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Sent to Nauru with No Training and No Answers - Part 2

In part 2 of our interview with Nicole Judge and Chris Iacono, two former support workers at Australian offshore detention facilities, the pair discuss their time at Manus Island and their decision to break confidentiality agreements and speak at the...
June 18, 2014, 1:21am

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Yesterday we ran part 1 of an interview with Nicole Judge and Chris Iacono, former Salvation Army support workers sent to Australia’s offshore processing facility on Nauru with no zero training and little information. They were met with bleak conditions and asylum seekers desperate for answers, many on the brink of suicide. Having witnessed abuse from guards, incidents of horrific self harm, and the violent riot of July 2013, the 24 year olds—who first heard about the job through a listing on Facebook—didn’t think it could get much worse for people inside Australia’s detention centres. Then they were moved to Manus Island.

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Manus detention centre was built in 2001 as part of Australia’s Pacific Solution. It went unused for about a decade until the Labor government re-introduced the policy in late 2012. The Salvation Army was contracted out to provide "emotional support, humanitarian assistance and general education and recreation programs" inside the centre. Security firm G4S provided the muscle.

Nicole and Chris first arrived on Manus Island in September 2013. They spoke to VICE a few days after their appearance at last week’s Senate Inquiry into the death of an Iranian asylum seeker inside Manus in February. The transcript below is a condensed and edited version of several conversations with Emilia Terzon.

VICE: What was your first impression of the Manus Island detention centre?
Chris Iacono: Walking into Manus Island detention centre was—like Nauru—a real shock, but even more shocking. The men were held in small, gated compounds with padlocks and chains. It just felt like we were walking through a human zoo. The men were at the gates looking out and we were looking in. I can remember that one time a man attempted suicide and nobody knew where the key was to go in and open the gate.

Nicole Judge: I was really upset when I got to Manus Island. It was hot, smelled horrible, the men didn’t have shoes, often they had skin infections, and they didn’t have enough clean clothes. As we walked through the centre one of my colleagues said to the security staff ‘why are they locked up behind this fence in such a way?’ and they said ‘well, that’s how they’re supposed to be. They’re not supposed to have any freedom’.

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What were the conditions like inside Manus Island detention centre?
Nicole: The toilets and the shower block were absolutely disgusting. They weren’t cleaned properly. Often they had no toilet paper, no soap, no hand sanitiser. They only gave out soap once a month. They had washing machines but they didn’t have any washing powder. Often the water was cut off so the men couldn’t wash at all. Most of them only had one shirt, one pair of shorts, one pair of underpants. If they had a pair of thongs, they’d usually break, so they’d get an elastic band or string and tie it back onto their foot.

What about healthcare?
Nicole: They waited a considerable amount of time to access health care. There was a quarantined area where people with gastro went. There was a typhoid outbreak, so people who had typhoid were placed there as well. When people got gastro most of the time they were just given Panadol and water.

Can you tell me your most vivid memory of a Manus detainee telling you they wanted to kill themselves?
Nicole: This Iranian man came to me one evening when it was raining. He put a chair down in the middle of Oscar compound and sat in the rain. So I joined him and he told me he wished that he died on the journey and that he wanted to kill himself.

What did you say back to him?
Nicole: I was telling him that this wasn’t forever. That his life was still worth living. And to ‘try not to let this get to you’. But it was quite hard. I had a conversation like that with somebody every day. Multiple times a day people would mention that they’d rather be dead.

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Chris: When people told you those sorts of things, you tell the psychologist on the island. But at the time, if they’re intent on doing it then and there, you have to raise their hopes and give them something to look forward to in life. There was always the saying ‘there’s the chance you can get somewhere’ or ‘think about your family back home’ or ‘this isn’t forever’ and ‘there’s greener grass on the other side’.

Were there children detained on Manus Island?
Nicole: Yeah. I didn’t know there were children detained there until one of my team leaders took me into a smaller part of one compound, which I thought was an isolation area for sick people. At that stage there was three registered underage minors—two from Iran and one from Myanmar.

Chris: One of the guys turned 18 while I was there and was just shifted into the over-18 compound— no questions asked. Another one was sent to Christmas Island for a couple of weeks and then came straight back. One of them threatened suicide, and so he was taken to the jail, which is insane—having a kid locked up in a PNG jail.

Nicole: One of my favourite memories with those kids was when they taught me one of their cultural dances. And I’m a terrible dancer! But I had a go and they had a laugh. It was Iranian kind of Persian dance. It was quite feminine. They asked me to show them our Australian cultural dance and obviously what can I show them? [laughs] I just made something up on the spot.

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How did expatriate G4S and PNG local guards generally treat the detainees on Manus Island?
Nicole: Not very well. A lot of the guards had a lot of misconceptions about asylum seekers. I suppose they felt they had power over them. And they thought that there was this island of secrecy where you could get away with things. Nobody was talking, nobody was reporting, so it’s quite easy to get away with little insults or inappropriate behaviour towards asylum seekers.

