'It was obvious ... that violent altercations were imminent.' Photo: Kate Geraghty
Like many, I watched with horror as the recent violence at Manus Island unfolded. But not with surprise. Last year I worked on the island as the occupational health and safety manager for the security firm G4S.
It was clear to me then that the mixture of an overcrowded and insecure camp, inexperienced local guards and a tormented population of refugees was a lethal combination. I reported as much to my immediate superiors and the Department of Immigration.
I resigned from the detention centre when instances of sexual abuse and torture of vulnerable inmates at the hands of fellow detainees were uncovered. The design of the facility and the attitude of the department made it impossible for staff, many of them fine men and women, to protect the victims. The key problem wasn't G4S or other contractors. The key problem was the Department of Immigration, which refused to consider professional advice concerning the protection of the inmates.
With nowhere to turn within the system, I felt morally compelled to go outside of it and I told my story as a whistleblower to the media. The government announced an independent review, which I naively believed would rigorously inquire into the morass that the Manus Island centre had become.
I was bitterly disappointed by the process that unfolded under the guardianship of former public servant Robert Cornall. That disappointment turned to amazement when Mr Cornall was appointed to inquire into the recent violence and killing.
When I gave testimony to Mr Cornall in September last year, I was left with the impression that my serious claims about the situation on Manus Island were met with scepticism. I felt that the dangers to asylum seekers and staff were either disregarded or denied, and my allegation on SBS's Dateline, that the Manus Island centre was a tinderbox about to explode, was barely discussed.
The review found that the following events did not occur: transferees being sexually abused, raped and tortured with the full knowledge of staff; victims being returned to single adult male compounds to be raped again; weapons, including knives, being held by transferees; and a man having solvent poured into his ear.
The review found that the following events did occur but they were distorted or their significance was either exaggerated or misunderstood in the SBS television program and press articles: self-harm incidents; guards being assaulted; two men sewing their lips together; a transferee being scratched and cut with a sharp object; escapes from the Manus centre; protests; and transferees swimming away from the centre.
I find this hard to believe, as would many of my colleagues who witnessed the chaos on Manus Island. I have worked in prisons around Australia and I have never seen men as desperate, alone and vulnerable as I saw among the sexually abused on Manus Island. I believed that the review would make confidential inquiries of staff in a secure environment away from the eyes of the department.
It was a shock to me when witnesses were asked to give testimony to Mr Cornall in the presence of a high-ranking departmental official - their employer, either directly or indirectly.
I refused to speak in the presence of the department representative, but other witnesses, still working at Manus, felt intimidated into doing so. A number of them contacted me after their interviews to tell me they were fearful of retribution if they spoke candidly. Even more contacted me after a summary of the final report was publicly released to express dismay at its conclusions.
Mr Cornall concluded that various events I had described ''did occur but they were distorted or their significance was either exaggerated or misunderstood …''
I stand by my allegations and conclude that relevant information was withheld from Mr Cornall.
Reporting procedures at the Manus centre were poor but there were certainly enough reports to indicate the level of suffering of some victims incarcerated there and to cause major concerns about the running and safety of the camp. It was also obvious to any who read those reports that violent altercations were imminent.
Unfortunately, the terms of reference for Mr Cornall's next independent review suggests that there will be the same narrow focus; this time the spotlight is on G4S and security. Again, the Department of Immigration avoids scrutiny.
I believe we are facing a matter of moral turpitude if we do not insist that this review be conducted by a wholly independent body that has the authority to examine all facets of the immigration policy as it is implemented on Manus Island.
Rod St George is a former occupational health and safety manager at Manus Island.