A whistleblower who worked at the Manus Island refugee detention centre in Papua New Guinea has spoken out in an exclusive interview with Dateline, condemning it as not even fit to “serve as a dog kennel”.
Tonight, the explosive inside story of the Manus Island detention centre and claims from a whistleblower of rape, torture and self-harm there. The island's controversial processing centre is at the heart of the Government's tough new boat people policy and since Prime Minister Rudd announced last Friday that nobody who arrives by boat will ever settle in Australia, at least 285 asylum seekers have been intercepted at sea, all of them now destined for Manus. So, what awaits them there? A whistleblower has come forward to speak exclusively to Dateline. He's a former senior manager from the detention centre. His allegations are deeply disturbing. You'll hear also from Immigration Minister Tony Burke, who was interviewed prior to the new policy announcement. Here's Mark Davis.
REPORTER: Mark Davis
A crisp day in Melbourne - a city that feels a world away from Manus Island and home to a most unlikely critic of Australia's refugee detention centre there, Rod St George is not an activist or a refugee advocate. He's a former prison guard turned manager for the security firm G4S.
REPORTER: So, why have you decided to talk?
ROD ST GEORGE: Uh... No-one else was talking, Mark.
REPORTER: You kept waiting, expecting someone else would?
ROD ST GEORGE: Yeah. Yeah. I think it finally...
He's throwing away his career to speak out about his experiences working in the Manus Island refugee centre.
ROD ST GEORGE: I didn't expect it to be run as a prison - worse than a prison, in fact.
His account of refugees being sexually abused and tortured in custody, with the full knowledge of staff there, is a harrowing one.
ROD ST GEORGE: They would be returned to the compound. They would be assaulted or raped again.
His bitterness is not towards his fellow guards but the Department of Immigration officials who run the camp. His assessment of them is shockingly blunt.
REPORTER: What was your view of them?
ROD ST GEORGE: I have worked with some of the - some of the worst, uh, criminals Australia has. And even they had a clearer sense of decency than what I witnessed there.
Earlier this year, Rod St George took up the position as the compliance manager for G4S's contract to provide security on Manus Island.
ROD ST GEORGE: I spent almost 10 years in the prison industry in two states and I managed two tenders for the company that I was working for in Manus. OH&S...
He was in charge of occupational health and safety issues as well as risk assessment officer for both inmates and guards. After a month, he resigned.
REPORTER: When did you first realise that something was amiss? Or when did it turn for you after you got the job? What was your first sort of moment of disquiet?
ROD ST GEORGE: I suppose it was a brewing thing and that finally reached a pinnacle in my time in mid-April, with many self-harms in one day. And then several of the guards were assaulted. One man was kicked unconscious. Um, they reached a point where they can't tolerate it anymore. There's no media coverage, there's no legal representation. It's just become a dark and dirty secret.
Two months ago, Dateline went to Manus to report on the rumours that were swarming around it and to try and get inside the facility.
REPORTER: But I can't get much closer than this, not a single journalist has been inside the centre since it opened last August. That seems a little strange to me. It could be the house of horrors that some people describe it as. It could be the Sheraton Hotel. But there's no way of telling from out here.
Australian officials from the refugee centre went to extreme lengths to prevent us from getting inside Manus. We were chased...
REPORTER: Looks like we've got company.
...threatened, arrested and electronically tracked. Here.
MAN: You plug it here.
Even though every level of the PNG government - from the Prime Minister down - wanted us to see inside the facility.
PETER O’NEILL, PNG PRIME MINISTER: There are no restrictions on our part, I can assure you that you are free to go to Manus any time you want to.
The office of the then minister, Brendan O'Connor, maintained the absurdity that Australia welcomed inspection of the site. But that unfortunately PNG did not.
REPORTER: Ma'am, ma'am, it's Mark Davis from SBS.
A position maintained with a straight face by Australia's High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea.
REPORTER: As far as you're aware, the Australian Government has no problem?
DEBORAH STOKES, AUSTRALIAN HIGH COMMISSIONER, PNG: The Papua New Guinea government is the administrator of the centre and, um, it is, um, on their - it's on their land and the, um... We will have a discussion with them about that.
REPORTER: So, theoretically, if they're happy with that, that shouldn't a problem?
DEBORAH STOKES: Yes.
PETER O’NEILL: It's absolutely not true on our part that we have placed any restrictions on anybody to travel to Manus to report on anything.
It seems that unpalatable truths rarely shake the Department of Immigration, the most media-hardened unit in the Government. Ministers come and go, but the department and its policies roll on. Tony Burke has recently been appointed as Minister.
TONY BURKE, MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION: This is the first time media access to Manus has been raised with me. We're talking about access within another country.
REPORTER: It's not the first time it's been raised with your department.