Chris: The guards treated the men like animals. It was do what we say and that’s pretty much it. There were times they were very physical with the guys. I only saw a couple of instances of this, but you heard things for staff after work in the hallways of the accommodation.

Nicole: Many of the guards would speak to the asylum seekers in a derogatory and racist way. If they complained, they’d say things like ‘go back where you came from’—that typical one. They sometimes referred to them as dogs. There was good and bad. I guess you always take notice of the bad. I did see a group of expatriate G4S guards beat one asylum seeker.

What happened there?
Nicole: He was doing a room change and he was waiting outside. It started to rain. He wanted to go inside and he walked quite quickly and the guards must have interpreted that as some sort of disrespectful behaviour. I don't really know how they interpreted it. They beat him for it.

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What was your reaction to that?
Nicole: I was completely shocked. I left the compound quite upset. I spoke to an onsite psychologist and reported that behaviour by G4S to G4S—which didn’t go down so well.

What happened when you made reports like that to G4S and the Salvation Army?
Nicole: That time, I was actually interviewed by PNG police after I asked for a follow up. But reporting G4S staff to G4S staff often went under the radar because you’re reporting their staff to their company.

Chris: Reporting incidents was the same as on Nauru. It didn’t occur very often. When you did do it, you were victimised, and most of the time you weren’t believed. When an incident happened, the guards from what I saw sat around with each other afterwards and twisted the story. It always became that the asylum seeker was the aggressor. And it happened regularly, to tell you the truth. Who would listen to an asylum seeker over an Australian employee? There was no way for these guys to win.

Nicole, you mentioned in your Senate inquiry submission that detainees were told that PNG nationals were cannibals. Who said things like that?
Nicole: Just the guards. Expatriate guards. I think it was supposed to be a bit of a joke, but it made the asylum seekers quite afraid. I saw an expat guard in Oscar compound pretend to eat a transferees body. And saying ‘if you get out of here, you’re going to be cooked by the PNG people’.

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You both said in your Senate Inquiry submissions that you felt you couldn’t make complaints because something bad might happen. What gave you that impression?
Nicole: A lot of staff before me had made complaints and were subsequently fired. There was one staff member that didn’t want to refer to asylum seekers as ‘transferees’. He was told he wasn’t a good team fit and was sent off the island. I had a lot of fear that I’d lose my job. I felt it was better to go undercover so to speak, and help the asylum seekers in my own way. So I decided to sometimes not report things that I had seen, but I did report the very serious ones like the assault and a couple of things.

Chris: You couldn’t really report anybody to anybody. It was always the thought that the government—your local area MP or the Prime Minister or the Immigration Department—knew what was happening. It was always thought that they should have known what the conditions were like because there were always Australian immigration officials on the islands.

Were you able to talk to your family and friends about the things you were seeing on Manus Island?
Chris: There was pretty much a constant threat by Salvation Army during all of our meetings—we had a meeting every morning—that to speak out about what you saw or how the centre was run was to go against your confidentiality agreement and the contract you signed. They threatened that you could be convicted, you could be sent to jail, there were fines, you’d lose your job. No questions asked, you’d be on the next plane. It was about being a team player, and if you weren’t a team player they’d find way to get rid of you as quick as they could. There were warnings of tapped phones, emails being checked, Facebook being monitored.

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Who did you feel was in charge of Manus Island detention centre?
Chris: There was always this inter-agency battle for control of day-to-day running between G4S and the Salvation Army. The managers were mingling together all the time, so it was pretty much a DIAC/Australian Immigration that ran the centre, and that told each agency what to do. The Salvation Army didn’t seem to be the lead agency most of the time. They were always answering to somebody else.

Nicole: I was under the impression that the Australian government called the shots. When we asked ‘why doesn’t this compound have internet’ the answer would be that ‘we’ve put in a request form to DIAC or the Department of Immigration and Border Protectionand we haven’t got a response yet’. The directive was always ‘this is word from immigration. Australian immigration’.

You were at the centre when the Immigration Minister Scott Morrison visited in late 2013. What was it like when he visited?
Nicole: He visited the island and had a brief look around. He told the asylum seekers that they should give up hope of reaching Australian shores and the policy had changed. A few of them had made signs requesting freedom and followed him around little bit. When he walked between Oscar and Delta compounds, the men started shouting ‘here comes the King!’ and he actually didn’t look sideways.

Were you scared of the detainees?
Nicole: Never. It’s one of the questions I’m asked most. I felt safer with the asylum seekers than I did outside the centre. And that’s something that I’ve always wanted to stress to people. That the asylum seekers aren’t dangerous. As a young woman, I didn’t feel unsafe at all.

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As a young woman though, you mentioned in your Senate inquiry that you faced sexual harassment. Can you tell me about that?
Nicole: There were times when I was sexually harassed by guards—both PNG and expats. I was subject to inappropriate metal detecting and inappropriate comments. They used to allude to behaviour that I should be participating in them with, so it was full on and quite extreme. I wasn’t alone.

