Increasing numbers of workers from Manus Island and Nauru detention centres are contacting lawyers, human rights groups and professional medical bodies wanting to share information about conditions at the facilities and incidents they have witnessed.
The lawyers and other advocates say that over the past year they have received dozens of calls from current and former security guards, caseworkers and medical staff from those groups contracted by the federal government to run the centres with a new spike in the number of contacts since the start of the recent asylum seeker hunger strike on Manus.
The potential “whistleblowers” have apparently been keen to share information about alleged incidents of abuse and medical neglect, and to report what they see as the general mistreatment of asylum seekers detained at the offshore facilities.
The callers have also sought advice about what would likely happen to them should they choose to speak out.
People working in offshore detention are made to sign strict confidentiality agreements that forbid them from speaking to anyone, including family members, about what they see at the centres.
Though untested to date, legal experts say the workers could be jailed for up to two years if found to have breached that agreement.
However, lawyers at five different organisations have told The Citizen that since the beginning of last year – and the violence that erupted on Manus Island in February, in particular – calls from workers have been steadily increasing.
Ben Pynt, the founder and director of advocacy group Humanitarian Research Partners, says that over the past 12 months, he has received “steady leaks” from detention centre workers. As a consequence, he has set up an encrypted mailbox on the centre’s website as well as an “onion site”, a hidden service reachable via the Tor network, to minimise the risk for those wishing to share information.
Daniel Webb, the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, claims to have had about 10 calls in the past year from people “who have something they feel obliged to share but [who] feel hampered in their ability to share it”.
“They have seen something, which has so offended their sense of decency and fairness that they feel duty bound to speak out publicly,” he says.
Most callers say they tried to report matters internally multiple times, according to Mr Webb, who represented before the High Court 157 Tamil asylum seekers detained on an Australian customs ship in June last year.
Many callers also reported being bullied and labeled as “troublemakers” by their peers and superiors when they tried to raise matters with management.
Prominent barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside says he receives frequent calls from workers and former workers wanting to speak out. The calls have “significantly increased since the legislative regime has harshened”.
All of the lawyers spoken to by The Citizen say workers are contacting them because they have come to believe that it is impossible to provide asylum seekers with an adequate level of care.
“The situation is becoming more desperate for asylum seekers in those facilities,” says Graeme McGregor, who heads Amnesty International’s refugee campaign in Australia.
“And for the staff – particularly welfare staff – it’s in their job description to care for people and protect them and, where they start to realise that can’t be done, then they are going to speak out.”
However, some lawyers and advocates worry that a recent decision by then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to use the Crimes Act against 10 ‘Save The Children’ staff working on Nauru could have a silencing effect, eliminating a key source of information about the already secretive facilities.
In the past year, Amnesty says it has received at least a dozen emails, phone-calls and Facebook messages from detention centre staff wanting to speak out.
“Conditions are worsening and people are reaching a point where they can’t not speak out,” Mr McGregor says.
But, he adds, the government’s court action could have “a chilling effect on staff raising legitimate concerns in the future”.
“What you don’t want is a situation where staff are afraid to report a rape or an instance of child abuse because they’re afraid of legal action [against them] by the government,” says Mr McGregor. “There is a genuine risk of self-censorship because of the government’s current inquiry.”
Suelette Dreyfus, a research fellow at Melbourne University and a member of the international team behind the World Online Whistleblowing Survey, says an increase in whistleblower activity generally occurs when official channels are failing to provide information that workers deem essential. The reported increase in calls from detention workers fits this pattern, she says.
“What I see are vulnerable people in a very isolated place where there is no transparency, there is no access for journalists and very little visible accountability and oversight of exactly how things are run.”
Amnesty’s Mr McGregor says that because of a lack of transparency from official channels, whistleblowers have become the only source of information for human rights groups and the media. But this raised a complication.
“We would always prefer for human rights organisations and media to be allowed access to the facilities because there are obviously problems with leaked information,” he says. “It’s very hard to verify. You can’t be convinced of the source all the time. You can’t be certain of facts.
“And it’s certainly far from our ideal situation that individuals have to put themselves at risk of legal action in order to release information.”
