Witness by Amnesty International: Episode 2 – Pleasant Island

Amnesty International has launched a brand new podcast series ‘Witness from Amnesty International’. The series introduces listeners to the organization’s Research and Crisis Response teams – whose investigations take them to some of the most dangerous and volatile places on earth.

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ANNA: Nauru is a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific, hundreds of miles from any land. I mean it sounds like it would be a nice place you know. It used to be called Pleasant Island until it became independent in 1968 but most of it is actually uninhabitable, nothing can grow, you can’t live there, it’s all dusty, very polluted. It’s actually kind of a bit of a wasteland.

TANYA: Nauru is the world’s smallest island nation at about one-and-a-half times the size of Los Angeles City Airport. Only 10,000 people live there and the country’s economy is almost entirely dependent on its close neighbour…. Australia which uses the island for a very specific and very secretive kind of business …..detaining humans.

ANNA: So imagine you are a parent, you live in Syria let’s say. Your life is in danger, your family’s lives are in danger. You have to get out of the country. You have this idea of Australia as a safe democratic prosperous country. You want to start a life for yourself.

TANYA: Anna Shea, Researcher on Refugee & Migrant Rights at Amnesty International.

ANNA: You travel thousands of miles, very dangerous irregular routes. You might reach Christmas Island which is Australian territory or you might be within sight of the northern coast of Australia. All of the pain and suffering you’ve been through is worth it and then the coast guard processing your application for refugee status effectively kidnaps you and takes you to Nauru.

TANYA: So it’s a bit like being shipwrecked?

ANNA: Err no. With shipwreck you have a kind of hope that you might get off but on Nauru you can never leave.

TANYA: There’s been a lot of attention on President Trump border policy in the last year and the inhumane treatment of children and families in particular but the US isn’t the first country to pursue this kind of zero tolerance approach to refugees. Australia has been detaining families on Nauru since 2001. 

Stories started to break about how poor the conditions were on the island in 2014 and in response the Australian government tried to shut off Nauru from outside scrutiny which wasn’t hard given that the island is surrounded by miles of ocean

ANNA: What started happening was that Australian Nauru became more and more secretive about what was actually going on on this Island and the visa cost jumped from $200 to $8,000 overnight. There is a new law in Australia that meant that anyone who worked on the island and talked about what happened risked actual jail time. So, what were they trying to hide?

TANYA: I’m Tanya O’Carroll, part of the research department at Amnesty International and this is Witness a podcast that goes behind the scenes on investigations that made some of the biggest headlines of human rights.

ANNA: The reports that came out were really really alarming and became more alarming as time went by

TANYA: Stories about what it takes to uncover the truth when there are people who prefer the truth to stay buried.

ANNA:  And we felt we needed to go there ourselves to really understand what was happening to these people.

ANYA:  I hate roller coasters, I don’t do downhill skiing, I’ve never done bungee jumping. None of that excites me at all so I think for me I’m probably an adrenaline junkie but in a very different way. It has to be very specific type of adrenaline.

TANYA: That’s Anya Neistat, she’s a bit of a legend in the world of human rights investigation. She led Amnesty’s research department for five years and full disclosure, until very recently she was also the boss.

ANYA: When you know that you’re not just after, you know, getting your adrenaline levels high but that it is about getting work done and kind of winning against the bad guys.

TANYA: In 2016, Anya and Anna Shea set out to discover what was going on on Nauru. Visas were required for travelers from almost every country and most applications were turned down. But Anya had a bit more luck.

ANYA: And that’s because I have a Russian passport and Nauru and Russia have a no visa agreement. So we knew that with a Russian passport,  I could probably get there but that didn’t quite solve the problem because first of all my name is fairly well-known. It takes one Google click to find out who I am and second of all, you would think that with all these precautions that they take to make sure that nobody gets the island, they would at some point in the journey check. And it’s not a short trip, right. It took me three days to get there.

TANYA:  To avoid touching down in Australia

(Anya: from Paris to LA, from LA to…)

TANYA: And alerting the government there to what she was up to…

(Anya: from Hawaii to Marshall Islands, from Marshall Islands to Kiribati, from Kiribati to Nauru)

TANYA: Anya took a particularly roundabout route.

ANYA: And of course, you know what was always on mind you know was whether all of that was in vein because they might turn me around.