TONY BURKE: That's true. My department has existed for more than 50 years, I suspect, and there would be a host of things that have been raised with them that haven't been raised with me.
REPORTER: Let's stick with the last year. It's been 11 months since Manus opened. Not a single journalist has been there. Does that seem unusual to you?
TONY BURKE: Well, you have raised something that I will raise with others and find out what the reason is.
We wondered then what the big secret was that needed to be so hidden. I thought the Government may have been embarrassed by poor sewerage and leaky tents. But that's the least of it, according to Rod St George.
ROD ST GEORGE: Words really can't describe. I have never, uh - I have never seen human beings so destitute, so helpless, and so hopeless before. I took the position with every intent of making the place a safer environment but it proved quite rapidly to be an impossibility. In Australia, the facility couldn't serve as a dog kennel. The owners would be jailed.
Our previous story revealed what appeared to be disturbing levels of self-harm at Manus.
REPORTER: I mean, it's very extreme to kill yourself or cut yourself. Why is it happening now? Is it because...?
REFUGEE: They couldn't. Yeah, exactly they said, we can't tolerate this place, it’s such a hell and we are going to stay here for a long time. It’s better we die here.
Local guards in the centre confirmed for the first time that self-mutilation was not a sporadic or rare event.
GUARD: They go crazy, cutting themselves up, trying to hang themselves up.
REPORTER: People, they're trying to kill themselves in there?
GUARD: Yeah, of course.
REPORTER: What - you have to cut the...?
GUARD: Cut the ropes and save them. Yeah? Yeah.
REPORTER: Um, and other - what, you say they're cutting them...?
GUARD: They get piece of metal, like wire or something, and cutting themselves.
Suicide attempts and self-harm are not unknown in Australia's refugee detention regime. Definitely a sign of extreme distress, possibly attention-seeking, but what is unquestionable to Rod St George...
ROD ST GEORGE: People do desperate things.
...is that the self-harm rates at Manus are totally off the scale in comparison to other detention centres.
REPORTER: The department doesn't confirm or deny reports of self-harm and attempted suicides. But are these acts occurring there? Are they common there?
ROD ST GEORGE: 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.
REPORTER: Your department won't release those figures, but are they provided to you? Do you get those statistics which suggest how many acts of self-harm are occurring there?
TONY BURKE: Have I no doubt I will be able to get hold of that information and I will do so. With self-harm instances, I think there is a very careful approach we need to have to any instances of self-harm. We certainly must never create a situation where an impression is given that self-harm is actually a pathway to get a changed outcome. If you do that, you create - well, you create expectations and potentially, at worst, incentives that are horrific and affect many more people than the person who is engaging in self-harm.
The staff at Manus reflect the Minister's view that no-one should be rewarded for self-harm. No privileges and certainly no departures from Manus - a harsh but rational pursuit of the Government's policy.
ROD ST GEORGE: Who speaks for those people?
But to Rod St George's disgust, the same policy was applied to victims of harm as well. Up to half a dozen young men, who he believed were being assaulted and sexually abused in the compound.
ROD ST GEORGE: Detainees who are being assaulted in their tent at night or in the ablution blocks in broad daylight.
Victims knowingly left at the hands of their tormentors in a half-built camp with separate zones. Not enough staff to protect them and a management team from the Department of Immigration that refuses to send them off the island against the advice of St George and his security team.
ROD ST GEORGE: There was nothing that could be done for these young men, who were considered vulnerable which in many cases is just a euphemism for men who are being raped. Um... They had to stay where they were.
REPORTER: The management team would meet, what, every morning, I assume? You're reporting there's been instances of rape, constant rape for some of those men? You're reporting attempted suicides, quite specifically, I'm interested, you're giving that information to the Department of Immigration. What are those officials doing, saying, how are they reacting?
ROD ST GEORGE: Look, it was obvious that... ..everyone was way in over their head. That we did not have the facilities, uh, or the expertise to prevent what was happening. We might separate people in those circumstances on the mainland but there aren't any facilities at Manus to do that. So, these people who have been assaulted are forced to remain...
REPORTER: Back in the tent.
ROD ST GEORGE: Back in the tent.
REPORTER: That's a pretty hard thing to do to a guy that has come to up and said he's been assaulted. And you have to say, "Back under the canvas."
ROD ST GEORGE: Right. There was nowhere else for them to go and it was made quite...
REPORTER: Because no-one leaves Manus.
ROD ST GEORGE: No-one leaves Manus. That's the message.
REPORTER: That's the central message. No-one leaves Manus, whatever happens.
ROD ST GEORGE: Yeah. These are the sorts of things that happen at Manus. If your friends and family are considering coming to Australia the same way that you did, there's a very good chance they could end up here.
REPORTER: In this kind of hell. Did it occur to you at the time, how is it that guys like you, former prison guards, are having an emotional response to this and Immigration officials, government bureaucrats, in your view, weren't?
