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Submission to the National Inquiry
into Children in Immigration Detention from
- During the time that
I worked at the Woomera detention centre, particularly during the first 6
weeks, I was frequently followed home from the Eldo Hotel, where our evening
meals were supplied to us. This would take the form of an off duty guard who
would walk closely behind the nurses, keeping pace with them and remaining
within listening distance of them as they walked and talked about their day.
If asked he/they would state that they were just walking home as well. Quite
often though it was apparent that they had gone right out of their way to
go home so as to be able to listen to and report our behaviour and conversations.
- At times I was challenged
by an off duty guard whenever or wherever they would come across me, regarding
my care of a detainee which they had witnessed or even been told about by
a guard who had been present during a treatment. This questioning took the
form of questioning the degree of privacy which this treatment may have required,
my attitude when dealing with the detainee (I was told that I was too friendly
many times) and indeed the appropriateness of the treatment/s that I may have
given, ie my professional nursing decisions were questioned by some guards.
Often, these inquisitions were conducted by guards who were obviously under
the influence of alcohol.
- Many times I was told
that I was too kind to detainees and that I should be more professional, i.e.
less friendly. I would like to take the time at this point to state categorically
that at no time during my time at the Woomera detention centre did I ever
behave in an inappropriate manner regarding my professional nursing conduct
or in the execution of my nursing skills or implementation of the interventions
which were required of me.
- As an example of this
intimidation, during the course of a morning in the medical clinic, the nurse
in charge returned to the clinic from the morning managers meeting. She stated
that she had a verbatim transcript of a conversation, which had occurred between
nursing staff the evening prior, over their evening meal.
- (Nurses are trained
to review their decisions and actions constantly, this requires us to discuss
patient conditions and our nursing interventions regarding their health problems,
with each other, being ever mindful of the importance of maintaining patient
confidentiality of course. This could take the form of a person talking about
a patient that they had treated earlier in the day, their presenting health
problem and prior health history, and whatever treatment that we had implemented
to assist them. This is known as peer review and is used also by the medical
fraternity to maintain and improve the standard of care that they offer. It
may also include discussing any barriers that we had encountered in the delivery
of optimal health care to our patients).
- The nurse in charge
did indeed then show myself and other nurses who were present at the time,
a verbatim transcript of our conversations from the earlier evening where
we discussed such topics. Apparently guards sitting at the next table had
written down everything that we had said and then brought the transcripts
to the centre manager the next day with a report regarding our actions.
- One of the department
managers within the detention centres title and brief was that of ‘Intel
Manager’. His job was to collect information which may indicate ‘trouble’
from the detainees. One of his practices was to listen to the conversations
within medical centre by eavesdropping at the window. One more than one occasion
I caught him standing next to an open window at the front of the medical centre.
On these occasions I would close the window.
- While attempting to
treat patients within the clinic during all times, but particularly on a night
shift (7pm-7am), some guards would take a particular interest in the treatment
that I was providing to my patient. This may take the form of interrupting
whilst I was talking to and taking their history, explaining a problem, explaining
a treatment, giving advice etc. They might ask questions which related to
themselves, a friend or another guard and ask for advice which was totally
unrelated to the treatment of the detainee. As staffing was of a skeleton
nature i.e. 1 nurse on night duty to see a population of up to 1200 detainees
this was not appropriate. If asked to withdraw from the medical centre they
would often decline on security grounds. If it was pointed out that they were
behaving inappropriately with regard to the focus being on the health problem
of the detainee, often times they became angry and aggressive and indeed on
one occasion a guard threw his radio across the room and stormed out of the
clinic swearing loudly.
Disrespectful behaviour toward detainees
- Behaviour which was
quite common, in fact almost every time a guard opened their mouth to speak
to a detainee or to speak about a detainee, they would use derogatory remarks
toward them, including the women and children. This included using words like
“scum, wog/s, cunt, little cunt, slut, trash, vermin, asshole/s, boaties,
rezzies”. Not every guard spoke this way to about the detainees, but
many did, and this included speaking to them like this to their face and also
in front of them as if they didn’t exist (in the 3rd person).
- When staff asked these
guards not to behave in this fashion they were often abused in a similar fashion,
threatened in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways, and referred to as
‘care bears’ with a venom which the words to not describe.