ANNA: She was very confident about her ability to handle anything but I was quite worried because there’s a lot of violence in Nauru. There have been a lot of targeting of women and sexual violence and that sort of thing so I was trying to encourage her to take it very seriously.

ANYA: I think because they know that nobody can get there, the checks at the airport are very very basic computer. They don’t even have a computer so it’s just like a wooden desk and a woman asked like ‘oh Russian, where’s your visa?’ 

‘I don’t need a visa.’

‘Oh Peter, Russians don’t need visas?’

‘No they don’t need visas.’

‘Okay, fine.’

TANYA: Anya had made it to Nauru. But how long would she be able to avoid detection?

ANYA: The island is 20 square kilometres. There is one that goes around it and of course everybody knows each other. There is one hotel where all of the internationals stay so I knew that I had a few days while people probably would think that I work for some other organization but then you know there will come a time when they will realize who I am, and it’s just the question of when, it’s not a question of if. It totally seemed like mission impossible.

TANYA: She got to the hotel and started making calls.

ANYA: One of the very few contacts that I had was this man named Wajeed and I didn’t know anything about him. I just was told that he might be able to help me. And he was from a minority community in in Pakistan. He had to flee because of endless persecution and death threats and he told me about a completely insane journey that they took getting into Indonesia and waiting there and getting into one of these boats. And I don’t remember now, but I think they spent days in the sea and he was completely sure that he was going to die. Ultimately you know making it to Australia and then being immediately shipped to Nauru. He’s also very well-educated man. He is an electrical engineer and it was somewhat disruptive because every once in a while he would get a call in the middle of our work and he had to run to the airport because something was not working and they couldn’t land a plane. You know, I find it fascinating that the whole operation of Nauru Airport was basically dependent on Wajeed being able to get there on time.

TANYA: Wajeed agreed to be Anya’s fixer. He’d drive her around the island, introduce her to detainees and translate when language got in the way. Anya thinks he felt relatively fortunate with the job and his health and wanted to help the many refugees who hadn’t been so lucky. But he was taking a big risk.

ANYA: He was there by that time for three years. He knew very well, who is who in the community and whom you can trust and who you cannot trust and when it’s time to leave the place because people are starting to gather. He knew the guards and the camps so it wasn’t particularly suspicious when we were picking up somebody from the camp to talk to. I would stay in the car and he would just walk to them and kind of explain that he’s inviting this person to go for a walk or whatever it was.

We knew very well this was a one off chance to actually get the information. I had a week and that was it and I knew that, in any case, even if I could stay longer I just will get arrested and deported. It was very clear that my time … the clock is ticking.

TANYA: Our second researcher, Anna Shea, began to attack the problem from a different angle. She travelled to Australia tried to make contact with people who had worked on Nauru.

ANNA:  You’d think it would be fairly easy but it was really difficult. And that’s partly because Australia has made it a criminal offence to speak about anything to do with offshore detention, offshore processing. So it felt like an undercover operation which is ludicrous.

TANYA: Anna asked local NGOs to help and slowly she began to find people who were willing to talk.

ANNA: So the interviews with these people were really unlike any interview I’d done before. I felt like a therapist. It was really bizarre. I had people crying and just partly they felt tremendously guilty about being part of this even though it sounds like a lot of them were doing their best to treat these people humanely and to work against this horrible dehumanization that was happening all around.

TANYA: One interviewee asked to meet Anna in a bar in Melbourne.

ANNA: I don’t think I knew her full name and she wanted to meet in this bar because it’ll be really loud and people couldn’t over hear.  And it was really noisy. I was actually a little bit difficult to hear her even across the table at this bar.  And yeah, it was weird waiting there. I didn’t know what she looked like. I don’t know how I signaled to her that I was there. I might have put my Amnesty card on the table or something like that.  And this woman was really scared and she kind of kept looking around. It just felt like we were in, I don’t know, some kind of fascist state where people could be listening to any conversation and we can be thrown in jail for chatting. It was Australia … I mean this was Melbourne.  

TANYA: Slowly a picture of life on the island began to emerge from Anna and Anya’s interviews.

ANNA: Detention Centre, Accommodation Centre was kind of in the middle of the Island and that’s where the phosphate mining used to take place so the air is extremely dusty, just bare rock on the ground. It’s extremely hot and for a long time people were just in tents that were covered in mould, like really dangerous mould that gave people respiratory problems. So it’s a really really inhospitable place to live.

