The Freedom Interviews: Mark Isaacs

By Asher Hirsch in conversation with Mark Isaacs | 22 Aug 14
Over the next few weeks, Right Now will be doing interviews with guests of the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival in a series we’re calling The Freedom Interviews. In Part One of our interview series, Right Now’s Asher Hirsch speaks to Mark Isaacs about his experiences working for the Salvation Army in the Nauru Offshore Processing Centre and about his new book, The Undesirables. Mark will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on the 22nd and the 24th of August. For more information and to book tickets, see the Festival website.

Right Now: When you landed in Nauru what were your first thoughts and feelings? Can you describe a little bit about what Nauru is like as a country?

Mark Isaacs: The first thing you notice about Nauru is that it is a really small country. There are about ten thousand people on it and when the plane comes into the land, the whole island is engulfed by the airplane. One of the asylum seekers thought he was landing on water.

It is extremely hot. We arrived just prior to the wet season and that took a while to get used to. The centre of the island is mined-out phosphate rock. in the centre of the mined-out phosphate rock is where the detention centre is, or at least the one that I worked at. It is a hot, barren landscape.

It is a very poor island. Around the edges you have these beautiful tropical beaches and palm trees, then you quickly realise dilapidated housing, deteriorated infrastructure, old and abandoned cars. There is no fresh food on the island and a high unemployment rate – there are a lot of people sitting around doing nothing. When Australia says, “we will give you a few billion dollars to hold asylum seekers”, it seems like an acceptable offer to a poor country like Nauru.

Going into the detention centre, what were you told by the Salvation Army about what you were meant to be doing there?

When we arrived we weren’t given a job description or a mission brief or anything like that.

They told us to go out and help the men. Men were arriving every second or third day. Sometimes they would arrive with just a few hours notice. And suddenly, we would need to find tents and stretcher beds for 30 men. They were still sending over supplies and resources for the organisations.

The first questions the asylum seekers would ask us would be: “What are we doing here?”, “Why are we here?”, “How long are we here for?” They were all questions we couldn’t answer, and it wasn’t until then that the reality of the position I had placed myself in hit home.

Can you tell me about the men you worked with?

The camp was divided by ethnicities. Not necessarily in a negative way. Language groups divided people, and thus ethnicities became divided because of the lack of communication.

In a general sense the Tamil men were extremely helpful. If you were down they would put their arm around you or hold your hand. There were some men who were very touchy feely – they could be seen sitting on each other’s laps. A lot of the Australian workers found that odd. It was quite an affectionate relationship they had.

Kumar was the first person who approached me. He was a friendly, tall, good-looking, skinny Tamil man. He would always do his hair and he would have maybe two to three fresh items of clothing per day. I remember wondering why he made such an effort. I came to the conclusion it was a way of upholding his dignity as everything else had been taken away from him; at least he could present himself in a clean and nice manner and not let himself deteriorate. The same with the men who went running everyday – it was a way of maintaining some kind of routine.

Kumar was an organiser and leader, he loved playing cricket, and he was the first one to get me playing with all the men. We held a tournament in a very small space in the camp. It was a hit with the Tamil men and they loved it. That is when I realised we needed an activity regime to keep the men entertained and keep them going.

The Iraqis looked intimidating and sounded intimidating, but I had that perception before I even talked to them. When I actually met them and talked to them, I realised that they were extremely lovely and more respectful than most people I have ever met. They would stand up [out of respect] whenever someone walked in and they were a lovely group of people.

The Hazaras and Pakistanis had a keen sense of humour, always looking to joke around, despite their situation.

The Persians from Iran were an interesting group because they were as intimidating as they appeared. They gave us Hitler salutes and told us we were oppressing them. It was interesting because I imagine that’s how most Australians would react in a situation like this. The Iranians were well aware of their rights and knew Australia should have been dealing with them better than this.

“I felt very guilty on behalf of my country. Australia had caused this – the camps are our creation.”

Last time I interviewed you, you detailed some horrific situations of self-harm, depression and mental health the detainees faced. Can you share some of these experiences, and why you think it was so common?

The degradation of mental health in detention centres occurs over time. The whole concept of indefinite detention is what does it. It is the idea that you don’t know when you can leave, and you don’t have any way of telling your family what will happen to you or when you will see them again. These guys are stuck there without any kind of concept of the future and any ability to control their fate.

Some self-harm situations were instantaneous – men tried to hang themselves in tents. A good friend of mine, Shahab, found out that his family were going to leave him because they didn’t understand that he had been placed inside a detention centre. They thought he had run away with their money,. And so his wife divorced him. In his mind he was left with no other alternative; he had come all the way across the other side of the world with the belief that he was trying to make a better life for his family. Without his family, he really had no purpose in this awful setting. So he made the decision to take his life using the cords in the tents.

