One of the most difficult and constant experiences on Nauru was the attitude of the other service providers to The Salvation Army.
Before I detail this I want to acknowledge that The Salvation Army (TSA) made lots of mistakes, especially early on. Most of these mistakes were made because we were out of our depth with regard to working in an off-shore detention environment. TSA are very proficient in responding to disasters and assumed that the process that applied to disaster response would work in off-shore detention. It didn’t. There were many changes in leadership over the first 9 months which made consistency of operations difficult.
However, we were not the only ones making this up as we went along.
In February 2013 I was asked to submit a monthly report to DIAC on-island with specific information. I did this but was then told I need to provide more information and in a different format. So I tried again. 3 tries later DIAC stopped asking. When I spoke to a friend in the Public Service I was told that DIAC should have given me a template for the report that detailed the information required in the format needed. My assumption is that such a template didn’t exist!
Moreover, Transfield sub-contracted Wilson Security who then subcontracted a local organisation, Sterling Security, to “keep people safe.” Many of the people employed by Wilson were ex-military or ex-security more used to stronger tactics. The locals often had a grudge against the asylum seekers and this came out in their attitudes. Also, I really don’t think one of the female Wilson Security employees having a sexual relationship with one of the young asylum seekers constitutes keeping them safe (yes, she was sent back to Australia)!
Of all the service providers IHMS were the most prepared for this kind of situation as they work in disaster and refugee arenas around the world. However that did not make them infallible – one asylum seeker was given ear drops for his eyes -no wonder his eyes stung!
Unfortunately, even another humanitarian organisation like Save the Children quickly followed the lead of the other organisations by belittling and mocking TSA staff and procedures.
Although mistakes were made on all fronts, which is to be expected when organisations are given very short notice to set up facilities, TSA was so often the “whipping boy” for the other service providers. We could never seem to do anything right in their eyes. Our people were too soft-hearted, too much working for the asylum seekers, do-gooders who shouldn’t be there. At the end of 2013, when news came that TSA’s contract was not being renewed, the disparaging of TSA staff by some members of the other service providers was appalling and made a sad time for TSA staff even more difficult.
I worked on Nauru to stand with some very marginalised and vulnerable people, whose suffering was, and is, prolonged by the decisions of the Australian government.
For that I am not ashamed.