Karen Wells never thought she would be a whistleblower. She had spent 11 years working in the prison industry and two years at the Woomera and Curtin detention centres before taking a position as a guard on Manus Island.
“In corrections,” she says, “we just didn’t dob on anyone.”
But after the violent clashes in February 2014 on Manus Island, during which asylum seeker Reza Barati was killed, Wells contacted refugee advocate and lawyer Ben Pynt to speak out about what she described as the “complete mishandling” of the situation.
Pynt, the founder and director of advocacy group Humanitarian Research Partners, has set up an encrypted mailbox on the centre’s website to deal with the “steady leaks” he says he has been receiving over the past 12 months. He has also established an “onion site”, a hidden service reachable via the Tor network, to minimise the risk for those wishing to share information anonymously.
Wells is one of dozens of guards, caseworkers and medical staff who have worked at the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres and contacted lawyers, professional medical bodies and human rights groups, wanting to speak out about what they’ve witnessed. Lawyers and refugee advocates say that over the past year calls from workers and former workers have been steadily increasing.
Pynt adds that since the start of the most recent asylum seeker hunger strike on Manus, he’s had an “explosion of contact” from the island, receiving dozens of messages, emails and calls in the last ten days from both new and existing sources.
Barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside says he receives frequent calls from workers and former workers. The calls have “significantly increased since the legislative regime has harshened”, he says.
The potential whistleblowers have 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. They have also sought advice about what would likely happen to them should they choose to speak out.
“The situation is becoming more desperate for asylum seekers in those facilities,” says Graeme McGregor, who heads Amnesty International’s refugee campaign in Australia.
“Conditions are worsening and people are reaching a point where they can’t not speak out.”.
Steve Kilburn, who served in the navy for 20 years and had been a firefighter for a decade before working on Manus Island, recalls signing his confidentiality agreement with security contractor G4S without giving it much 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?’ ”
For Kilburn, the tipping point was witnessing force used during the Manus Island riots that he believes was “way above what was required”. In April 2014, he appeared on the ABC’s Four Corners, recounting what had happened to a group of asylum seekers who had sought to escape the centre:
“When they saw the hiding they were getting, the belting that they were getting, some of them thought actually this is not, you know, what we expected and tried to climb back over the fence to get back into their compound. They were dragged off the fence and beaten.”
“After the riots, when I was looking after injured guys, it started to sink in about how bad it was,” he told me. “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.”
Salvation Army employees Chris Iacono, 25, and Nicole Judge, 24, employed as caseworkers between 2012 and 2014, first on Nauru, then on Manus Island. Before he worked offshore, Iacono “didn’t think anything about politics” and “didn’t know anything about asylum seekers or refugees”.
A former McDonalds manager, he heard about the work from 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,” 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!’ ”
Judge and Iacono arrived on Nauru three days after the detention centre had opened in August 2012.
“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,” Says Judge.
Official sources’ apparent misrepresentation of the violent events that occurred on Nauru in July 2013 made them first consider 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,” Judge says.
In June 2014, and Judge and Iacono testified before the Senate inquiry into the riots on Manus Island. In her testimony, Judge spoke about what she saw as the “mistreatment, abuse, and degrading treatment that asylum seekers transferred to Manus Island endure on a daily basis”.
She also laid out plainly what she thought would follow: “The attacks, whilst brutal and utterly devastating, did not surprise myself or my colleagues . . . I believe whilst the centre remains open more deaths and serious injuries are inevitable.”
In October 2014, former immigration minister Scott Morrison used Section 70, an anti-whistleblowing provision, of the Commonwealth Crimes Act to remove ten Save the Children staff from Nauru for “misusing privileged information”. The section prohibits any person employed by the Commonwealth from sending information to a non-government officer. The maximum penalty is two years’ imprisonment.
Lawyers and advocates are concerned that this action might have had a silencing effect on workers, eliminating a key source of information about the already secretive facilities.
“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 Amnesty’s McGregor. “There is a genuine risk of self-censorship.”
A senior associate at Maurice Blackburn, Lizzie O’Shea reports taking a dozen calls in 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, 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.
“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.”
Pynt 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. But, he adds, that as well as the fear about the legal consequences, workers also contend with the threat that they will lose their jobs. Those speaking out all describe a “culture of secrecy and intimidation” at their respective organisations aimed at curbing leaks.
Dr Suelette Dreyfus of the University of Melbourne has conducted research into Australians’ attitudes to whistleblowers. Dreyfus says studies show that more than 80% of whistleblowers try to report wrongdoing internally first. She says that reporting externally is an extremely difficult step that most whistleblowers take when they see it as the only way to get action to address the wrongdoing they have witnessed.
Former G4S guard Karen Wells says she tried many times to report serious issues to her managers.
“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.”
Kilburn and Wells say that after the February 2014 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.
“A lot of people there are in security . . . That’s their livelihood and that’s what their future is based on,” Kilburn 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’.”
Security workers are not the only ones whose jobs are at risk for those who choose to speak out.
Dr Robert Adler, a Melbourne-based paediatric psychiatrist who visited Nauru on behalf of International Health and Medical Services (IHMS), claims that he was told his services were no longer required after he wrote letters expressing concerns about detention.
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, Adler drafted a letter to Tony Abbott, objecting to Australia’s detention policies. On his return home, he sent the letter off, along with copies to Bill Shorten and both leaders’ deputies, before emailing copies to a number of his colleagues and contacts, including the head of psychiatry at IHMS.
Not long after, according to Adler, despite his letter containing no confidential or direct clinical information, IHMS’ chiefs called him in for a meeting and told him that he would not be returning to work at the detention centre.
A co-founder of the advocacy group Doctors for Refugees, Richard Kidd, says that his organisation has received calls from doctors and nurses who have worked offshore, enquiring about their legal obligations, and the risks posed by speaking publicly.
He says there was a spike in the number of calls he received both after the Manus Island riots last February and the death last September of Iranian asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei, who died in a Brisbane hospital after being transferred from Manus Island with septicaemia.
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 Australian Medical Association’s code of ethics, thus putting their registration at risk”.
The Monthly’s questions to IHMS were forwarded onto the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, but they had not been answered at the time of publication.
Dr David Isaacs, a professor of paediatric infectious diseases at University of Sydney, returned from working with IHMS on Nauru in early December 2014 and has since decided to use his experience offshore to advocate against current detention policies.
“People have often said if you ignore things and don’t speak out when there’s undue trauma being caused to people than you’re in a way colluding with it,” Isaacs says.
“And, after being there, I feel that to not speak out would be appalling.”
Isaacs believes the clauses in his contract that say he’s not allowed to speak about specific patients are “fair enough”, but that “any doctor ought to be able to speak out against behaviour that’s causing illness”.
While on Nauru, Isaacs says he saw “extraordinarily high rates of psychological problems in children and adults”, which he feels were directly related to the condition of their detention.
According to Dreyfus’s research, half of all Australians believe there is too much secrecy in our public institutions, while four in every five agree that whistleblowers should be protected, and 87% support whistleblowers being able to turn to the media, even if it means revealing inside information.
“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.
“We all need rules and parameters and ways to work, but nothing should be above scrutiny. If you take away that ability then what you’re left with is unaccountability, and that’s a dangerous place.”
Reporting on this story was made possible with an independently awarded grant from GetUp’s Shipping News project
There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.
That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.
The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.
Select your digital subscription