ROD ST GEORGE: Well, that... That was something that shocked me, Mark. I thought all people have an innate understanding of right and wrong and the capacity to act in a humane manner. But I simply didn't see that from members of the department. We talked about this as an island that's 700km north of Port Moresby in the Bismarck Sea, but if this was happening next door, if you knew that there were people next door being raped, and you said nothing, you would be complicit.
REPORTER: Did you feel complicit, being there?
ROD ST GEORGE: I, uh... I suppose being an Australian, and knowing that this is what my Government is doing, that my Government has sanctioned this, made me feel ashamed. Yeah. And I've said as much to my wife.
REPORTER: There are multiple accounts of sexual assault occurring within the single male compound at Manus Island. Victims of those sexual assaults on the instructions of your staff, not the guards, on the instructions of your staff, are that they are to be sent back to the compound, where they're being assaulted again.
TONY BURKE: Is he prepared to provide that information to me?
REPORTER: He is prepared to provide that information.
TONY BURKE: OK. Then I want to have it as soon as possible. I need to hear the specific allegations, I need to make sure they're properly investigated and if the implementation of different policies needs to be reviewed as a matter of that, then that needs to occur.
REPORTER: Does it suggest there's been a collapse in the information chain or in the duty of care from within your ministry? I understand you're a new Minister, but you are responsible for your ministry.
TONY BURKE: Not only that, but you have on camera the vision of the first time I was told of this particular allegation and you have on camera my precise responses to how I intend to deal with it. And that's what I intend to do.
The Minister's willingness may be refreshing, but he's only been in the job a few weeks, inheriting a department that's well-versed in secrets, stonewalling and denial.
TONY BURKE: The first stage is for me to properly gather the facts.
Manus was rebuilt and opened in a hurry. It was Julia Gillard's response to the Opposition's rejection of her Malaysian Solution. The small block of jungle solution was meant to be a temporary one, but almost a year on it's still being patched up to keep it functioning, albeit as the most dysfunctional of all the refugee centres. It's malarial, it's cramped, it's hot, it's unsafe and it seems to be driving its inhabitants insane. But perhaps most bizarrely of all, it didn't need to be like this.
PETER O’NEILL: People are very friendly people and they welcome the opportunity.
PNG offered a much cheaper and much more humane alternative.
PETER O’NEILL: As a government, we have stated to the Australian Government that the refugees and the asylum seekers on Manus can freely engage with the local community.
REPORTER: You want them out of the centre?
PETER O’NEILL: Of course. We want them to more run freely within the community. They don't necessarily have to be confined at the centre.
And the locals seem to embrace the Prime Minister's idea too.
LOCALS: Well, we are dealing with human beings and I feel sorry for them. I want to care for them and look after them. They are free, they can come out, they can help us, we can help them and then we process them, and then they can go back. You see?
How Australia turned a generous offer of a processing centre into a heavily fortified but inadequate bush prison is unclear. It's also unclear what lottery 300 individuals lost to be brought here and told they won't even be interviewed for four years, when they know that most refugees are issued bridging visas within months.
ROD ST GEORGE: They cannot fathom why they are there and why the process is taking so long.
REPORTER: Could you get any sense of how these people are selected? I mean, why? These 300 souls are put on Manus? Did you get any sense of how they're selecting them to put them here?
ROD ST GEORGE: No.
REPORTER: Were they offenders of some sort?
ROD ST GEORGE: No.
REPORTER: Were they violent characters to be placed there?
ROD ST GEORGE: No. No. The intelligence reports indicate that, for the most part, these - there may be exceptions - but for the most part they had no previous violence in the history.
REPORTER: So, as best you can tell, they're picked at random.
ROD ST GEORGE: Um hum.
REPORTER: And sent to this island while others are released?
ROD ST GEORGE: Correct.
If they weren't violent when they came, it seems that some of them certainly are now. Rod St George's concern is not just for the victims of violence inside the centre, but for the Australian and local guards that worked for him, equally vulnerable in a poorly built and designed facility.
REPORTER: It sounds like the place is a tinderbox, though. It feels like it could explode.
ROD ST GEORGE: I believe it's just a matter of time. It's known to the security staff that there are many, many weapons there that have been obtained through various means. And I'm not talking about the homemade, you know, prison-built shivs or anything like that. These are, um, manufactured weapons that have been purchased for them and that, of course, places all the staff in danger.
REPORTER: But what sort of weapons? You say manufactured weapons?
ROD ST GEORGE: Knives predominantly.
REPORTER: So there's an expectation amongst the staff that something like this could happen or is about to happen?
ROD ST GEORGE: Oh, yeah, yeah. The detainees are quite open that there will come a time when they will break out and that people will be killed. They are quite open about that.
