote about the ‘threat’ to Australians – including children – of ‘illegal boat arrivals’ carrying ‘serious communicable diseases’.

Morrison went as far as listing how many asylum seekers in detention on Christmas Island had been diagnosed with a disease and the type of each disease as ‘evidence’ of this threat.

As pointed out by infectious diseases physician, Trent Yarwood, this was not evidence at all but a ‘crass piece of political opportunism’ that demonstrated Morrison’s obvious ‘limited understanding of communicable disease’.

Yarwood wrote an open letter to help inform the public of the facts of the matter.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has re-published this letter below and is in complete agreement with Yarwood’s conclusion that Morrison’s statement has ‘no merit either political or scientific and should be withdrawn’.

Tuesday, 28th February, 2012
Mr Scott Morrison
Member for Cook
House of Representatives
Parliament House
PO Box Canberra ACT 2001
Dear Mr Morrison,

I am writing to you regarding your press release dated February 27, 2012, entitled “Typhoid cases on latest boats highlight the risk of Labor’s border failures”.

I believe it was a crass piece of political opportunism and was not only using the plight of asylum seekers for point-scoring, but plumbed new depths by making the health conditions suffered by these unfortunate people a further reason for the Australian population to fear them. Even worse than this, however is the gross misrepresentation you committed through your obviously limited understanding of communicable disease and the methods for describing its frequency.

The number of cases of communicable disease are of little utility in interpreting health statistics unless a comparison figure is given — for example, the rates/100,000 population or the number of cases in a given area. Reviewing the numbers of cases of diseases in the Christmas Island asylum seekers compared to the total number of cases reported in Australia for 2011 is instructive:

Disease rates

Even without any medical knowledge, it can be seen from these figures that the number of cases suffered by asylum seekers make up a tiny fraction of the total number of cases in Australia each year, and the tone of your press release vastly over-emphasises the risk to the Australian population from the extremely small number of cases introduced by asylum seekers each year.

Secondly, the risk of transmission of these diseases is extremely small. Tetanus is not transmissible from person to person. Shingles only poses a risk to other people if there is close contact with open lesions.

Chlamydia and gonorrhoea require sexual contact. Most cases of syphilis reported will not be infectious syphilis, and those that are require sexual contact. Hepatitis C requires blood-blood contact and sexual transmission is rare. The main mode of transmission of Hepatitis B in asylum-seeker source countries is mother-to-child transmission; transmission to others requires blood (or less likely sexual) contact and most Australians are vaccinated.

Dengue and malaria both require the presence of appropriate mosquito vectors which would need to bite the infected asylum seekers at the time which the organism is circulating in their blood. Therefore, it can be said that these diseases pose very little threat to the health of any Australians — due to the small number of cases and their poor infectivity.

Finally, your singling out of asylum seekers to Christmas Island as a source of these diseases is unfair. Most of the diseases are endemic in Australia, so the disease could not, by definition be introduced to Australia.

Typhoid is a frequent infection in returned travellers, but the risk of becoming endemic in a country like Australia with good sanitation and a robust public health system is negligible. The notification data presented above shows there is a large number of cases of these notifiable diseases that occur each year in Australia. The vast majority of these are in Australia citizens; in some cases in returned travellers and in some cases in people who have not left Australia. It is certain that the number of cases of chlamydia and gonorrhoea in visa-overstayers who come by plane far exceeds the number seen in these boat people.

Certain groups of overseas tourists on holiday visas almost certainly have higher rates of some of these infections than these asylum seekers. I expect that tourism organisations would have been outspoken in criticism if you had made a similar statement about backpackers — who are far more likely to fraternise with Australian citizens.

It is a marker of the lack of compassion the Coalition and the Labor party hold for asylum seekers that in addition to the hardship of their journey and the documented harms of mandatory detention that you now feel it appropriate to further vilify these poor unfortunates on the basis of medical illnesses that pose almost no threat to the health of Australians.

In short, your media release is ill-informed, not supported by publicly accessible health data, discriminatory and seems to have been intended to prey on fears of the foreigner and fear of pestilence. It has no merit either political or scientific and should be withdrawn.

I will be openly publishing this letter to ensure as many people as possible can be informed of the reality of the situation as opposed to your propaganda. I thank you in advance with not replying with a form letter from your staff informing me that your figures are correct and the straw man defence that the blame lies with the Labor party for not introducing the Coalition’s policy of detention on Nauru.

Yours faithfully,
Trent Yarwood
Infectious Diseases Physician and Public Health Registrar


Just in: Lies from the bogot’s favourite fish wrapper

The bogot loves Murdoch newspapers and derives much of its delusions knowledge from them (alongside its other education provider the shock jocks ) but it has a particular fondness for the Herald-Sun and its clone stablemates.

The lurid headlines are a particular attraction, full as they are of the bogot’s favourite buzz-words like “refugees”, “asylum seekers” (or the portmanteau “boat-people”), “Aborigines”, “immigrants” (often preceded by the word “illegal” almost always in the wrong context) and “Muslim” or “Islamic” (interchangeable despite having different meanings) juxtaposed cleverly with “rip-off” and “rort” and “terrorist” and accompanied by short and usually inaccurate pieces with a readability level of about nine years of age.

So today’s headliner was no surprise. We hope the retailer who owns that image is aware that in true Hun fashion, one of their promotional pics has been ripped off , so eager were the Seekers after Troof to get the story out to the bogot masses.

Herald Sun

In case you really want to read more

But sadly for the Hun the Refugee Council and a whole lot of NGOs who care for asylum seekers in the community were swift to denounce the beat-up and to present the facts. So we are happy to do likewise.

Read more

And this post from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Facebook page.

Kon's post

We look forward to Media Watch taking the Hun slowly apart on Monday night.



Asylum Seekers – the Myths are getting Bigger