- On approximately 3
occasions I treated detainees who had ‘walked into a wall’, ‘run
into a door’, ‘fallen over’. They presented with 3/4/5 guards
all in a state of agitation breathing heavily, faces flushed and sometimes
in a foul temper. One of these detainees told me outright, in front of the
guards that they had bashed him. I made an entry to that effect in his patient
notes and reported the incident to my superior, however to my knowledge no
action was taken.
Mark Huxstep RN, BN, B
Children in Detention @ Woomera:
Whilst employed as a registered
nurse at the Woomera detention centre, it came within the parameters of my duties
to treat all detainees, men, women, and children. I would like to share some
anecdotes of some of those patient contacts that occurred between myself and
specifically the children (or child related contacts). The dates of my employment
at the WIRPC were early August 2000- mid February 2001, 3 x 6 week contracts.
Each of these contracts were for 6 x 12 hour shifts per week, i.e. 72 hours
No patients were permitted
to hold, keep nor self-administer any medications whatsoever. This means that
if a patient presented at the medical centre for a health problem, which required
them to take medication more than once, they would have to re-present for all
subsequent administrations of their medications by the nurses. This included
medications such as analgesics (pain killers), anti-biotics, anti-depressants,
anti-inflammatories, insulin, anti-hypertensives. This rule also extended to
other health interventions such as re-applying dressings, follow-up checkups
etc. Quite often this was appropriate as it gave the nurses and doctor an opportunity
to see the patient for re-assessment of their health problem, and to have time
out to discuss other issues impacting on their life, away from family and friends.
It also gave the detainees an opportunity to leave their jail compound and speak
to some Australians who were NOT critical, abusive, negative, or cruel.
I remember one child that I treated,
but I cannot remember their name. The child’s mother was a doctor in her
own country before coming to Australia and spoke excellent English. This child
had been diagnosed with an inner ear infection and was prescribed liquid antibiotics
4 times per day and analgesia for the pain and temperature.
However as the mother was not allowed to take the medications back to her donga,
they had to line up to come from their own compound to the medical centre 4
times per day. This necessitated waiting, sometimes for hours in a queue, at
the mercy of the sarcastic, rude, abusive, Neanderthal (guard) for an opportunity
to see the clinic nurse.
On more than one occasion the mother
berated me for having to wait for 2-3 hours in the freezing cold night, in the
rain, to attend the clinic with a sick baby.
Indeed this was a very common problem,
and apparently sick, depressed, disenfranchised, homeless, country-less refugees,
can make rifles and tanks from Panadol and dressings, so the security personnel
maintained! So we stuck to our rules rigidly.
Soon after one of the boat loads
of asylum seekers had arrived at the Woomera (airforce) airport, code named
operation ‘CONDOR’, I and my colleagues were required to complete
all manner of health checks, all within a 72 hour time frame. This entailed
taking a detailed verbal history of the person’s health, using official
ACM interpreters, taking urine tests, faeces specimens and blood samples. On
many occasions’ people, including children and very young infants were
left sitting for hours in the sun waiting to be processed. The nurses would
offer those waiting drinks of water and bags of lollies, so as to maintain hydration,
blood sugar, and to engender trust and encourage friendliness from them. On
many occasions the nurses were ‘reported’ for doing this. That means
that one of the ACM guards would take the time and trouble to sit down and write
a report to the management about our unprofessional behaviour and our ‘crossing
the line’ in the delivery of our expertise. We would then be officially
warned not to engage in such unprofessional behaviour again.
In one period of about 2-3 weeks,
we had several pregnant women (5 or 6 I think) arrive into detention. The midwife
on duty, duly examined these woman and referred them for additional assessment
by the doctor. It was concluded between the two of them that these ladies should
all be examined by an obstetrician/gynaecologist as soon as could be organised.
The midwife performed a small miracle
in being able to make appointments for the ladies to see an obstetrician/ gynaecologist
in Port Augusta a week later, all with sequential appointment times, on a day,
and at a time when the official ACM interpreter was able to attend, and when
the guards deemed that a vehicle and enough escort guards were available to
make the drive, roughly 2 hours return, to Port Augusta. The day duly arrived
and the midwife checked early with the transport co-ordinator to ensure that
all would go smoothly, and was assured that it would. The time to depart came
and went and no phone call from the co-ordinator for the vehicles. The midwife
went to check with him in person. I went with her.
