Mark Isaacs. The Salvos on Nauru.

Jun 11, 2014

Judging the Salvation Army’s role in Nauru is difficult. Their job was to provide humanitarian support to asylum seekers in a detention centre that was established to deter desperate people from seeking protection by subjecting them to cruel conditions. The contradictory nature of the Salvation Army’s position meant they were damned by the government if they assisted the asylum seekers, and damned by their staff if they didn’t. Despite this the employees of the Salvation Army, my colleagues, showed utmost care for the asylum seekers we worked with and implemented a wide range of programs that alleviated some of the mental pressure placed upon these people This justified the need for a humanitarian organisation to act as a service provider within detention centres.

Having said that, my introduction to Nauru highlights several issues in the Salvation Army’s implementation of their contract in Nauru that were not confined to my initial experiences, but rather became consistent, systemic failures.

I was hired by the Salvation Army in September 2012 to work in the Nauru Regional Processing Centre as a support worker, or ‘mission worker’. The camp had been established just two weeks prior.  The Salvation Army were desperately hiring people to fly out to Nauru on four week contracts. Accounts from members of the Salvation Army suggest that the organisation wasn’t expecting the camp to be opened so quickly, that they thought they had more time to prepare.

I was hired without a job interview and without training of any kind. I was given no concept of what work I was about to become involved in. There was no job description or mission brief provided to staff in these early days. There was no idea of what the Salvation Army hoped to achieve by accepting the contract to run the centre. There were no clear directives to the staff in how we could meet these mysterious goals of the mission that one would assume the Salvation Army had discussed before accepting the contract. There was no education provided on the type of men we would be working with; where they came from, their cultural sensitivities, the types of stories we might hear, or why they were coming to Australia. I was given no guidance on how to work with traumatised refugees, or mentally ill clients who could be, and some proved to be, suicidal. The only advice given was to ‘go out and help the men’. My experiences were not isolated. In fact, in the first deployments, the most common characteristic of the Salvation Army support workers was an inexperience in working with asylum seekers and refugees.

The Salvation Army have since responded to these claims by stating that the role of a support worker was to ‘fulfil unskilled duties in support of the provision of basic needs for transferees’ and that ‘support worker roles typically do not require individuals to have particular skills or experience’. The Salvos also refute my claim that I wasn’t interviewed prior to being offered a position in Nauru, suggesting that a phone interview was conducted before deploying me. I would assert that this brief phone conversation was not a sufficient format through which to assess my skills for a role as important as a support worker for asylum seekers. Having said that, the role I was taking did not require me to have ‘particular skills or experience’.

I believe that, although the Salvation Army’s motives were admirable in accepting the brief to assist some of the world’s most desperate people, the inexperience of their managing staff in working in the refugee sector was detrimental to the well-being of the men they were contracted to care for and the workers they employed to enact this task. The statement mentioned above, provided almost eighteen months after my initial deployment, either demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the needs of asylum seekers in a place such as Nauru, or an equally complete disregard for the workers’ and the asylum seekers’ welfare.

I believe that from day one there emerged a trend of the government pressuring the Salvation Army into submission. It was a commonly accepted view amongst my colleagues that the government would argue points of contention by threatening to ‘tear up the contract’, and the Salvation Army management would toe the line. Often this was at the expense of the asylum seekers well-being and that of Salvation Army staff. Greg Lake, former head of the Department of Immigration in Nauru, states that the Salvos were contracted by the government as the lead agency in the Processing Centre. The ramifications of the Salvos inability to assume the lead agency role meant that the humanitarian care for the men suffered.

I can support all my claims with a number of examples, but in this blog I have only space for one.

It took the Salvation Army over a month to hire their first professional case managers whose role it was to monitor the men’s well-being, a responsibility that we were led to believe was one of the Salvation Army’s contractual obligations. Prior to this Wilson Security assumed the responsibility of welfare services. The first two Salvo case managers were expected to establish case management practices in a camp that housed over two hundred men, the numbers increasing weekly. The impracticality of my colleague’s workload became apparent when one of her clients became involved in a prolonged hunger strike. The Department of Immigration demanded a file be presented on the client, a file that did not exist. Rather than support my colleague, Salvation Army management demanded she write a case file retrospectively.

I believe the Salvos did not do enough to defend the human rights of the asylum seekers, and that this was a disservice, not only to the men imprisoned in Nauru, but to the Australian public who could rightly assume that the presence of a humanitarian organisation in Nauru would mean that human rights would be upheld and if those human rights were being abused, then the Salvos would voice their concerns.

In summation, I believe that although the original motives of the Salvation Army were admirable, the implementation of the ‘Nauru mission’ suffered due to inexperience, poor preparation, and the Salvation Army’s inability to defend the asylum seekers’ human rights and handle government pressure. This resulted in a far more oppressive atmosphere for inmates that could have been avoided. Furthermore, the lack of respect shown to their own employees has left many embittered against the organisation and the experience of working in Nauru.

Having recently been employed as a case manager for an asylum seeker settlement service in Sydney, I see how organisations can work in this intricate political space of advocating for clients while still being contracted by the government, reinforcing my belief that the role of humanitarian support in these camps is essential to the asylum seekers’ welfare.

Mark Isaacs also wrote a guest blog which was posted on March 28 – ‘Deterring boat arrivals’.


Mark Isaacs is the author of ‘The Undesirables: Inside Nauru’


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