Nauru detention centre staff told they could lose jobs for talking about refugees | Australia news
Australian employees of the company that runs the immigration centre on Nauru say they have been threatened with their jobs if they speak to journalists during the Pacific Islands Forum about what happens inside the island’s offshore processing regime.
In a leaked recording of a Canstruct meeting, employees are told they can talk about fishing, or give directions, but should be wary of journalists asking apparently innocent questions about the weather before “they might just then slip in a question about … the processing centre”.
“They want to get information. Obviously, we don’t want to give out information about our company, because that’s not what we do,” Brisbane-based PR agent Lyall Mercer told Canstruct employees in a meeting on the island last week.
“We have a contract with the Australian government as well, and they won’t allow us to talk about those things. Breaching that will jeopardise your employment contract.”
Workers on the island have told Guardian Australia they felt threatened about speaking to the media: “The message was clear,” one said.
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“They warned everyone over and over again,” said another independently.
Canstruct International is the Brisbane company that runs the processing centre under contract from the Australian government.
Journalists trying to write stories on Nauru during the Pacific Islands Forum have faced draconian restrictions: they can only travel around the island accompanied by security, and pursue stories after getting approval from the government.
New Zealand journalist Barbara Dreaver was interviewed by police and had her forum accreditation withdrawn after independently speaking with refugees. After outcry she has had her accreditation reinstated.
Other journalists have been allowed to interview refugees, but only with the prior approval of the Nauru government and only in the presence of government minders.
The Nauru government said in a statement the controls of media had been imposed “to preserve public safety, and this is not unreasonable”.
“Police and security agencies are genuinely concerned about safety and security risks should media take it upon themselves to enter refugee residential settlements where emotions are high.”
Guardian Australia applied to attend the forum, but was refused a visa by the Nauru government, citing a lack of space on the island. The ABC was also banned from attending.
The issue of Australia’s offshore processing regime is of significant international attention, particularly around the mental health of children held on the island . Doctors inside the Australian-run processing centre have reported – corroborated by Canstruct and government employees – that children as young as 10 are attempting suicide and self-harm almost daily. At least 20 children are on food-and-fluid refusal and a dozen require urgent hospital intervention.
These reports are confirmed by medical reports from International Health and Medical Services. Nearly half of the 114 refugee and asylum-seeker children held on the island have had doctors recommend they be moved off the island. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the Australian-run regime on Nauru, saying “the conditions here – particularly, the mental health situation – it’s very, very shocking ”.
In an address to Canstruct employees, Mercer – who is also employed by the Nauruan government – said the company had a media policy “so that the wrong messages aren’t going out to the wrong people. In these days, with social media, it’s important to keep a tight rein on these things, so the wrong things aren’t said.”
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Mercer said employees had a right to talk to the media “on a personal level”, but cannot divulge any information gained through employment.
“Breaching that will jeopardise your employment contract: we are trying to protect you.”
Mercer said all media reporting during the Pacific Islands Forum had to “go through the proper channels” and needed approval of the forum and the Nauru government: “they [the media] will have someone from the government with them”.
Mercer said Canstruct staff would be confined to the regional processing centre during the key days of the Pacific Islands Forum.
In a statement, Canstruct International said it had a media policy, like many companies, that limited who could talk publicly on behalf of the company.
“In the lead-up to the PIF, we conducted training for our staff which gave them information about the forum as well as practical tips to interact with media if approached for comment.”
The company said it was made clear to staff they were able to talk to media on a personal level and share their personal stories and experiences, but could not divulge company information.
“In fact we went out of our way to assure employees that it was their individual right to talk to whoever they wanted to in a private capacity.
“These staff training sessions were carried out in a friendly and non-threatening way and at every session we took questions to clarify any information that was not understood.”
The PIF finishes on 9 September.
Topics Australian immigration and asylum Nauru Asia Pacific Migration Refugees news