A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

On the path to whistleblower: in their own words

Karen Wells never thought she would one day fit the profile of “whistleblower”. She had worked for 11 years in the prison industry before taking a position as a guard on Manus Island.

Interviews by Bec Zajac

“In corrections,” she says, “we just didn’t dob on anyone.”

Ms Wells had also worked for two years at the Woomera and Curtin detention centres without having needed to challenge her obligations to her employers. 


But after the violence broke out on Manus Island earlier this year, Ms Wells (pictured right) contacted refugee advocate Ben Pynt to share information about what she describes as a “complete mishandling” of the situation.

“I contacted Ben on Facebook and then I sent him an email. I mainly spoke to him about asylum seekers and their treatment, living conditions and medical issues.”

Ms Wells is one of dozens of guards, caseworkers and medical staff who have worked at the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres who have contacted lawyers and human rights groups about wanting to speak publicly.

All could face up to two years’ jail for breaching their strict confidentiality agreements.

Steve Kilburn, who served in the navy for 20 years and had been a fire fighter for a decade before working on Manus Island, recalls signing his confidentiality agreement with security contractor G4S without giving it a moment’s thought.

“It was like the ‘I agree’ box when you download something from iTunes,” he says. “I read it and I thought ‘Well, what does it matter who am I going to talk to?’ ”

But after witnessing violence during the riots that he believes could have been avoided, Mr Kilburn felt compelled to contact lawyers to inquire into how he could tell his story. In April, he appeared on an ABC Four Corners special investigation.

For Salvation Army employees Chris Iacono, 25, and Nicole Judge, 24, who worked for two years on Manus Island and Nauru, it was the apparent misrepresentation by official sources of the violence they had witnessed that made them feel they could no longer stay silent.


Before he went to work offshore, Mr Iacono “didn’t think anything about politics” and “didn’t know anything about asylum seekers or refugees”.

A former manager at food chain McDonalds, he heard about the work from Ms Judge who saw a job ad on Facebook after she joined the ‘Salvos’ student group at university.

“They were advertising the jobs as kinds of working holidays,” Ms Judge says. “It was like when you see trips to Africa and it’s a really cool safari and everyone has a great time. I had a quick phone chat with the recruiter and then got an email saying ‘Yay! You’re going to Nauru. Bring all your friends!’ ”

Ms Judge and Mr Iacono (pictured above) arrived on Nauru three days after it opened and Ms Judge remembers the moment it dawned on her that it was not a “fun holiday”.

“I was sitting on the floor of the half-built office, and one of the only posters on the wall was about ‘cut-down procedures’. It was describing a technique with a ‘Hoffman knife’, which is training to be issued on how to cut the rope for someone who had hanged himself.”

Two years later, Ms Judge and Mr Iacono found themselves testifying before the senate inquiry into the violence on Manus.

Meanwhile, David Isaacs, a professor of paediatric infectious diseases at University of Sydney, returned from working with International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) on Nauru earlier this month.

He believes the clauses in his contract that say he’s not allowed to speak about specific patients are “fair enough”, but he thinks “any doctor ought to be able to speak out against behavior that’s causing illness”.

While on Nauru, Dr Isaacs says he saw “extraordinarily high rates of psychological problems in children and adults”, which he feels was directly related to the condition of their detention.

Dr Isaacs, along with Nicole Judge, Chris Iacono, Karen Wells and Steve Kilburn, recounted their experiences in interviews with The Citizen.

Karen Wells:

On arriving on Manus: “I expected a remote area because Curtin and Woomera are remote in the desert. I didn’t expect the accommodation and conditions. I didn’t expect the stench that was constant from sewerage flowing through. The conditions were just appalling. The showers were rotting. It was just disgusting. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

On medical concerns: “One guy called me over to the fence really distressed. He had a rash from his knee to his groin that was growing up his stomach. I’m trained as an emergency medical dispatcher but I’d never seen anything like it. When I asked for help, managers told me to tell him to fill in a form and they’d see him when they could. I said ‘I think this is an allergic reaction. He could end up with anaphylactic shock’. They said ‘Are you a doctor?’ and I said ‘No. I’m not a doctor but this is growing up his stomach really fast.’ It was only that night when he had started to shake that they saw him.”

On mental health issues: “The clients that were having mental issues were just locked in an area with no stimulation and you would just watch someone fade away to nothing. In Curtin, or in prison, I would call a psychologist and they would be seen that day. At Manus, it would be “fill in a form” and it could be three days and the nurses would still be very limited with what they could do.”

On attempts to report: “When I first saw things that were wrong, I wrote a report.  [Management] would read it in front of you and tell you, ‘You need to harden up’. They’d say, ‘You’re getting soft in your old age.’ Whether I agree with [the asylum seekers] being here or not, whether I agree with them getting visas, you can’t treat a human being like that.”

Chris Iacono:

On arriving on Nauru: “We arrived three days after Nauru opened and there was nothing there. There were no floorboards, no facilities. There were about 50 asylum seekers when we got there and they were in their bunks eating off plates with no forks. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe people live here.’ But lots of things were worse on Manus: the smell, the heat, the conditions, the mould growing everywhere, the look of despair on the guys’ faces.”


