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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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