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Sent to Nauru with No Training and No Answers - Part 1

We spoke to the young Australian support workers who just broke confidentiality agreements to give evidence in the Senate's Manus Island Inquiry.
June 17, 2014, 12:25am

Photo by Daniel Bolt

Nicole Judge and Chris Iacono are 24-year-old high school mates that grew up on NSW’s Central Coast. Two years ago, Nicole was studying Psychology at Macquarie University and working as a sales assistant at JB Hi-Fi and Chris was working full-time as a manager at a McDonald’s on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Then in September 2012, Nicole spotted a random Facebook job listing for a role with the Salvation Army on Nauru, and both of their lives totally changed in the space of just three days.

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Over the next 18 months, Chris and Nicole worked as Salvation Army support workers inside the Australian government’s offshore processing centre in Nauru, and then later inside the ill-fated Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea. After the death of Iranian asylum seeker and centre detainee Reza Berati on Manus in February, the pair broke their confidentiality agreements and spoke out under parliamentary privilege to a Senate Inquiry last week.

Nicole and Chris spoke to VICE a few days after their precedent-setting appearance at the Senate Inquiry. The transcript below is a condensed and edited version of several conversations with Emilia Terzon.

VICE: How did you find out about your former jobs with the Salvation Army?
Nicole Judge: I saw an advertisement on Facebook posted by the Salvation Army Society at Macquarie University. I liked their page during O-Week, and they were actually spamming me heaps and I was going to get rid of it. Then I saw that ad and I said ‘that’s interesting’.

VICE: What did the job listing say?
Nicole: It said they needed people to deploy to Nauru to assist asylum seekers. The ad described it as fun and said ‘it’ll be a good experience to help others’. That night, I called the number listed on the Facebook page. I felt in a way like I interviewed them. I asked the person on the phone about what to expect and they didn’t know very much. The Salvation Army hadn’t been on the island yet. They said the needed people to desperately go to Nauru as they’d just been notified that offshore processing would be starting up. It was a bit of a rush job. I didn’t have any other sort of job description. I was then asked if I had any friends who could come along, so I rang some friends.

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Chris Iacono: Nicole gave me a call and asked if I could leave in three days to go to Nauru. I managed to get rid of two weeks worth of shifts at McDonald’s and we were on the plane to Nauru three days later. We were headed for two weeks that was pretty much described as a holiday on a tropical island.

Did you know much about asylum seekers or Nauru before you got there? What did you expect to find?
Chris: We looked up Nauru and there’s not much information about it out there. It’s just an old phosphate mine and a small island in the middle of the Pacific.

Nicole: I had worked with the homeless in Sydney, but I hadn’t worked with any asylum seekers or refugees. I hadn’t met any asylum seekers or refugees before. I thought it was kind of a working holiday. It was perfect timing with uni break. And I got to go with friends too. I thought it would be fun.

What sorts of interviews or training did you go through before you landed on Nauru?
Nicole: I didn’t send in a resume or answer any questions about my previous experience. They were just willing to accept me straight away. I had no training. It wasn’t until after a few months that the Salvation Army brought in a training program informing us about their brand values and upholding their brand.

Why do you think you were given no training?
Nicole: I just don’t think it was set up properly. It was such a rush to employ people and get people over there. I was pretty carefree at the time. I just rolled with it. I didn’t think ‘oh I should be trained’. It wasn’t until a couple of rotations—centre staff work under monthly off and on ‘rotation’ shifts—that I started to think ‘why am I here?’ and ‘I’m not qualified’.

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You were initially hired as support workers at Nauru regional processing centre in September 2012. What did you think you’d be doing on the island?
Chris: I thought it was just going to be a couple of hours working in the centre and talking with the guys. You know—playing games with them. I felt like it was pretty much a free trip to a tropical island, but it turned out to be five or six days a week with 10 hour shifts.

What were your first impressions when you got to Nauru?
Nicole: They stopped us over first in Fiji actually. They put us up in Novotel and we were really excited. We thought: wow!

Chris: We got to the island and it's in economic downturn there at the moment. I guess that’s what the centre is there for—to bring some income to the island. It was just shocking to see how the rest of the world lives, especially on a little island like that. I had low expectations, but I wasn’t prepared for the centre. It was in the middle of the old phosphate mine, so it looked like a moonscape with just barren land. The heat and humidity was tremendous.

Nicole: The centre was a tent city. At that stage, it was only Sri Lankans detained and they were living in a little village in green canvas tents. There were no facilities. At that stage there was only six toilets. There was a makeshift classroom with a couple of plastic chairs and some student teachers holding up pieces of paper with the ABC written on them.

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Chris: The centre manager showed us around for a few minutes, and then said ‘go mingle’, and walked back out and left us in a group with asylum seekers. The men came over and introduced themselves to us. Each group of men had one or two men who could help translate to English. Their first questions were ‘why are we here?’ and ‘what’s your religion?’ They tried to find out about us and if we could help out them get to Australia. Every question they asked was answered with ‘I don’t know’. Pretty much the answer always was ‘I don’t know’. That became their joke really.

What did it feel like to give asylum seekers the answer ‘I don’t know’ every day?
Chris: It really saps you. We wanted to know the answers as well. To keep saying ‘I don’t know’ to them, and asking the same questions to our managers and getting the same answer, we got frustrated and upset at the system. One time, a man asked ‘what happens if we die here?’ and the immigration officers said ‘we don’t know’.

