Minister to investigate detention centre claims

A whistleblower has told SBS’ Dateline program that Manus Island is a place unfit to be a dog kennel, where detainees aren’t protected from sexual assaults and abuses go unreported.



Meanwhile, there have been revelations authorities were warned tensions were likely to erupt on Nauru ahead of last week’s riots.


Thea Cowie reports.



Asylum-seekers protesting at the conditions on Nauru before last Friday’s riot left the detention centre in ruins with the Australian government facing a damage bill of at least $60 million.


It’s a situation insiders say may soon be replicated on Manus Island.


Immigration Minister Tony Burke has told ABC radio he’ll be wasting no time in investigating allegations about the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.


“The allegations are horrific. There’s no other way of describing. I wish I had been able to get the specifics off them earlier than last night because I would have started acting on them earlier than last night.”


Mr Burke’s decision to travel to the centres and investigate the allegations comes after former G4S guard Rod St George told Dateline that asylum seekers were being sexually abused and tortured in the Manus centre.


He told Dateline some asylum-seekers were raped, while others were coerced into sewing their lips together, or had solvents poured into their ears.


He says these allegations were raised in team management meetings attended by Immigration Department officials, but they made no efforts to separate the victims from their alleged attackers.


Mr St George also claims acts of self-harm and attempted suicides are occurring almost daily among asylum seekers who are waiting months for their asylum applications to be processed.


“Very common. Almost daily. I had just previous to going to Manus left a detention centre where there were approximately 600, so twice as many than were at Manus and we didn’t have the amount of incidences or self harms in a week that we would see at Manus in a day.”


Mr St George worked for decades in prisons around the country before working as an occupational health and safety compliance manager on Manus Island.


He says what he saw there made him resign after just one month.


Other whistleblowers have also spoken out about what they describe as the government’s failure to address concerns about Nauru’s detention centre.


Mark Isaacs is one of a team of Salvation Army officers who were providing humanitarian support on Nauru.


He told the ABC workers were warning the Immigration Department for months that conditions were so bad a riot was likely to break out at any time.


“As shocked as we are we feel that it was an incident that was inevitable considering the condition that the men are kept in and the past events that have occurred in Nauru. In the past ten months there have been a number of incidences. Two riots or two uprisings that I was present for. I’ve witnessed a man suffer a psychotic episode in the camp and not be treated for three days. This deterioration of mental health plays a large part in the incidents that have occurred. There’s been a building tension in the camp, a building frustration ever since we first arrived.”


The Salvation Army has since released a statement on behalf of 31 current and former staff highly critical of the conditions they’ve witnessed while assisting asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.


Australian Federal Police Sergeant Brendan Thomson is a former leader of the Operational Response Group on Christmas Island.


He told the ABC that riots on Manus Island are likely.


“I think Australia’s kind of handed them a grenade without the pin and what’s happened over the weekend is indicative of potentially what we may see in Manus and what we saw on Christmas Island.”


The Manus Island whistleblower Rod St George also claims asylum seekers are stockpiling weapons, and he warns people could be killed in a breakout.


Papua New Guinea Prime Minister says he can’t guarantee that won’t happen.


“But what we have to do is try and manage it so that we reduce the chances of this kind of activity happening like the violence in Nauru. But that was confined to the centre itself it’s not spreading to the rest of the community. So our aim is to try and build a permanent facility that is going to reduce this kind of opportunistic people who are trying to seek attention.”


Mr O’Neill says his immigration department is working very closely with Australia’s and he gets regular briefings on the Manus centre.


But he says he’s not particularly concerned about what he’s hearing.


“Those issues that you are talking about including the whistleblower stated over the last day or so is an ongoing issue you’ve people from different areas living together in one area so they are problems about how they live, how they manage their day to day activity.”


But Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says the allegations are alarming and the government should have seen them coming.


“They have to be investigated and if people have done the wrong thing, well they ought to be punished. I should point out that (Opposition immigration spokesman) Scott Morrison has been warning the government for months that there were serious risks of bullying and abuse and violence in detention centres both here and overseas. I’m disappointed that the government has made light of Scott Morrison’s warnings.”


Immigration Minister Tony Burke says it was only after the SBS allegations went to air that he learned Mr St George’s identity.


He’s says he spoke to the whistleblower immediately and is already looking to implement some of his ideas for improving conditions.


“There were some very specific suggestions that Rod St George put to me last night which I’ll be looking at directly. Things as simple as the fact that at the facility it was impossible to separate anyone so if you had one group that was actively demonising and causing all sorts of damage to more vulnerable people there then you didn’t have a way of physically making sure that the more vulnerable people were being kept separate.”


Mr Burke says despite the concerns about conditions in Australia’s overseas detention centres he is not about to abandon plans to expand the Manus Island facility.


The Minister says enlarging the facility offers a great opportunity for issues of design, staff training and culture to be looked at afresh.


The Rudd government says it will enlarge the centre to cater for 3,000 asylum-seekers, up from the current capacity of 600, as part of its new policy designed to discourage boat arrivals.