What about the PNG locals?
Nicole: A lot of the PNG locals that I met were quite friendly but they were clearly upset. One compound was built right next to a community. There was no cross-cultural awareness. There was quite a divide. Not only that, but PNG staff weren’t treated as well as the expatriate staff. We were living on a floating hotel, we were paid more, and we were given ‘better jobs’. The PNG nationals were cleaners and things like that. And here we were—flying in and out, going back to our country in Australia, earning relatively good money—and they were still there.

Chris: I felt that the PNG nationals outside the centre didn’t really understand why the asylum seekers were there and why the Australian government was putting them there. It was just the local culture. They walked around with machetes and knives and they looked intimidating carrying around weapons.

Did you ever feel intimidated by them?
Chris: If there was a group of them—yeah. We’d cross the road. We were always warned to never go out alone at night or walk alone anywhere, because violence could happen. I just think they weren’t told what asylum seekers were, and they just didn’t understand or get given opportunities to help with the asylum seekers.

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You were present for a break in at the Manus Island Delta compound by PNG nationals at the end of 2013. What happened?
Nicole: PNG nationals tried to scale the fence with machetes. They cut water pipes outside Delta compound in protest to those working conditions that I mentioned. I honestly thought they were going to come inside the centre and attack us. I was really scared. It was actually the asylum seekers that helped me and said ‘it’s going to be fine, we’re going to be OK’, but it was actually my role to tell them that.

Chris: After the incident the asylum seekers were shocked, upset, stressed and fearful of the locals. They just tried to keep to themselves inside their compound. To be attacked in a locked compound, you’re like a fish in a barrel. They had nowhere to go. They couldn’t really do anything back for fear of being locked in a PNG prison.

So, after the Delta compound break in, were you worried that there was going to be another riot or protest on Manus Island?
Chris: Anything that happened on Manus after that was no real surprise. You knew something bad could happen. And it was just a matter of when. From then, the protest action ramped up from blockades of the facility and closing of rubbish dumps.

Nicole: A bit after that, the PNG authorities had a gunfight outside the centre, so there was always this perceived threat. They used to walk outside the centre with machetes. They still do. The threat of attack was something that I talked about with some of my team leaders. And they said to me the same thing. I guess everybody was a bit disillusioned about what they could do.

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You both left Manus Island just before Christmas in 2013. Were you thinking about Manus a lot when you got home to Australia?
Nicole: I started to think about what I could do to get word out about what was happening in the centre. I started brainstorming—should I go to the media, should I breach my confidentiality agreement, should I talk to a lawyer?

How did you first hear about the disturbance on Manus Island in February 2014?
Nicole: One of the transferees was chatting to me on Facebook and then gave me a call and said ‘please help us, we’re being attacked, they’ve cut off the electricity, it’s dark, we’re scared, fifty people are injured so far’.

Did you know Reza Berati, the Iranian man who died on that night in February?
Chris: I’d met Reza a few times on the island. He didn’t speak much English, but one his friends was pretty much fluent and helped translate occasionally. I thought of him as a good man, but I didn’t know him that well. He didn’t show any signs of aggression. But being locked in a compound, you never know what can happen, and unfortunately he died and I’m very sorry that it happened to him, and anybody else who got injured. It’s just a shocking thing and it shouldn’t have occurred.

Do you think Reza’s death was preventable?
Nicole: We knew that something could happen. I don’t know how they could have prevented it, because I do think there is such a dangerous threat just simply being on Manus Island and in the PNG. Management knew all along that there was a threat.

What led you come forward and talk to the Senate inquiry into violence on Manus Island?
Chris: It just needs to be done. To let everybody know what is happening over there, and let people have opinions about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for Australian history. In 20 or 30 years, you don’t want to look back and know that you knew what was happening over there and you did nothing.

Nicole, the first question asked of you at the Senate inquiry by Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald was: “Have you ever met a politician before?” Why do you think he asked you that question?
Nicole: [laughs] I don’t know! I started to get really annoyed from the outset of that questioning. I don’t know why he asked that question. Really. I think it was just to patronise me.

After a series of questions from Senator Macdonald about your thoughts on asylum seeker policy, you eventually said: “I feel like the questions you're asking aren't even relevant to the investigation”. Why did you say that?
Nicole: I think he was trying to get me to agree with him and to discredit me, and I didn’t want him to do that. I had to do something. I didn’t want my time to be wasted talking about something that was irrelevant. I had come there for a reason—to talk about Manus.

Do you think the system makes it easy for people like you to speak out?
Nicole: Not at all. There’s a lot of fear involved. I really encourage other staff to speak out and I know they’re in the process of doing so. I think by speaking out, we’ve hopefully set some kind of precedent for others and I can’t encourage them more.

I think if more people could have spoken out over the years about the policies and what’s been happening, maybe we wouldn’t have seen Manus Island and Nauru re-opened.

Update: At the time of publishing, the High Court has decided to uphold Australia's constitutional right to send asylum seekers to processing facilities in PNG, including Manus Island. The decision was unanimous.

Follow Emilia on Twitter: @EmiliaKate