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Dec 14, 2012

Waiting for Salvation in a Nauru detention centre

The Salvos have come to epitomise organisational generosity. So why has it chosen to provide legitimacy to the government's asylum seeker policies, asks former diplomat Bruce Haigh?

Spare a thought for the Salvation Army and other non-government organisations in the run up to Christmas as they try and raise funds to give the least advantaged in our community something to ease the pain, bring some joy or just provide the basics over the festive season.

It is difficult getting people to put their hands in their pockets at the best of times but this year the economic pinch is being felt far more widely than it was last year.

The Salvos have come to epitomise organisational generosity at the grass roots. I remember with great affection their presence among the troops when needed. They have a special if not iconic place within Australia.

Therefore it is difficult to understand why, through their presence, they have chosen to provide legitimacy to the running of the government’s (chose your name) transit camp/detention facility/prison/concentration camp.

Outside of federal government, the welfare of detainees in these facilities has been the concern of various refugee and human rights groups and individuals. The Salvation Army has not been noted for its involvement, and yet on September 10 the Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced the Salvation Army would provide support services for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, including case management, community liaison programs and activities.

The West Australian newspaper reported the Salvation Army would receive $22 million for its work on Nauru, presumably covering a 12-month period.

The group has defended conditions for asylum seekers on Nauru and, stung by continuing criticism of its role on the island, issued a media release in November. Major Paul Moulds, territorial director — social mission and resources, said:

“We have not yet been able to deliver everything we had planned, but we are working towards offering a wide range of educational and recreational opportunities. We are advocating for better facilities and we have seen the plans developed for them. We agree this is not an ideal situation, but every day we are with the people, doing what we can to make things more bearable.”

He denied the Salvation Army was monitoring and refusing internet access to some detainees. This claim was raised again earlier this month by the Refugee Action Collective. The charge is denied, but even if the Salvation Army is acting in a manner designed to ensure equity of use for all, it has set itself up as the gatekeeper.

And in a venue which generates considerable tension, it must expect management of any resource, but particularly one of such sensitivity, can only be expected to bring the opprobrium of inmates upon it. According to Moulds:

“There are people who are seeking to attack the policy of the government by attacking the Salvation Army for its involvement in caring for asylum seekers transferred to offshore processing centres. They see this as a way to further their agenda against the government policy of offshore processing, and the truth is of little consequence to them.”

Moulds misses the point. Like it or not, whether they are aware of it or not, the presence of the Salvation Army working alongside government in the indefinite detention of asylum seekers lends the government’s policies legitimacy and puts the organisation on the same side of the fence as the government.

Institutions which sought to nurture and succour the Stolen Generation nonetheless became tainted with the evilness of the policy and got caught, to greater or lesser extent, in the allegations and substance of the abuses which occurred. The same is true of the institutions associated with child migrants from Malta and England at the end of WWII.

Following one of the rare outside visits to Nauru, the head of Amnesty International in Australia Graham Thom said he had grave concerns for the mental health of the 387 asylum seekers. The Australian Council of Social Service said Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers had reached a new low with the decision to ban asylum seekers found to be refugees from access to support services and the right to work. The Salvation Army is a member of ACOSS which together with 260 other organisations paid for an advertisement in The Australian newspaper calling on the government to undertake onshore processing of asylum seekers.

A Salvation Army publication — Refugees and Asylum Seekers: What you need to know — says:

“Issues of border security and eradication of people smuggling are important, but need to be separated from the fair and compassionate treatment of asylum seekers … The current practice of detaining asylum seekers who arrive by boat on excised territory severely restricts their access to basic rights and services, including legal representation, education, translators, and advocacy and health services. This approach impacts on the mental, physical and emotional health of asylum seekers and lacks compassion and dignity.”

The Salvation Army has advertised this month for a gym worker to provide fitness services to asylum seekers on Nauru. But how much is the organisation really helping?

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6 thoughts on “Waiting for Salvation in a Nauru detention centre

  1. Christopher Nagle

    Australian and American troops lived in tents or even less for the entire Pacific war. And for most of that time, they were more comfortably housed than the Japanese. Nobody whinged about it. There was a war to fight and an earlier generation’s idea of what ‘harsh’ really meant.

    The people from Amnesty et al wouldn’t know what harsh was because they bring with them the air conditioned assumptions of a comfort driven consumer society.

