The Moss Review of allegations of abuse of asylum seeker detainees on Nauru, snuck out by the government in the wake of Malcolm Fraser’s death, reveals once again an Immigration Department that is hell-bent on covering up circumstances that at best reflect its profound incompetence and at worst demonstrate an actively malign intent toward those placed in its care.

It’s important to understand the extraordinary attempt at a cover-up that the Immigration Department engaged in prior to Philip Moss being engaged to investigate claims of abuse of detainees on Nauru in October. Anonymous Save the Children staff had detailed what they called “systematic violations” of detainee rights in August, including physical and sexual abuse from security guards and rape threats. That followed claims from Save the Children staff earlier last year about physical abuse of detainees. As the ABC revealed earlier this month, in the week before then-immigration minister Scott Morrison announced the Moss inquiry, the department approached a “senior intelligence analyst” working for Wilson, the security company operating Nauru, and told him “we’re interested in anything you’ve got on Save the Children”.

The response to this request was an “intelligence report” cobbled together from misinterpreted tweets, old newspaper articles and recycled hearsay that referred to “possible subversive activity” by Save the Children staff. In fact, Wilson produced a series of “intelligence reports” about the situation on Nauru, and the Moss report shows them in some cases to be little more than a joke — one Wilson report claiming Save The Children staff were coaching detainees to self-harm cited as proof an article in The Australian that said nothing about service providers on Nauru, or Save the Children staff. “Other than these two intelligence reports, the Review has been unable to obtain any other information supporting the allegation that contract services provider staff members coached or encouraged transferees to engage in self harm,” Moss concluded. More broadly, Moss was unable to find any evidence to back up the claims of Save the Children staff orchestrating or fabricating complaints of abuse.

Despite the lack of evidence in the Wilson report, the department immediately demanded from Wilson the names of the relevant staff. Wilson staff assumed providing the names would be a precursor to a proper investigation. Instead, with Immigration executives saying the report “seemed pretty solid”, the department promptly kicked the Save the Children staff off Nauru, having made an unsuccessful attempt to ban five staff back in July. A senior departmental officer told Morrison he was “going to get a list of names of people who were identified as orchestrating or participating in this kind of behaviour … I will exercise a right we have under our contract to have these people removed.” No effort was made by the department to verify the claims.

The Wilson report was also cited by Morrison as the basis for his claim that Save the Children staff were engaging in “political activism”, orchestrating protests and doctoring reports. His office also used the report to background News Corp attack dogs to savage Save The Children, with comparisons to the children overboard affair.

This is what the Immigration Department does in response to serious allegations of physical and sexual abuse and neglect on Nauru: it tries to cover them up and discredit those who reveal the allegations. It tried to pressure International Health and Medical Services staff last year to withdraw statements about the Immigration Department’s failure to provide the most basic of mental health services on the island. Now the Immigration Department has been revealed as relying on a half-baked (to be generous) “intelligence report” about “possible” activity to kick out staff of an organisation it viewed as too likely to reveal what was being done to women and children under Australia’s care. And unchastened by the Moss report, the department is currently working with the Australian Federal Police in an effort to pin charges of unauthorised disclosure of information on Save the Children staff.

As under the Howard government, Immigration has embraced the anti-asylum seeker rhetoric of its political masters as part of a core policy of neglect and indifference to those under its care. But this time around, it has also embraced the obsessive loathing of transparency that is at the centre of “Operation Sovereign Borders” and appears determined to do anything to shut down those who might reveal how it mistreats those under its care.

The recent change of leadership at Immigration, with former Customs head Mike Pezzullo brought in to purge the senior executive and turn the department into a kind of quasi-military force, will only exacerbate what Moss has revealed. Pezzullo was front and centre in the trying to block any scrutiny of Operation Sovereign Borders. Without a genuinely independent investigation into this department, the abuse of people in our care will continue, and so too will the efforts to cover it up.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey