On 10 October 2015, Nauruan police raided the offices of the charity, Save the Children, seizing phones and computers from staff. The charity workers have been accused by Nauru’s authorities of leaking information to journalists regarding the operation of Australia’s offshore asylum seeker detention centre on Nauru. As a Save the Children spokesperson said, the charity’s responsibility in Nauru is to work “to mitigate the harmful impacts of offshore immigration detention, to the extent that the circumstances allow”.
Although Australian authorities denied having any role in the raid, this assault on the integrity of charitable operations occurs within the broader context of Australia’s increasingly heavy-handed security approach to ‘border protection’. The latest targets of Australia’s scrutiny and suspicion are whistle-blowers, as demonstrated by the recent passage of the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Commonwealth).
The Act makes it a criminal offence for an Australian Border Force employee to record or disclose “protected information”, which includes any information obtained by an employee in the course of his or her work. The penalty on conviction is two years’ imprisonment. Although there are some exceptions to the prohibition, it will be up to an individual employee to prove that disclosure of protected information fell within one of these exceptions.
Employees of Australian Border Force include not only detention centre guards but also medical and other support staff. In cases where such employees decide to disclose protected information, it is possible that the authorities will decide not to prosecute. However, such employees also risk termination from their employment, should they dare to speak out.
After the passage of the Act, current and former employees – including doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers and other humanitarian staff – protested the law via an open letter. The authors challenged the government to prosecute them for speaking out “about the deplorable state of human rights in immigration detention”. They reasoned that prosecutions would enable public court hearings, which would further expose the rights violations being carried out against vulnerable people in Australia’s name.
The authors expressed their determination not to collude with a system that exposes asylum seekers in mandatory detention to “sub-standard and harmful care, child abuse and gross violations of human rights”.
Tragically, medical and support staff in Australia’s immigration detention centres have seen much that warrants public scrutiny. Sexual and physical abuse of children as young as 2 on Nauru has been documented by charity workers there. Conditions in all detention centres have repeatedly been reported as highly detrimental to the mental health of detained persons. The Australian Human Rights Commission concluded this year that mandatory detention of children is particularly grievous and harmful to their wellbeing, growth and development.
Pressure mounts on the government to reassess its highly secretive approach to dealing with those who seek to reach Australia by boat and claim asylum from persecution. In September, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants postponed a planned trip to Australia, stating that he could not adequately do his job when those he would request information from were being coerced into silence by law.
In October, doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne publicly refused to discharge asylum seeker children into detention, on the basis that detention is detrimental to the children’s health. The Australian Medical Association noted the distress of doctors who had treated detained asylum seeker children, some of whom presented having self-harmed or with mental illnesses, including anxiety and severe depression. Doctors in offshore detention centres have witnessed suicide attempts by children as young as 6 years of age.
Yet, to date, the Australian government maintains that its secretive and securitised policies and practices are essential to “stop the boats”. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton argues that mandatory detention is necessary in order that Australian customs officials may avoid “pulling dead kids out of the water”.
The actions of brave whistle-blowers, who will risk imprisonment in order to expose abuses being conducted in our name, pose a challenge to the Australian people. Will we continue to accept that “stopping the boats” is worth inflicting torment on vulnerable people – including children – who are seeking to flee persecution in their homelands? And will we tolerate the enforced secrecy that shrouds our actions towards our fellow human beings, who have found themselves in circumstances we would all hope to avoid?