REPORTER: You may have no basis to trust or otherwise the information you're receiving from Manus, but are you satisfied, to date, that you are receiving a full and complete picture in the briefings you're receiving about Manus?
TONY BURKE: My preference is to go there myself. I am currently in the process of working out how quickly I will be able to do that. I've never, in any of the portfolios I have had, worked on the basis that you can glean from a departmental briefing the same sort of information that you get by visiting as a Minister.
REPORTER: Is it possible that the Government doesn't know how bad Manus is? Is it possible the Minister doesn't?
ROD ST GEORGE: I have no doubt whatsoever that the Immigration Minister does not know just how bad it is.
REPORTER: Do you think there's incentive for the bureaucrat that is are there to disguise what's going on?
ROD ST GEORGE: Yeah.
REPORTER: What gives you that impression?
ROD ST GEORGE: The briefing that is we had, uh, especially those about victims of sexual assault and rape and so on and so forth, the responses that we saw from some members of the department, um, and one person in particular, led us to believe that this was not a matter that needed to go any further. You know, I think he felt that he had dealt with it sufficiently and that any report would be - it would be watered down after that.
REPORTER: And this is an Immigration official based in the camp?
ROD ST GEORGE: Yeah.
Manus Island is an incongruous location for a detention centre. It's probably the gentlest place in all of PNG and many of the local guards were shocked by what they were seeing in the camp.
GUARD: I didn't think it would be like this. I think they're not prisoners. They're not prisoners.
REPORTER: For you, they're not?
Their attempts to warn Australia that something was amiss was not well received by the Department of Immigration two months ago. After our story went to air, a witch-hunt was launched against the local staff. We believe the camp police unit used our vehicle's tracking device to trace the places and houses we visited.
REPORTER: That's it, is it? Up found it? Serious?
Six staff were suspended, one was sacked, wrongly accused in both his view and ours. It's yet to be seen if the Government acts any differently in response to Rod St George.
REPORTER: What was the moment where you went, "I can't work here anymore, I have to get out"?
ROD ST GEORGE: Look, probably the picture of two men that had been coerced to sew their lips together. They, again, it's... It's an unusual environment, causing people to do unusual things. And standover tactics are quite rife there.
REPORTER: What do you mean - people were coerced to do their lips?
ROD ST GEORGE: There was a man, um, uh... ..who was a heavy, I suppose, by prison terms. And he had a few men around him. They were the - they were tough guys at the compound and they wanted to make a statement and so forced a couple of guys to sew their lips together. They weren't going to do it themselves, a statement had to be made, so they basically stood over a couple of guys and made sure they did it.
REPORTER: Did it to them or the guys did it themselves?
ROD ST GEORGE: The understanding is they did it themselves. But one man in particular, he had already been a victim of torture at the hands of these same men. His left ear had been perforated. They had been pouring solvents in his ear for some time.
REPORTER: This is insane.
ROD ST GEORGE: It is insane. Some days later, I think it was about three or four days later, they were permitted to, um...to have the material cut, permitted by the...
ROD ST GEORGE: The heavies. Mmm.
REPORTER: So, their lips were still sewn together?
ROD ST GEORGE: Mmm.
REPORTER: No-one removed it until they asked for it?
ROD ST GEORGE: No.
REPORTER: And they had been intimidated into doing it.
ROD ST GEORGE: Mmm.
REPORTER: When their lips were unstitched, were they put to another part of the facility or put back into their tent?
ROD ST GEORGE: Oh, just back into the tent. There was nowhere else for them to go.
REPORTER: Back with the guys that did it to them?
ROD ST GEORGE: Yeah. Yeah.
REPORTER: You're the risk assessment officer, you're the intelligence officer, what did you do?
ROD ST GEORGE: I resigned.
Rod St George believes there are many staff in the camp who will corroborate his story, if released from contracts that threaten imprisonment to those who speak out about the company or the department.
ROD ST GEORGE: There was no doubt among the senior members of some of the NGOs that if this was not dealt with that there would be a royal commission.
NGOs, lawyers and the media have been unable to shine a light into the dark corners of Manus Island.
ROD ST GEORGE: Crying out, "Please help..."
Perhaps too remote a problem in too remote a place for even a Government to really see inside.
ANJALI RAO: Such a powerful report there from Mark Davis. Now, when those allegations were raised with the Minister by Mark, Tony Burke asked to be put in touch with Rod St George to hear more about the claims. Mark Davis has been speaking with the Minister's office and contact will take place this evening.
Also, we were told this afternoon by the Immigration Department that there are now 130 asylum seekers remaining on Manus. The aim is to move them to the mainland prior to new arrivals being sent there. Well, Mark's previous story from Manus Island can be seen in full on our website, where you can also leave your comments on tonight's stories. Go to sbs.com.au/dateline.
Original Music Composed by
Additional footage courtesy of Refugee Action Coalition
23rd July 2013