I remember the first thing I saw was him in the back of an ambulance. I walked into the camp to comfort the men who had become my friends. The men who I had spent three weeks with – in Nauru three weeks feels a lot longer than it does in Sydney.

Going in there and having the men accuse me, saying it was my fault and saying I should have done more for him, made me realise that they were right. I felt very guilty on behalf of my country. Australia had caused this – the camps are our creation. We made them knowing what they would do. There are plenty of studies that suggest that detention centres deteriorate people’s mental health, and that indefinite detention is one of the worst things for someone’s mental health. Yet we continue to do them. That is the whole point of the policy – it is a deterrence policy. Whether you agree with the politics or not, that is the reality.

It must have been a very hard situation for you to deal with without any proper training or experience.

You don’t need training to empathise with people and to try and understand people. Having said that, the lack of training meant that we were not good at self-care and we became really invested. It didn’t have that sense of professionalism that most caseworkers would bring.

It was hard because there was a lack of support through the organisation and we really relied on one another to cope with what was going on.

It was also hard because we couldn’t tell anyone what was going on. We couldn’t contact our loved ones at home. Because the government said ASIO would be checking our emails. In that sense you were very isolated.

So with your communications being monitored and threats of prosecution, how did that impact you coming home, talking to family, friends and writing the book and press release about your experiences? Were you afraid of repercussions for that?

The Salvation Army told us that ASIO would be checking our emails and we were told not to talk to media.

I think you would be silly not to have some kind of concern because it is drilled into you that speaking out is a betrayal of the government and means you don’t have allegiance to your country and employers.

However from day one we were already going against what this camp was about. The purpose of this camp is a deterrence policy to stop asylum seekers coming to Australia, to make it so bad that people don’t want to come to Australia. Our role there was to provide humanitarian support to those asylum seekers. How can you work in a camp thats purpose was to make it as bad as possible for asylum seekers and then try and help them? From day one we were fighting against the department.

The next step from there was fighting battles within the centre; security wouldn’t allow asylum seekers to talk to Nauruans on excursions and I fought that policy. I was deemed a troublemaker. The next step was speaking out in courts against the Australian government. I was faced with an affidavit from Wilson security that I believed to be untrue. So I sent an affidavit to court that I believed was true.

At each point I believe I was acting morally and within my belief system and I thought I was doing the right thing, and thus justified my actions. When it came to writing a book it was just another step.

What was the process of writing the book, how did it come about? How did you feel going through going through some of the events that happened?

I didn’t go over to Nauru with the intention of writing a book. When I first arrived the the work was so gruelling and full on, I was just exhausted every day. It wasn’t until two weeks later that I first wrote something down.

The first thing I wrote was the separation between myself and the asylum seekers, and dealing with my friend’s suicide attempt. It was the first and only time I came close to breaking down in that camp. I went back to my hotel and wrote down what happened. That is one chapter of the book and I didn’t change that chapter during the editing process.

From there, I began to record the poignant or tragic moments or more emotional moments. By putting it on paper, it took it out of my head. Going back to Australia and seeing the difference in my friends and the lack of understanding of what we had just gone through, I realised the book could show the dark and mysterious world of offshore detention.

“The way we deal with asylum seekers needs to be re-evaluated as a country, because we have lost the humanity in this debate.”

Coming back from Nauru, did your experiences affect your life or the way you saw Australia?

Yes without a doubt. Try and go to a place and see what we have seen, it is going to change your life. It is a very eye opening experience for a 24-year-old male to work in a place like that. I have done a lot of traveling but never heard stories like the stories I heard. Seeing how much fight people have and how desperate people are to get into Australia, and then seeing the way we treat them.

I believe we have a responsibility to this world to give back for what we have been given, and that was instilled in me very strongly through the experience that I had there. The way we deal with asylum seekers needs to be re-evaluated as a country, because we have lost the humanity in this debate.

What are your hopes for the future in terms of changes to the asylum policy?

Looking at it realistically – what we can achieve with both sides of politics – now that we have “stopped the boats” apparently, we need to start treating those that are under our care with humanity and dignity. Let’s keep the processing to a time limit that allows people to not to go crazy. Let’s take pregnant women and children out of detention. Let’s process people who are in Australia already. Let’s stop keeping them in limbo. And let’s come up with an alternate method of treating asylum seekers who are trying to come to Australia by boat.

I think we can all agree that getting on a boat to get to Australia is not acceptable. It’s dangerous, but we need more humane methods by giving people alternatives to getting on a boat. Deterrence doesn’t solve any global migration problems; it just shifts Australia’s responsibility to protect asylum seekers to other countries. I think we have a responsibility in our region to give asylum seekers alternative methods to get to Australia, and to give them a safe-haven and timely processing.