Violence, self-harm and bullying: whistleblowers speak of detention

Fresh claims of extensive self-harm, mistreatment by guards and fabrication of welfare documents have emerged from within the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.

  • Allegations staff fabricated mental health reports
  • Reports of almost daily self-harm
  • Shortages of underwear and sanitary products
  • Guards accused of racism, bullying and violence

New claims of extensive self-harm, mistreatment by guards and fabrication of welfare documents have emerged from within the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.

Exclusive footage obtained by Dateline details a string of allegations, including a shortage of underwear and sanitary items for female detainees.

Aired on SBS ONE on Tuesday, the footage also shows former employees speaking out over mismanagement at the camps, which led to the near death of an at-risk asylum seeker at Nauru.

A former Salvation Army worker told Dateline that guards had allowed the highly disturbed man out on a walking excursion, despite a carefully drawn plan outlining the need for close supervision.

The worker, identified as Claire, said two guards were escorting the group when the client found a piece of glass and stabbed himself in the neck.

“Thankfully he didn’t die on the road, but it came very close,” she said.

“They had no underwear, no bras”

Another former Salvation Army worker reported men self-harming on an almost daily basis while at Nauru.

The university student, identified as Marie, said she had witnessed asylum seekers cutting their wrists and necks, trying to suffocate themselves with plastic bags and stitching their lips together.

“We were told if we saw people protesting or self-harming not to look at them, because it empowers them,” she said.

“So we were told to walk away.”

Marie said she hadn’t undergone an application process or training and was instead told to “go mingle” in the camp, which she described as dirty and infested with vermin.

She said she was shocked at the conditions, which included shortages of underwear and sanitary items.

“There were escape attempts by women because they felt degraded because they had no underwear, no bras,” she said.

She said the shortage of sanitary items meant asylum seekers were required to fill out request forms for supplies.

“They were available, but in limited supply,” she said.

“I was told it was a potential fire hazard to give too many at one time.”

Marie also worked on Manus Island, where she described the camp as unsanitary and smelling of human waste.

“The smell of faeces and urine and still overwhelmingly hot, dirty the while thing,” she said.

“It was terrible.”

She said detainees on Manus Island had no real privacy and sheets hung as makeshift walls were often removed by guards.

She had also witnessed self-harm at that compound, including a man that suffered significant blood loss after trying to slit his wrist.

Staffers told to fabricate reports

Another former Salvation Army worker told of her colleagues fabricating numerous individual management plans (IMPs) while on Nauru, designed to manage the wellbeing of asylum seekers. 

She alleges that paperwork designed to detail specific goals for individual asylum seekers across focus areas such as mental health and education was copied in order to meet quotas.

She said increased pressure from the Immigration Department had prompted the fabrication to ensure the organisation kept the contract on Nauru.

“Definitely colleagues were in the office for six or seven hours a day copying statements into new IMPs and using the information from other case notes to try and improve the quality of them,” she said.

The Salvation Army declined to be interviewed, but told Dateline it strongly denied the allegations and has never instructed or expected caseworkers to fabricate the paperwork.

They also stated that all individual management plans were regularly audited by the Immigration Department.

Former workers also detailed mistreatment from security forces based at the camp. 

During her time at Nauru, Marie said she had overheard detention centre guards bragging about violence and the poor conditions in the camp.

“They joked that there was a queue 45 minutes long for the toilet,” she said.

“They would say ‘I hope they get dysentery’. Things like that … There was a real notion of punishment and a real lack of care, and they seemed to enjoy that.”

“Somebody is going to die here”

Guards also stand accused of widespread racism and bullying by the former Salvation Army worker, who said several ex-Army officers would mime shooting detainees while on site.

“They would just make a gun with their hands and point at the back of their heads and make gun noises,” she said.

“They would say things like ‘you’re all boat people. People don’t care about you’.”

Violence by guards was also detailed in a recording obtained by Dateline, in which an expatriate guard spoke following the riot on Nauru in July last year.

The recording described the violence on the day, claiming guards were “hitting ‘em with bloody fire extinguishers and everything”.

“I was jamming my fingers straight in their throat,” he said.

“And then they came back a second time, it was a jam at the throat and smash up under the jaw.

“This place, somebody is going to die here, it won’t be me.”

Another comment posted by a guard on Facebook described the incident as “sweet justice”.

“They got what they deserved in the end,” it said.

“… The jail here won’t be a fun place for those involved and it’ll be back into the tents for the rest.”

Another social media comment referred to the Salvation Army as “scumbags”.

“There’s got to be some breaking point”

Former trauma counsellor Sue Todd described the Nauru camp as a “breeding ground” for tension.

“There’s nothing to do,” she said.

“There’s got to be some breaking point.”

She said the majority of detainees in her care were struggling, including Afghan refugees that had fled after serving alongside Allied forces and now suffered nightmares and flashbacks.

Her patients also included Tamils injured in Sri Lanka’s recent war, but her attempts to get better medical help for the detainees failed in the face of the government’s “very hardline” approach.

“Nothing happened,” she said.

“You feel like you’re rattling a cage.”

Dateline requested responses to the allegations in this story from the Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Salvation Army, Wilson Security and G4S. You can read the responses here.