    Guys, I don’t mind you gassing on about refugees. Just don’t expect to be taken seriously or expect that your social values command any respect.

    See my article ‘Commercal Asylum Seekers’ at

  2. CML

    So let me get this straight, Bruce. You want the Salvation Army to stop assisting the refugees on Nauru, and take up protesting against the federal government’s policies as they apply to asylum seekers there.
    Doesn’t that mean that the detainees will then be worse off? And that the Salvos will become just another set of “protesters”, who like the sound of their own voices, but don’t actually do anything but complain? And if the inmates on Nauru get even less care, then that will mean all your mates can complain even more? Cunning plan, Bruce! Do you think we all came down in the last shower???
    I heard on ABC radio today that all these people who don’t do anything (read refugee advocate groups), are now saying that our detention centres do not meet international standards – whatever they are. Does that mean that the asylum seekers who get on boats in Indonesia/Malaysia should really stay in the detention centres in these countries because the facilities are far better? I don’t see these people rushing to do that, particularly if they have money to pay people smugglers. Perhaps you could enlighten us as to where these “world class” detention centres are? What a load of bull+hit – again!!

  3. malcontent

    This is all so insulting to ordinary Australians. Surely, once and for all, let’s say NO to any more refugees. It is so sickening to hear all these hard luck stories an d that awful Sarah Hanson-Young constantly whinging about their plight.

    This has been allowed to become a profitable industry overseas. Here at home we have a nice little earner for the lawyers, immigration agents, backed up by some very misguided do-gooders.
    It’s the government that should set our immigration policy, and it should be for working migrants who we need for the workforce.

    We’re not solving any of the world’s problems by being accommodating those who pay bribes to get here. Far better to help them solve their problems at home.

  4. george gally

    so Amnesty and UNHCR are also aiding asylum seekers in Nauru – should they refuse to visit and provide assistance? Should Australians not visit refugees in detention centres in Australia and cease providing care and concern for those people. Your argument is ridiculous and seeks to justify the political agendas of some who think throwing dirt at the Salvos will bring the government’s policy down. Many people work with refugee in detention situation, without them the asylum seekers people claim to care about would suffer much greater damage. Ask most of the asylum seekers how they feel. God i am so sick of people who use innocent parties to further their politics. Asylum seekers might ask you if you actaully have their interests at heart. If humanitarian assistance was denied to refugees they would be cared for only by guards and how do you know what efforts the Salvos are making to improve conditions and care, not everything people do is grandstanded.

  5. malcontent

    Forget the crocodile tears, the sob stories and the constantly whingeing refugees. This farce is costing us billions for absolutely no advantage to us.

    We are continually insulted by bleeding hearts. And we have to watch helplessly while they actually sue us in our courts, at our expense, over technicalities brought up by the local lucrative refugee industry.

    There’s no argument that the relief agencies all do their best to help distressed people. But the question remains they why should be have to face this ridiculous Nauru situation at all.

    As for the asylum seekers suffering mental health problems, just send them home to their own familiar environment. They’ll be much happier there

    And no, george gally, I have our interest at heart, not theirs. Once and for all, let’s just say NO to refugees and cancel the so-called UN obligations. Just say no, and mean it.

  6. ulysses butterfly

    Good question Bruce. Salvos Legal take up legal appeal cases for refugees here, as here, in SZQFR at
    while another arm arguably facilitates refugee suffering.

    Certainly the Salvos are not monolithic.

    When I walked the Kokoda track alone in 1990, enjoying the sights and viewing the war memorabilia for myself as a student I was low on my budget (hence the walking) and the Salvos in Lae turfed me out – even when I offered to work for my lodging. Soon after when I got debilitating malaria in Lae, with QANTAS ‘misplacing’ my pre purchased air ticket supposedly in their safe custody, alone, sick as a dog in a very cheap hostel, not eating or sleeping for 6 days, and fearing the worst, I got to feeling quite bitter about the un-Christian attitude of that particular Salvos rep. No doubt fueled by the fever. Only the help of a local black man, and $100 wired to me by other poor struggling lefty students back home, saw me back from the living dead.

    Too bad you tapped the hostile redneck element in this string. What’s the bet the critics don’t have a clue about the profound sufferings, PTSD and villianous dictatorships the refugees are running from. Or that our diggers fought for freedom as a universal value for them too, across all borders, and for an international legal system for refugees itself, after those terrible world wars.