The transport co-ordinator, a manager with ACM at another facility, laughed
and told us that he had forgotten that morning to book a driver for the vehicle
and therefore the appointments would have to be re-booked for another time and
Not only was this an enormous feat
to have to redo, the women became quite distressed at the news, and indeed one
lady later in the day complained of vaginal ‘spotting’ which can
be an indicator of impending disaster i.e. miscarriage and all of the associated
risk factors which that entails, including haemorrhage and death.
On one accasion, when I was required
to attend to a medication round in the main compound I was waiting to go through
the gate (golf 2) and some detainees had just gone through before me, having
attended the kitchen to collect their meals. The guard at golf 2 was quite agitated
and almost apoplexic. I asked him what was wrong. He said “I would love
to have 5 minutes alone with that little cunt”. I asked him whom he meant.
He pointed to a 5 or 6 year old boy who had just gone through the gate with
the rest of his family. I asked him why, and he said, “Because he is a
cheeky little cunt”. I then asked him what he would do with the child
if he got his 5 minutes alone with him. He made a fist punching into the palm
of his other hand, motion.
We were required to mix babies bottles
at the same sink (the only sink) where we had to decant faecal specimens, do
urine tests, make our own coffee/tea. This sink had no running hot water, in
fact the medical clinic had no running hot water. The medical clinic also, until
just before I left, had no way of sterilising/ autoclaving any instrument. When
a small steriliser was supplied, there were no instructions supplied with it,
nor was there any way of testing a load (clinical indicator) to ensure adherence
to any sterilising standard.
Sometimes pregnant woman
and/ or mothers would come to the clinic to complain about the lack of adequate
nutrition available to them. The food from the kitchen made me retch when I
smelled it. They would come and ask for simple things like an extra piece of
fruit per day for themselves or child, a lemon (which they like to suck), or
an extra glass of milk. The nurses would then ask the kitchen to supply these
things. On several occasions the kitchen manager came to the medical centre
and complained that we were too empathetic and that one piece of fruit and one
250ml glass of milk per days was enough for anyone and that they would not supply
Of course being nurses,
and not being career ACM employees, we would circumvent the system whenever
and wherever possible, so we would supply the detainees with our own milk and
fruit. If guards saw us doing this, which on occasions they did, we would then
again be reported for ‘crossing the line’.
During the riots of August/ September
2000, I was present at the detention centre. I witnessed many of the guards,
dressed in full riot/battle dress (ninja turtle dress) intimidating detainees,
including children, with loud abusive language. On several occasions I heard
guards express the hope that they would have the opportunity to ‘bash
a rezzy’ and I said to one of these guards, “surely you don’t
mean except in self defence” at which he stated that he didn’t care
what the circumstances, he just wanted to be able to ‘hit some rezzies’
and made a swinging motion with his riot stick. I asked him what he would do
if he encountered women and children in the melee of the riot and he said “they
get treated the same as the rest of the scum”, with a grin on his face.
At one stage the guard
hierarchy received word that P. Ruddock had given permission to use firearms
to quell the riot, ostensible to “fire over their heads”. The guards
with whom I was present when this news was received were elated and stated that
given the opportunity they would aim “very low” when firing over
their heads. This was said with a chuckle. I asked them did they mean that they
would shoot at people? They answered in the affirmative. At the 11th hour apparently
P. Ruddock withdrew his permission for the use of firearms and there was an
audible groan from all of the guards with whom I was present.
I was told that we were not to behave in too friendly a manner to any detainees,
but especially toward the children, because the parents and ‘ringleaders’
of the unrest and riots, ‘used’ them to garner information from
the medical centre. When I one day made the comment that the volume of Panadol
or bandaids being used in the clinic was hardly newsworthy nor of any strategic
value to anyone I was abused and told that I was naive and those ‘fucking
little cunts’ especially the ‘Iraquis’ were spies and to ‘treat
them and piss them off out of the clinic!’ This was said loudly and in
front of some children which were attending the clinic at the time and with
whom I had had a conversation in English just prior.
Mark Huxstep RN
BN B HSc
29th June 2002
Updated 30 June 2003.