A senior associate at Maurice Blackburn, Lizzie O’Shea, reports taking a dozen calls over the past year from potential whistleblowers, but confirms there is a “real risk at law” for those who choose to breach confidentiality agreements.
“No one I know of has been prosecuted for breaching these provisions but it’s a risk people have to be aware of because, if at some point the Commonwealth does get concerned about the amount or breadth of disclosures and decides to do something about it, you don’t want to be in the firing line.”
A kind of “whistleblower protection”, known as the Public Interest Disclosure Act, was introduced into law in 2013.
However, Ms O’Shea says that because the act has not been tested, it’s difficult to predict what would happen if a “whistleblower” was taken to court.
While Ms O’Shea says it is too early to predict the impact of the government’s actions against Save the Children staff, she expects it to “most likely be a deterrent” to future whistleblowers.
“Obviously it is problematic if people who have evidence of serious wrongdoing feel that they are at significant risk of civil and criminal liability if they disclose that information externally, for example to the media,” she says. “A healthy democracy requires that power be exercised transparently and in a manner that is accountable. Silencing whistleblowers is the opposite of this.”
All the lawyers spoken to by The Citizen agree that the callers contacting them believe information in the public interest is not getting out because of what workers perceive as a “lack of transparency” from officialdom.
For Chris Iacono and Nicole Judge, who worked for two years on Nauru and Manus Island for the Salvation Army, it was the apparent misrepresentation of violent events on Nauru in 2013 that first got them thinking about coming forward.
“Once there were attacks on the centre and no news got out that it was the locals that had been threatening everybody, we were like ‘Why isn’t anybody telling people back in Australia what’s going on?’ And we decided [that] maybe that’s supposed to be us [speaking out] because we’re here,” Ms Judge says.
Lawyers also say many of the workers calling them are convinced Australians would feel differently about offshore detention if they were able to see what the detention conditions were like.
“I think if most people got to spend some time on Manus Island and saw what was going on, most fair people would say ‘This is not right’,” says Steve Kilburn, who worked on Manus Island in 2013 and who was featured on the ABC’s Four Corners in April.
Mr Kilburn, who had previously worked in the navy for 20 years and been a firefighter for 10, broke down in tears on the program when recalling what he had witnessed during the Manus Island violence.
Dr Dreyfus says: “Our research has shown that whistleblowers often step forward when the lie told by officials becomes so grossly distorted compared to the reality underneath and that gap becomes unbearable to the ethical nature of a whistleblower.”
For Mr Kilburn, it was the Manus Island riots that became a tipping point.
“After the riots, when I was looking after injured guys, it started to sink in about how bad it was . . . ” he told The Citizen. “There was a young Sudanese guy with his head smashed in and he couldn’t speak and he couldn’t eat and I sat there looking at him thinking ‘Who’s going to stand up for this guy? Who’s going to say this is not right?’ No one is.”
Mr Kilburn then sought the advice of lawyers about the legal risks of speaking out.
Dr Dreyfus says studies show that more than 80 per cent of whistleblowers try to report wrongdoing internally first. She says that reporting externally is an extremely difficult step, which most whistleblowers take when they see it as the only way to get action on the wrongdoing they have witnessed.
Mr Kilburn recalls the attempts he made to report issues he was seeing with management.
“Like many others, I started writing reports — reports about the lack of shade, reports about problems with accommodation, reports about the lack of food. But we put in report after report and never heard anything back. There was no incentive to do the right thing. Those who raised legitimate concerns were often labeled as ‘troublemakers’. And those who refused to follow orders were sacked.”
Karen Wells, who went to work on Manus Island as a security guard for the contractor G4S after 11 years working in the prison industry and two years working at the Woomera and Curtin detention centres, says she tried many times to report to managers serious issues that she had identified.
“They would read your reports in front of you and say, ‘You’re getting soft in your old age. You need to harden up’,” she reflects.
“Whether I agree with asylum seekers being here or not, whether I agree with them getting visas, you can’t treat a human being like that.”
Eventually, Ms Wells reached out to Mr Pynt.
Of the former workers speaking out to date, health professionals have been prominent. Ai-lene Chan, a doctor who worked on Nauru and Christmas Island, sought legal advice and contacted the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Medical Association before going public.
