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January 2011

The following post is an article I have written in response to this story published in the SMH early last week:
http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/volunteers-at-detention-centres-speak-about-scientology-influence-20110116-19sls.html

The SMH was not interested in publishing the response (nor were both The Australian and Crikey). The day following my correspondence with the SMH it published this follow-up story:
http://www.smh.com.au/national/volunteers-detentioncentre-work-stopped-20110124-1a2x4.html

Overall a very disappointing week for ALIV, its volunteers and, ultimately, thousands of asylum seekers.

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Last week the SMH published an article by Nick O’Malley titled “Volunteers at detention centres speak about Scientology influence”. Despite the title, the article’s impetus is the possible deregistration of Sydney charity Australian League of Immigration Volunteers (ALIV) by Fair Trading NSW for failure to provide financial statements. This matter provided O’Malley the opportunity to embark on a facile report of the charity’s supposed links to Scientology and its treatment of volunteers.

Following its publication, ALIV’s English and recreation programs at Christmas Island, Darwin and Villawood Detention centres have been discontinued by Serco, the company responsible for running these institutions. This is an understandable response from a company conscious of the effects of negative media coverage regarding their role in a contentious area of public policy. However, in canceling these programs Serco’s clients (or Australia’s detainees) have been deprived of opportunities that interrupt the otherwise monotonous and difficult experience of mandatory detention.

In his article, O’Malley quickly abandons his reporting of ALIV’s financial management. He then sources anonymous volunteer comments that he admits are speculative about supposed links between ALIV and Scientology. He also writes that Asylum Seeker Resource Centre coordinator Pamela Curr “fears” for the well-being of the detainees but fails to provide any evidence of such concerns.

Two opening caveats are required. First, I have volunteered in ALIV’s recreation programs because I believe that the charity’s contribution is valuable to the emotional health of asylum seekers in detention. Second, my volunteering for ALIV has not required any involvement with the charity’s financial administration. On this matter it is likely that the apparent lack of financial disclosure is an effect of an organisation concentrating primarily on the expansion of its services at the expense of thorough administrative management. It is unfortunate that administrative carelessness could ultimately undermine the contributions of volunteers and the provision of services to asylum seekers.

It is unclear why O’Malley represents Ms Curr as “[fearing] for the well-being of the vulnerable detainees”. However, Ms Curr expresses two legitimate concerns that deserve consideration. These relate to the possibility that ALIV’s programs have operated as a substitute for those Serco has a contractual obligation to provide and that asylum seekers might feel compelled to participate in ALIV’s recreation programs in order to obtain a visa. Regarding the latter point, ALIV volunteers do not promote this view, and are advised not to discuss visa applications since this is an immigration matter and lies beyond the expertise of the charity.

Regarding service provision, ALIV is responsible for the provision of its own programs within detention centres rather than for assessing Serco’s satisfaction of its contractual obligations. Instead of casting doubt on the quality of the programs provided by ALIV, O’Malley might have better used his report to examine the regime by which the Australian government assesses the performance of a private company to which it has hand-passed the responsibility of detaining asylum seekers. Responsibility for the proper care for individuals mandatorily detained ultimately rests with the State that has privatised this institution.

Secondly, it is disappointing that the comments of unnamed ALIV volunteers indicate unfulfilling experiences with the charity. However, these experiences are not typical. Regarding the strict confidentiality agreements volunteers are required to sign, these exist on behalf of the privacy of the clients that participate in ALIV’s programs. Signing is a necessary compromise to act as a volunteer inside detention centres. The cancellation of programs demonstrates the precarious nature of any charity’s access to Australian detention centres and the detrimental effects of reputational damage caused by negative media coverage.

O’Malley quotes anonymous past volunteers regarding the twelve hour workdays purportedly struggled through by ALIV’s volunteers in the Christmas Island program. In my experience there, where such days occurred these were for a maximum three days per week and included over three hours of meal breaks, two hours casual administration work, and generally conducting recreational programs within the centres. It is not factory labour. Volunteers are also made aware of the hours involved during the selection and training processes prior to departure. While refugees are not so lucky, no Australian has yet been coerced into the Christmas Island detention centre.

Group debriefing, which I initially thought unusual, is in that context effective and therapeutic. Detention centres can be confronting places. The group debrief – volunteers are also given the opportunity to debrief individually – allows volunteers to both articulate their own experiences and look out for their peers’ well-being. It is an effective, non-coercive team-building strategy that establishes an emotional support network. It is neither introduced nor undertaken as a tactic from the Scientology handbook.

Finally, it is interesting that O’Malley draws upon the symbolic authority of an anonymous priest, described as “concerned about [ALIV’s] restrictive regulations”, in order to criticise supposed links between the charity and Scientology. I have no investment in any institutional religion, nor any alternative spirituality. ALIV’s lack of political and religious affiliation attracted me originally. The charity’s volunteers include practicing Christians, Jews, Muslims, and non-religious individuals whose common ground is a basic humanism felt for people in detention. To suggest that ALIV is run according to the tenets of Scientology is simply untrue. It fails to give credit to the diverse religious and moral value systems that underpin the actions of the volunteers, which are, in the end, basic human interactions with vulnerable and traumatised individuals.

It is disappointing that O’Malley’s article appears to have contributed to the decision to cease ALIV’s provision of programs inside Australian detention centres. It is equally disappointing that this comes, in part, of poor administration by the charity. Ultimately, a vulnerable population for which Australia has a duty of care loses out. It is especially disappointing that this result might have been less likely were O’Malley’s article more coherently focused upon the major issue – Fair Trading NSW’s investigation into ALIV – and less interested in making false allusions to ALIV’s supposed connections to Scientology and in complaints from unrepresentative, anonymous volunteers. The cost of such reporting has in this case been high.

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