ANYA: No places for children. There are no places for women. There were lots of issues with sexual assaults in the camps. Very significant levels of violence coming from the local population. So many people were attacked, their cell phones taken… beatings. I collected so many photos of people covered in blood because they were just attacked by Naurans. 

ANNA: They started out as kind of regular folks and then just deteriorated into really severe anguish and mental illness. The kind of hopelessness, their inability to think of any future for themselves just destroys people.

(Insert from person detained on the island):  My son got mental issues. He started wetting his bed, developed what seems like autism. He almost doesn’t speak, has nightmares, panic attacks. My wife got anxiety. She started taking more pills but nothing changed. For the last few months she just stayed in bed. She doesn’t move, doesn’t want to see her son and he doesn’t want to see her either. When my wife is screaming, he can hear it and gets very depressed afterwards. I have no hope. It’s end of time here.)

ANNA: There was this little boy whose teacher was telling me, I think he’d actually been born on Nauru. She could see the logical connections being made in his mind. He’s like ‘okay, so prisons are for bad people.  People who have done bad things. But we are in a prison. So, does that mean that we are bad?’

ANYA: Story after story after story…lots of children. Father whose wife died back in Afghanistan and he was there with two of his young boys who were really…especially one of them…was completely suicidal. He just tried everything to kill himself. He doesn’t eat, he tries to run and drown himself in the ocean. He tries to cut his hand. It’s just insane. The brutality of it was just incredible. 

(Clip from person detained on island): I’m so tired at night. I just start crying but I’m trying not to show weakness to my nephews. I wish I could kill myself but because of them, I can’t. In Iraq, just one bullet or a bomb and it’s over but here I’m dying a thousand times.)

ANNA: All that they were trying to do was to protect themselves and their families and start a new life. And they felt the really burning injustice of being punished for that really simple human act. 

TANYA: You are talking about refugees. People who are fleeing the most awful situations that push them from their homes. And then they end up somewhere, by what you’re saying sounds like actually even worse. For their mental health, the actual situation for them and the hopelessness is worse than the conflicts they are fleeing, in some cases.  

ANNA: That’s absolutely true. And a kind of measuring of how bad it is, is the fact that dozens and probably hundreds of people, did go back to their country of origin because that was the only way they could leave. That was the only option. You know you can stay on for as far as we know it the rest of your life or you can go back to Syria or Myanmar or Sri Lanka and die there. And lots of people chose to leave.  They would rather face that than this kind of endless hopelessness of Nauru. 

ANYA: Some of the most difficult interviews to organise were with the social workers, partially because they faced enormous risks talking to me. And there would just a few who agreed but of course their testimonies were incredibly valuable. They’ve been working there for several years and they could really put all of these individual stories that I collected in context and the nightmare that they were living through, responding to emergency calls about suicides every other night. But of course organising this interview really felt like being in a cheap spy movie. Again, it was just so bizarre. These were Australian women. I was not meeting some, you know, dissidents in China. I was not meeting with Syrian opposition figures, right. I was meeting with Australian young women who signed up to do some social work for refugees. And this was the insanity of the situation. 

It was in the middle of the night. They call me and they said ‘you ready…. so in about 7 minutes you leave your hotel room and you’ll see in the corridor that woman and you just follow her and she’ll take you to where we meet.’  It was dark and we went out of the hotel, through these dump sites and abandoned buildings, and up and down some stairs. And stray dogs barking at night and mosquitoes eating you alive. Ultimately, I think it was somewhat closer to the ocean where there was an abandoned building so we climb on this roof. Two other women were there and I spoke to them quite a while and took notes and the interview ended actually when I got a text message from one of the witnesses that I met earlier, who said ‘listen we think you need to wrap everything up because the police was asking about you and we don’t think they know exactly who you are and where you are but you might be careful’. At that point I said ‘why don’t we wrap it up’ and basically everything stopped and they just disappeared in the night. And that was it. 

