The Salvation Army's work for society's least advantaged has earned it a special reputation with Australians.

The Salvation Army's work for society's least advantaged has earned it a special reputation with Australians. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

Spare a thought for the Salvation Army and other non-government organisations before Christmas as they try to 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 grassroots. They mix it in pubs looking for the spare dollar to spend on broken lives and desperate people. I remember with great affection and respect 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 - you choose the name - transit camp, detention facility, prison or concentration camp. The welfare of detainees in detention 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 Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, announced that it would provide support services for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, including case management, community liaison programs and activities.

It was reported on November 14 that it would receive $22 million for its work on Nauru, presumably for a 12-month period.

On October 30, the Salvation Army defended conditions for asylum seekers on Nauru and, stung by continuing criticism of its role there, later issued a news and media release in which it answered questions it alleged had been directed at it.

In a preamble, Major Paul Moulds, the Salvation Army's territorial director, 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 denying internet access to some detainees. This issue was raised again on December 6 by the Refugee Action Collective.

The charge is denied but even if the Salvation Army is acting only in a manner intended to ensure equity of use for all, it has set itself up as the gatekeeper. In a venue which generates considerable tension it must expect that management of any resource, but particularly one of such sensitivity, can only bring the opprobrium of inmates upon it.

Finally, Major Moulds says: ''… 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.''

Besides having the ring of George Pell's rhetoric in defending the Catholic Church, Major Moulds misses the point. Like it or not, whether it is 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. So in attacking the presence of the Salvation Army and its role on Nauru, critics are attacking both the government and the Salvation Army for lack of judgment.

Institutions which sought to nurture and succour children of the Stolen Generation nonetheless became tainted with the evilness of the policy and were 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 the Second World War.

Following one of the rare outside visits to Nauru, the head of Amnesty International in Australia, Graham Thom, said last month he had grave concerns for the mental health of the 387 asylum seekers on the island.

The Salvation Army is a member of the Australian Council of Social Service which, with 260 other organisations, paid for an ad in a national newspaper in September last year calling on the government to undertake onshore processing of asylum seekers.

On November 22, ACOSS said Australia's treatment of asylum seekers had reached a new low with the decision to ban those found to be refugees from access to support services and the right to work.

On December 14, after a visit to Nauru, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees strongly condemned the detention facilities on Nauru and the absence of due process in dealing with claims for asylum. The UNHCR said Australia could be in breach of international obligations.

Why would the Salvation Army want to be party to a flouting of international law? Why hasn't it borne similar witness to the conditions on Nauru? It most certainly did not remain mute about what it witnessed in the world wars and in Korea and Vietnam. Why, on this issue, does it appear to have lost its moral compass?

A Salvation Army publication, Refugees and Asylum Seekers: What You Need to Know, says in part, ''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.''

As if to underline the level of its denial, the Salvation Army has advertised this month for a gym worker to provide fitness services to asylum seekers on Nauru.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator