Australia’s Brave Whistleblower Nurse

Op-Ed Columnist

From the start of its “offshore processing” program that has seen more than 2,000 asylum seekers and refugees dumped on two remote Pacific islands, Australia has relied on draconian nondisclosure contracts to keep the extent of its brutality secret. But this month Lynne Elworthy, an Australian mental health nurse employed on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, defied the gag clauses and a federal law against whistle-blowers to tell me the policy was an exercise in “absolute cruelty.”

Elworthy, who lives in the south Australian town of Gawler, near Adelaide, has observed for more than three years the impact of endless limbo on men in Manus. She has watched them grow inert. She has seen the “plummeting lows” induced by Australia’s punitive measures, as I did during five days on Manus last month. She has witnessed refugees losing their lives through mayhem and medical negligence in what she calls the “lifeless pit” of confinement. In the end she felt compelled to speak out because “there is no room in my head or my heart for anyone except those guys on Manus.”

Now, Elworthy, who was supposed to return to Manus this week on her regular rotation, has been told she will not be going back. She has, it seems, been fired for her honesty.

In an email provided to me, International SOS, her employer, informed Elworthy that there were no flights available until Dec. 27 and that “the position you were filling has not been renewed past 31st December.” It continued, “We have to cancel all the remaining rotations for you as we simply don’t have the headcount approval.”

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Elworthy told me: “I knew the risk I was taking and I accept the consequences. But it’s quite disgusting the way this has been done.”

International SOS owns International Health and Medical Services (I.H.M.S.), a company that has been paid hundreds of millions of dollars by the Australian government to run clinics in the detention facilities on Manus, the tiny Pacific island of Nauru and elsewhere.

I.H.M.S. responded to my query about Elworthy’s dismissal by saying her contract “was concluded in light of changes to operational requirements.” It said in an email that she had occupied “a surge position” — although she has worked there for several years — in “a constantly changing environment.” The email made no mention of her interview with The New York Times.

Since July 2013, Australia has dispatched “boat people” trying to reach its shores to Manus and Nauru, far from inquiring eyes. There they have festered, grown ill, staged hunger strikes, attempted suicide; a handful have died. The conservative Australian government headed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull argues that its policy has “stopped the boats” and that Australia would otherwise be inundated.

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Lynne Elworthy.

But its approach — in effect cruelty as deterrence — is a growing source of international embarrassment; and the government last month announced a vague one-time accord under which the United States would take some of the Manus and Nauru refugees. When, how many and from which island was left murky, but the men on Manus, who now number about 900, will almost certainly be last in line.

Elworthy began hearing rumors last Friday from the Manus Offshore Processing Center — so called although there has been no “process” since the Australian policy was instituted three-and-a-half years ago — that she would be barred from returning because she had spoken to The New York Times.

With the Sydney offices of International SOS, a leading medical assistance company, about to close for the weekend, and her departure to Manus by way of Cairns scheduled for Sunday, Elworthy wrote twice to request clarification. Finally, Veronica O’Riordan, a senior recruitment partner at International SOS, delivered the news that Elworthy would not be returning.

The treatment of Elworthy, who was once banished from Manus for several months because she had given chocolates to the detainees, is consistent with Australia’s punitive obsession in regard to the human debacles on Manus and Nauru.

Since the United States agreement, the government has even introduced legislation that would impose a lifetime ban from Australia on refugees held in one of the camps. So if a refugee in Manus were by some miracle (an even greater miracle now that Donald Trump has been elected) to become an American citizen he would be unable to visit Melbourne.

“It is time to close this chapter,” Elworthy told me. “My greatest fear is that these men will end up being far worse off than they even suspect. The U.S. deal sounds like pie in the sky to me.”

Later she sent me an email: “I am not interested in justice for me or anything like this. I have worked for I.H.M.S. for a long time; nothing surprises me any more.” The important thing, she added, was “to bring the focus back on the Manus men.”

In conditions of oppression and menace, most people are compliant, calculating or cowed. But some, like Elworthy, will not be swayed from the truth. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “Under conditions of terror, most people will comply but some people will not. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

The Manus and Nauru island prisons, orchestrated by Australia, are unfit for human habitation and unworthy of a liberal democracy that is a signatory of all major international human rights agreements. The Iraqis, Iranians, Burmese, Somalis, Sudanese and others who have fled for their lives, only to find themselves in a lifeless hell for 42 months, should be brought to Australia now, if they are not to go to the United States.

Lynne Elworthy should receive one of Australia’s highest civilian honors. She has stood up for the values of her country against a policy that has dragged those values into a tropical swamp. She has raised her voice when so many have been silent.

In 2014, Reza Barati, an Iranian Kurd, was killed in the Manus detention center. Later that year, another Iranian, Hamid Kehazaei, died from septicemia in Papua New Guinea after medical negligence at the Manus facility left a cut untreated. In 2016, Omid Masoumali, a third Iranian, killed himself through self-immolation. These deaths were all avoidable. They are Australia’s responsibility.

In Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, I met Janet Galbraith, a writer and trauma worker who has tried to help the refugees in Manus. She was with an Iranian who had been hospitalized in the capital after several suicide attempts on Manus. He had scars all over his body and told me, “The guards beat me because I tried to kill myself.” Persecuted in Iran, he said, “They torture me here, too.”

Galbraith told me: “As an Australian I am horrified that these people are being used, their bodies and their psyches, for something unacceptable. They are being tortured in such a sophisticated, nuanced way. I see this policy as part of a continuum: It is how white Australia has dealt with anyone who challenges that whiteness from the time the aboriginal people were incarcerated. These refugees are being held at a point between life and death.”

Her words echoed Elworthy’s, who is convinced a Royal Commission will one day examine the cruelty inflicted in Australia’s name on Manus and Nauru.

“I tried my best,” Elworthy told me. “There was not much we could do except say, ‘Keep yourself strong.’ Every night about 180 people would come for medication, mainly sleeping tablets. We were in a container with four windows, like bank tellers, dispensing the pills. Those guys are just over it.”

She told me of a Lebanese refugee who became a friend and would say to her over coffee: “We’re all damaged goods now. Face the facts, woman. Who will pick us up? Nobody is going to want us.”

This column has been updated to reflect news developments.

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