From the archive: 'Tales from the desert camps'

When in Australia last month thousands of documents were published in The Guardian detailing various human rights abuses and crimes committed against detained asylum seekers in the country's offshore 'camps' at Nauru (a previous Australian protectorate, the tiny island nation, now largely bankrupt after the excessive mining of phosphate - the island's only natural resource that made the country extremely rich for a period of time).

Nauru became self-governing in January 1966. On 31 January 1968, following a two-year constitutional convention, Nauru became the world’s smallest independent republic. It was led by founding president Hammer DeRoburt. In 1967, the people of Nauru purchased the assets of the British Phosphate Commissioners, and in June 1970, control passed to the locally owned Nauru Phosphate Corporation. Money gained from the exploitation of phosphate was put into the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust and gave Nauruans the second highest GDP Per Capita (second only to the United Arab Emirates) and one of the highest standards of living in the Third World.
— Wik https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Nauru

I was thinking of this history which includes Nauru taking Australia to the ICJ in 1989 over what it claimed to be Australia's 'actions during its administration of Nauru' and 'failure to remedy the environmental damage' caused by excessive mining. I was thinking of this today, crouched fully clothed by the swimming-pool (on my way to the beach) here on holiday listening to a man from Ivory Coast tell me about his country's recent history and thinking about how the countries may change, but the relationships remain the same.

GETTING WORK IN Australian detention centres was once surprisingly easy. First, you sent your CV to Australasian Correctional Management’s head office in Sydney and within a couple of days you got a call asking when you could start. No formal interview, just questions about how soon you could leave.

’Alarm bells should have been ringing, says psychologist Lyn Bender about her recruitment in March 2002, ‘but I wasn’t picking it because ACM was a great employer.’ The recruitment officer gave her the phone number of a woman who’d recently returned. ‘Call her,’ he said, ‘if you want to know what it’s like.’ Looking back now, Bender describes the phone call as bizarre. The woman talked endlessly about the uniforms, which sounded hideous, and food that sounded worse. She made no mention of the asylum seekers or ethical issues connected to their internment.

In her dimly lit consultancy rooms lined with impressionist reproductions, Bender’s voice is so quiet sometimes I struggle to hear her words. A former Lifeline manager with experience working at the maximum-security Port Phillip Prison, Bender says her interest in working with refugees was pre-conscious. ‘I had a sense it was a bit like volunteering for overseas service, overseas aid abroad. I knew it wouldn’t be pleasant, but ...’

Few friends or family showed much interest in her new job at Woomera. Perhaps because Bender had always been a bit of a loner and, at that stage, largely estranged from her conservative Jewish family. ‘I always felt like an outsider. When I went to university I joined the Rationalist Society. It wasn’t bagging religion; it was the only way I could express my despair at being dominated by the Holocaust.’

During the Second World War, Bender’s Polish father had no idea what was happening in his homeland. It was only when the survivors from Lowicz, his home town south of Warsaw, came to Australia that he found out that his family had been taken to the forest and shot soon after the invasion. ‘My father then shut himself away for several days; locked himself in his room,’ Bender says. He never recovered.

One of her clients challenged her about the new job, calling it immoral and asked how she could work in such a place. ‘I was going to see what I could do,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t going to support the system.’ Ultimately, though, she didn’t have much time to think. She left Melbourne within the week.

On her arrival at Olympic Downs, Bender was already having second thoughts. Maybe it was something to do with the airport’s oppressive atmosphere, crowded with mine workers. Driving through the desert, Bender kept seeking more information. The officer who met her flight would only say, ‘Oh, you’ll find out. It was like I’d landed in a movie in some kind of redneck town.’
— 'Tales from the desert camps' Griffith Review, 2005

'Tales from the desert camps' is probably still my favourite piece of long-form journalism published to date; taking as it does an early look at the experiences of those working in Australia's immigration detention system that in that era saw the mass detention of all arrivals in remote prison-like centres set up in former military bases in the Australian desert.

My interest then, as now was how these Australians felt about their experience of working in places where children routinely (then as now) cut the word 'freedom' into their bodies; where extreme violence was seen on a daily basis - harsh physical restraints, beatings; during riots, the use of water cannon and tear gas; the repeated use of isolation - and roles within families shifted, as parents progressively became unable to care for or protect those they loved. I was interested to hear how these Australian staff members understood their role within this system and how they managed their feelings of guilt and complicity.

Woomera, water cannon and guards near perimeter fence used in 2001 - I was there during the few days this 'incident' occurred, watching the women and children among the groups of people being pushed by the full force of the water cannon, with all the other protesters (and so-called 'refugee people') who had travelled from Australia's major cities and regional areas.

Woomera, water cannon and guards near perimeter fence used in 2001 - I was there during the few days this 'incident' occurred, watching the women and children among the groups of people being pushed by the full force of the water cannon, with all the other protesters (and so-called 'refugee people') who had travelled from Australia's major cities and regional areas.