She then gave evidence before the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into children in detention and wrote an article for The Guardian about her experiences offshore.
She says that, as a GP, who has an ethical and professional responsibility to advocate for the best outcome for patients, she felt an obligation to give an honest account of what she had seen.
“The evidence is clear that indefinite mandatory detention has significant and severe deleterious health consequences. It would be negligent to ignore that this is occurring to the people living in our offshore processing centres.”
A co-founder of the advocacy group Doctors for Refugees, Richard Kidd, says that his organisation has received around a dozen calls in the past year from doctors and nurses who have worked offshore inquiring about their legal obligations, and the risks posed by speaking publicly.
He says he witnessed a spike in calls after the violence on Manus Island last February and after the death in September of Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei, who died in a Brisbane hospital after being transferred from Manus Island with septicaemia.
Dr Kidd says the incidents highlighted that “asylum seekers do not have safe, timely and appropriate access to an Australian standard of health care”.
As a result, health professionals working with IHMS have come to believe that “working within their contracts may put them in breach of the medical board and the AMA’s code of conduct, thus putting their registration at risk”.
Mr Pynt, of Humanitarian Research Partners, acknowledges that workers who feel an obligation to share information that they believe is in the public interest are currently forced to put themselves at legal risk.
Those speaking out all describe a “culture of secrecy and intimidation” at their respective organisations aimed at curbing leaks.
Steve Kilburn and Karen Wells say that after February’s riots they were repeatedly sent emails from G4S reminding them of the confidentiality provisions of their contracts and of the legal consequences of speaking out.
Mr Kilburn adds that a bigger concern for his colleagues was the likelihood of losing their jobs and being unemployable in the security industry.
“A lot of people there are in security . . . That’s their livelihood and that’s what their future is based on,” he says. “These are people with young families and mortgages, so they’re not going to risk it. I had people ringing me saying ‘I really wish I could speak out, but I can’t’.”
Those working in security are not the only ones whose jobs are at risk for speaking out.
Robert Adler, a Melbourne-based pediatric psychiatrist, who recently visited Nauru on behalf of International Health and Medical Services, claims that he was told his services were no longer required after he wrote letters expressing concerns about detention.
Dr Adler, who describes himself as “apolitical”, says he was appalled by what he saw on Nauru.
“Families were living under a marquee, separated from one another with plastic sheets, with no easily accessible toilet or kitchen facilities, no privacy and no air-conditioning in 40 degree heat . . . I couldn’t provide health services in a situation that I found deeply concerning and [then] remain silent.”
A few days into his trip, Dr Adler (pictured below left) drafted a letter to the Prime Minister objecting to Australia’s detention policies. On his return home, he sent the letter off, along with copies to the Opposition Leader and their deputies, before emailing copies to a number of his colleagues and contacts, including the head of psychiatry at IHMS.
“Seeing what I had, I felt saying nothing would be wrong,” Dr Adler says. “I thought speaking out might affect change and might encourage others to take up the issue as well.”
But a few days later, according to Dr Adler, IHMS chiefs called him in for a meeting and told him that he would not be returning to work at the detention centre.
Dr Adler says that because his letter contained no confidential or direct clinical information and was not critical of IHMS or its services, he does not believe he was in breach of his contract. He says people should be able to speak out about what they see without being prevented from returning to the centres to provide much needed services.
Questions put by The Citizen to IHMS about Dr Adler’s claims were forwarded to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, but they had not been answered at the time of publication.
Mr Kilburn, meanwhile, believes that a fairer system would allow people to speak out without fear of retribution.
“We all need rules and parameters and ways to work, but nothing should be above scrutiny,” he argues. “If you take away that ability then what you’re left with is unaccountability and that’s a dangerous place.”
According to Dr Dreyfus’s research, half of all Australians believe there is too much secrecy in organisations in society, while four in every five agree that whistleblowers should be protected and 87 per cent think whistleblowers should be allowed to go to the media.
► Reporting on this story was made possible with an independently awarded grant from GetUp’s Shipping News project.
► An edited version of this story was published by The Monthly.