The social workers shared with me some of their procedures which was very important for us. Some of the internal documents about how they are supposed to report the incident and things like that. And many of these emails were with Australian Immigration Service and for us that was a critical piece of information to prove that they are actually very well aware of everything that’s happening on the island. And then of course you know, what I was doing everyday was photographing my notes and typing them up, uploading all the videos, the photos, the documents.  And my last night with Wajeed – my driver and fixer -I was like to ‘take me somewhere where I can burn them.’ 

I don’t know if you remember the movie Argo about this operation in Iran and there is a moment there that I just cannot watch. It just gets my heart rate so high where they go through the airport on the way out and they go through the passport control first. People looking at their passports very closely and then finally they get on the plane and as they are sitting on the plane thinking that it’s over, there is this military truck driving up the plane. And in some ways Nauru was the same. So, it’s really until the plane takes off, you cannot really breathe out.  That does get your heart pumping. 

TANYA: With the information gathered, it was Anna Shea’s job to pull it together into a report. 

ANNA: When I got Anya’s notes, they were just so detailed and so horrific that I could almost not even bring myself to read them. They were just so awful.  I was like ‘I need to turn this into a report. We need to do something about this. How am I going to make myself sit here and read this horror?’

TANYA: The report called Island of Despair was published in October 2016 . The Australian government responded aggressively. 

ANYA: They completely refused to both acknowledge what is going on there and take responsibility. And that was despite not just our findings but, you know, also the findings of their own parliamentary commission and you know lots of local organisations. And they were very upset that in the report we compared the situation to torture and we did very detailed analysis basically explaining why. Because Amnesty doesn’t use the word ‘torture’ easily and lightly and they knew it and for them that was kind of the knife in the heart.  They really have not been criticised in those exact terms before and this is something they were not comfortable with. 

ANNA: Part of the reason that this policy is so dangerous is that it sets the bar so low and I think Australia has kind of been leading the pack on that. And the United States recently has really followed suit with this detention and separation of children from their families. I mean, to treat young people and babies and infants in this way is completely unconscionable. 

TANYA: What do you think has been impact of this research? Do you feel like we have been changing people’s views? Have we shifted the debate in Australia? Is there an end in sight to this kind of horrific treatment of people? 

ANNA: I think it’ll be a while yet but people are being taken off Nauru. Some of them are going to the United States under a deal – surprisingly – that Australia and the previous government had made. Some are in Australia. They were moved there for medical transfers but haven’t been sent back. There is a movement in Australia, of public opinion against this,  that people see that is wrong. We have to give credit to the huge amounts of civil society organisations and religious groups and teachers unions who have been working from day one to end it. But a lot of these groups don’t have the resources to send researchers to write these kinds of detailed reports. So, I know that our research has been really useful. 

ANYA: You know what really warms my heart. I am very closely in touch with my Wajeed, my fixer. He moved to the US last June. It was one of the best days of my life. I was so happy for him. I’ll never forget it’s the last night I was in Nauru, he invited me over to their container settlement and there is a full-scale Pakistani feast. There are six or seven men, who I’d met before, who prepared this incredible meal. I was in tears. It was incredible that they did this. I have no idea how they made it possible. There is really not much food on Nauru. It’s not like people are starving but how they got the spices, how they prepared this I have no idea. But it was wonderful. and then we went to Wajeed’s room and he said ‘I need to give you a gift’ and he literally like looked around this room where there is absolutely nothing clearly trying to search for something like his pants on hook or whatever t-shirt. And so, he found a book, a cheap detective novel.  I cherish this book so much because, for me, it’s just the ultimate expression of why we do this work. When people have nothing, give you something that’s precious. And people always ask me ‘how how do you cope with that? You go to all of these horrendous places. You talk to people who have gone through so much trauma and you see you piles of bodies and and people who went through all this,’ and I always say that this is not what I bring back. Personally, in my heart what I bring back is this, time after time, incredible lessons in courage and resilience and strength of human spirit in the most trying circumstances. And I feel so lucky and privileged and honoured to have that. In the face of enormous suffering and injustice, people do have this capacity to remain human, to care for each other, to find incredible strength in themselves to carry on. To fight for justice for themselves, for others, or even just to live.

TANYA: Amnesty is calling on Australia to close its camp on Nauru and bring all the refugees to safety. 

If you’d like to join our campaign go to Amnesty.org

Amnesty’s Witness is hosted by me, Tanya O’Carroll. This episode was produced by Cathy FitzGerald with original music by Stephen Coates.