What were the conditions like at the Nauru RPC?
Nicole: The conditions were extremely hot. Often it flooded. There was lots of mosquitos. There was a smell of faeces that came across every afternoon. There were mice and rats. There was one tree on Nauru that everybody used to sit under. That was the only natural shade that they had at that time. The tents could go up to 50 degrees on a hot day. Some of the asylum seekers didn’t have fans or mosquito nets.

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Chris: The intake days were the worst. The men arrived on the bus to the camp. And as soon as the bus rolled in, you can see the shock on their faces—the sadness and the anger—and we were supposed to stand there and smile and welcome them to their new home for however many years. It’s just one of toughest jobs to try and sell a place that looks and feels like hell. Every time the new people came, they’d asked us questions and it was ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’. It’s no surprise they get angry with you. They think that you’re holding out—they think you know the answers, but we don’t know the answers. We never did and we still don’t really for these guys.

When you were on Nauru, did you ever see any guards act inappropriately, and did you report those instances to the authorities?
Chris: The Nauru guards were ex-military and ex-police and some of them were once security officers in clubs in Kings Cross. They didn’t treat the men like you or I would treat them. I guess they were enemy to some, prisoners to others. If you didn’t listen, watch out, there was a strong arm to get them in line. I can’t say all of the guards were bad. But there were the bad ones that were racist and that did point their fingers and guns at the asylum seekers’ heads.

Nicole: I do believe that most of the time the security on Nauru handled themselves quite appropriately and did follow up on reports and behaviors that were going on. I think that’s one of the main differences between Nauru and Manus Island. Manus was a little different in regards to that.

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Were you concerned enough to want to report what you saw on Nauru to any authorities?
Chris: To report an incident was to go against the people you work with. The culture was: if you see it, just ignore it. To speak up was to pretty much lose your job, and the reason to be over there is to help these men, so if you’re not there, you can’t really help them.

How did your attitude towards your work on Nauru start to change as time progressed?
Nicole: Over time, it started to change. When I first got there, I asked to go home. I think I actually had booked a plane ticket home and I called my Dad and said ‘I think I’m going to come home early’. And he said ‘you went over there to help people’, and I said ‘okay, I’ll stick out this rotation’. Then as time went on, what I was seeing was so abhorrent and cruel that I really felt an obligation to stay and make a difference.

You mentioned a lot of suicide attempts in your Senate Inquiry statements. Tell me about the first time an asylum seeker told you that they wanted to kill themselves?
Nicole: The first time somebody told me, they showed me a noose they had made out of rope from the canvas of their tent and said that they would like to kill themselves because they believed their life was not worth living and they thought they’d be on Nauru for five years or more.

What did you say back to them when they showed you the noose?
Nicole: I told them that ‘this isn’t forever’ and that they would be out of there at some stage. I told them that I’d have to remove the noose and I reported it to security. It’s something that sounds so shocking, but when you’re there, it‘s quite normal to see and hear those things. After a while you become a bit desensitised.

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Did anything happen that made you realise you were becoming desensitised to the things happening around you?
Nicole: Yeah. There was an incident that gets talked about a lot. There was a man who got quite distressed and took a fluorescent light tube and started stabbing his body with it. I was evacuated and went into the office and some of the newer staff were crying. I too was shocked, but looking at them made me realise that this isn’t normal.

You were both on Nauru Island for the major riots at the detention centre in July 2013. What happened?
Nicole: That day was a big day. The asylum seekers were becoming increasingly distressed about their conditions and overall treatment. It happened really quickly. We evacuated the centre and saw the riot police coming up in their full kits. I didn’t believe the situation would escalate. We did have quite a few evacuations during my time on Nauru. Some of the newer staff said to me ‘what’s going to happen? I think this is serious!” and I said to them ‘no, it’s going to be fine. This happens all the time’. It wasn’t until I saw fire trucks and water tankers going past and groups of locals, that I knew it was serious. I saw smoke coming from the centre.

Were you worried for yourself? Were you worried for people inside the centre?
Nicole: I was worried for the people inside the centre. We were moved from one hotel to another. Some people were saying ‘they’re going to be coming outside’ and I remember thinking ‘if they come outside, I’d be like hey guys, how’s it going? Hey did you get out of the centre?’ I knew there was no threat to our own safety.

After the Nauru riots, you were both re-deployed by the Salvation Army to Manus Island. Why did they say they moved you to another centre?
Nicole: They replaced Salvation Army with security services. They did still have Salvation Army on Nauru but they called it a skeleton crew. And at that time, Manus Island started to receive a lot more asylum seekers.

What did you know about Manus Island before you got there?
Nicole: Horror stories. We had friends who went over for one or two rotations and then came back to Nauru. We used to ask them ‘what’s Manus like?’ We were interested in it. And they sometimes didn’t speak about it at all.

Chris: Before I got to Manus Island, I thought it was going to be roughly the same as Nauru. Other staff said it was rough and it was hard and they didn’t really elaborate after that. I guess because it’s so shocking over there. They didn’t want to relive it again.

Read part two of this interview here.

@EmiliaKate