On medical concerns: “Asylum seekers always had skin infections and cuts that turned infectious. They had rashes, scabies . . . Things that could have been controlled but never were. There were always gastro outbreaks. There was a couple of nurses there and a doctor but they just didn’t have enough time and they never had enough medicine.”

On attempts to report: “When we reported issues we were seeing to G4S, we were told we were bleeding hearts and to toughen up. The other staff saw the Salvation Army as do-gooders who were ‘too soft’. They’d say, ‘Why don’t you go sing them a bedtime story?’ ”

On speaking out: “To tell the truth – no matter what it is – there should be a protection. You shouldn’t ever get in trouble for telling the truth no matter who it hurts. Because if there’s truth to be told and it’s going to hurt somebody – then somebody’s doing the wrong thing.”

Nicole Judge:

On arriving on Manus: “In Manus the men basically live in cages. There are padlocks on the doors, eight-foot-high fences and rooms with no windows. There’s feces and urine smell everywhere. The sewerage was always leaking so there was always sewerage around.”

On mental health issues on Manus: “People recognised as having issues would get sent to a place called Delta 9. But Delta 9 is like a jail cell and when they’re in there, they seem to really lose sense of reality. They lie in bed, don’t talk, and stare at the walls. The rooms are boarded up so they can’t see outside but where the gates meet, there’s a gap, and I remember walking past and they used to shake the gate and yell out for help!”

On mental health issues on Nauru: “Men would run through the area yelling with a blade in their hand, cutting as they walked. That happened every day. One day there were 12 suicide attempts on my shift. Everyone was stitching up their lips. I didn’t see that but I saw them with the string hanging from their lips. One Iranian guy in Nauru was resuscitated after he was found hanging in his dormitory room and when he walked around he had bruises around his neck. We saw people trying to asphyxiate themselves but the worst bit was hearing the men screaming and crying.”

On attempts to report: “When we told management about what we saw, we were told it was ‘normal’ for where we were. They said we were not supposed to care who has services or how they’re treated. One time this guy was slamming his head on the concrete and we were told to just sit there and not pay attention. And if you seemed too upset you’d lose your job. People were getting fired constantly for not following orders.”

On speaking out: “Before, I saw asylum seekers hurting themselves but then when I started to see them getting hurt by guards — and it was not uncommon for guards to beat them — that was when I saw the whole system was hurting them.”

David Isaacs:

On arriving on Nauru: “It’s like being in a prison. You can’t get out of the living area without going past guards and people are not free to come and go. Privacy is a big issue and the heat is a big issue, particularly for children over five, for whom there’s no air-conditioning. The other thing that struck me was that the tents are between 30-100 metres from the nearest washing facilities, so quite a lot of the children and adults were wetting the bed because they were scared to do that walk in the middle of the night under the eyes of guards who may or may not be friendly.”


On medical concerns: “Our obligation is to try to provide care to asylum seekers that is comparable to Australian children. From being there it’s clear that, however good IHMS is, that is not conceivably possible for them in this sort of camp situation when you are on a small Pacific Island in the middle of nowhere.”

On mental health issues: “We saw very depressed adults and children. The rates of distress and psychological problems in children were extraordinarily high. Incredibly young children are self-harming and that’s very unexpected and unusual. We saw children whose only way of trying to get their voice heard was to harm themselves.”

On attempts to report: “There are clauses that say you’re not allowed to speak out about specific patients or specific issues to do with the medical service and I think that’s fair enough but I think any doctor ought to be able to speak out against behavior that’s causing illness and that’s an obligation that I think ought to be there on all of us.”

On speaking out: “People have often said if you ignore things and don’t speak out when there’s undue trauma being caused to people then you’re in a way colluding with it. And, after being there, I feel that to not speak out would be appalling. Therefore, I’m determined to speak out. I’m actually going to be exhorting other doctors to do the same. I don’t consider myself a whistleblower. I’m talking about what’s being done in our name to people who have committed no crime and are being treat worse than our criminals.”

Steve Kilburn:

On arriving on Manus: “Before we arrived, G4S gave us a booklet of information about the place. It said there’s a bar around the corner where you can grab a drink. As soon as we got there, we realised the bar’s closed because the locals have threatened to rape and kill people.”


On medical concerns: “There was supposed to be one guard for 10 asylum seekers but there were often 500 asylum seekers with four staff in a compound. There were not enough toilets and no accommodation to isolate people with gastro, so everyone was always sick.”

On attempts to report: “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.”

On speaking out: “I thought if you think something’s wrong and you’re going to do something about it, then you’ve got to do it. I think if most people got to spend some time on Manus Island and saw what was going on, I think most fair people would say, ‘This is not right’. At the same time, the Royal Commission into Child Abuse was going on, and I’m listening to people who are saying ‘We didn’t know’, and I’m thinking, in 10 years time, if there is a Royal Commission into this, my kids aren’t going to look at me and say, ‘You were there dad. Why didn’t you say something?’, because I did say something and there’s no way people can say they didn’t know what was going on there because they’ve been told.”

► Reporting on this story was made possible with an independently awarded grant from GetUp’s Shipping News project. 

About The Citizen

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