In conversation with Alyssa Munoz
[Transcript for this podcast found in the tab below]
Asylum seekers, men, women and children, who have arrived in Australia by boat are detained indefinitely in inhumane and cruel conditions. Australian social workers, human services workers and other professionals who have worked at these detention centres risk imprisonment if they speak about. Alyssa Munoz speaks out about the eighteen months she spent on Nauru working with asylum seekers and refugees.
Alyssa Munoz is a committed advocate for vulnerable peoples. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Disability Studies from RMIT, a Graduate Diplomas in Psychology and Counselling, and is completing her Master in Social Work at Griffith University. Alyssa has worked in the field of child protection for more than ten years in Victoria and overseas. For 18 months she worked as a Child Protection Worker for Save the Children on Nauru. Currently she is a Case Manager for The Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Co-op. Her responsibilities include advocating for young Aboriginal mothers and their children to keep them out of the child protection system. In her own time, Alyssa has become a national advocate for refugees and migrants as part of an on-going campaign to close offshore detention centres in Nauru and Manus Island.
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2016, November 23). Nauru: In conversation with Alyssa Munoz [Episode 82]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/nauru/.
Transcription Podsocs 82: Nauru: in conversation with Alyssa Munoz
Thankyou to James Attard for this transcription
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Tricia: Welcome back to Podsocs everybody, it's been a long time coming this year, but it's been a very busy year at Griffith, but we're starting off the podcasts again with a very interesting interview with Alyssa Munoz. Hello, Alyssa, how are you?
**Alyssa: **I'm well Patricia, thank you for having me.
Tricia: First introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about you.
Alyssa: So, I'm currently a student at Griffith University completing my Master in Social Work. I've worked in child protection for over the last 10 years mainly with Department of Human Services, which is a Victorian government down here. I've also worked, I worked in Nauru for 18 months as a child protection worker. Currently, I'm working for the Victorian Aboriginal Co-op, which is an Aboriginal organisation which is supporting young mums who are who are at risk of having their children enter the child protection system. So, I’m doing a lot of advocating and case management work with those families at the moment.
Tricia: So, today we're actually going to focus on your experience in Nauru and the work you've been doing there and we might come back and at another time and talk about some of that other work because it's all very interesting to social workers and human services workers everywhere. So that's great. So, you worked at Nauru, would you like to just explain because we have a lot of people overseas listening to our podcast. What is Nauru?
Alyssa: So, Nauru is a processing, offshore processing detention centre located well really in the middle of nowhere. It's on the equator about five hours away from Australia and it's for where, under the current Australian policy, those who arrived after July 2013 are transferred from Australia to the processing centre where their application for refugee status is processed.
Tricia: So, basically people because they have arrived by boat, which is perfectly legal, and people seeking asylum are well within the international rights to do so but because they arrive by sea they are interned indefinitely in these camps organised by the Australian government and the circumstances there are pretty dire for them aren’t they?
Alyssa: The whole system that's set up over there is, it's set up as a deterrent for other people seeking asylum basically to come by sea. And there's really no future for anyone who actually lives on Nauru or who's who is even gained refugee status there. They're constantly in limbo and the policies, as you probably realise, it's reopened in 2013 for the last three years are changed all the time so they never know what's going to happen to them next and when they do receive the refugee status, they still not allowed to leave the island. They don't, even though they’re granted refugee status they do not receive any travel documents and there's basically really no life for them there. At the moment, the laws are changing where, at the moment, they can stay there for 10 years, up to 10 years, on the Visa, but not allowed to leave the island. And they're trying to change the policy yet again for if they don't go where Australia says they should go then they could be there for up to 20 years. Which is so devastating for families just to know that they've got no hope, and this is and these are people who are extremely traumatised already from the, from already, the countries they've come through due to war, and persecution and then these children, some of the children do not know what life is like outside a processing centre, which is set up like a jail.
Tricia: So, there's single people, there's families, there's children and they’re indefinitely interned.
Alyssa: Yep, at this point there's no way for them to leave those islands even if, even most countries if you receive refugee status across the world you are allowed to have free of movement, you can work, you can you can travel, you know, you can basically be a citizen of that country and have the same rights. But those on Nauru do not have rights, they have rights to work on Nauru, but they have no rights to actually leave that place there. And then, and those who are asylum seekers who have yet to have this data is processed yet, which some of them have been waiting up to 3 years to have that still remain in the actual process centre itself and have no freedom, have very limited freedom of movement around the island. So, they're not even allowed to have a job there, which there are no real jobs to find but they're even further, you know, they're constantly scanned when going into the centres. The children don't have a real place to go to school over there, the school system was already in peril and over there as it is and there's been no improvements in that. So, most of the kids aren't attending school.
Tricia: Alyssa tell me about how you got to work there, and your first introduction, your first day. Step us through that experience, what it was like, what you expected, what happened when you got there, and how the trauma around you slowly unfolded.
Alyssa: Well, I arrived, I was informed of a position going and it sounded like something that I could actually support people with because my understanding was that we would be supporting the implementation of child protection system on Nauru. So, when I first arrived there, we were we were warned. We were given a pretty good brief on this on what it was like there and that it was pretty imperfect conditions, and it was extremely hot. Most people were quite upset with given most of them have only been there for a few months when I arrived and there was really no, they're really given no real idea of how long they would be there, how long things would take. But I guess I it was a real shock when I first went into the camp to see how deplorable the conditions were. And the lack of resources and services that were available.
Tricia: Describe the environment, the physical environment Alyssa.
Alyssa: It's extremely hot all the time. The tents themselves are very close together. So, you don't have any privacy, there's no privacy for anyone. You can literally hear your neighbour, you know, whispering in the next room, because each room is only partitioned off by tarpaulin. So, each room is only got a tarpaulin separating the very small rooms. Enough room for a bed and a box to put your belongings in. So, and there's no there's no shade. There was no shade, people would have to somehow or find other tarpaulins around that weren’t being used to actually create some shade for themselves. Because there was very limited shading. That's some of the things that we tried to, especially for the children, advocate that they needed to be areas in which the children could play and that could they could actually retreat from the heat so they wouldn't be so heat exhausted. We managed to get one area which the kids could actually go in some sort of shade.
Tricia: Alyssa when you were there, were they actually allowed to wander the island because that's fairly recent that they were allowed freedom to move around the island.
Alyssa: It wasn't until August 2015, if I can get my dates correct in my head, when it was officially opened as an open centre. So, it was just before the high court decision about ironically about whether or not offshore detention centres were illegal or not. And they two weeks prior to that being handed down they opened the centres, so they could leave. But in saying that they could leave I mean, there's not much to leave to do. The island had, you can't even swim in the beach because there's too much coral, it's actually very dangerous, you can cut your feet. There's only one small area where the locals and other people on the island can swim which is at the boat area to cool down. There are no job opportunities on the island because there's no work there. Everything is delivered to the island.
Tricia: How are people treated, I understand it's a very prison-like environment in terms of, you know, the children have been called by their numbers as opposed to their names, things like that.
Alyssa: When we first, when I first arrived there that was very true. Most people were the guards, especially Wilson Security, always called them by their boat IDs. Whereas that was something that Save the Children tried to break those barriers down and to recognise them as actually human beings. So, our number one policy was never to call them by their boat IDs. We always call them by their first names. However, the response from a lot of the security, and also some of the other staff, was well there's so many Mohammed’s here. How are we gonna know who's who. So, there was no recognition of actually getting to know these people by security. So, it was a way of dehumanising them so that they could do the job that they were doing, and they could feel that they could justify their actions of how they treated them.
Tricia: What sort of things did you see Alyssa?
Alyssa: There's a lot of underlying racism that goes on in there, a lot of grouping of them. Lack of the way in which they treated people was extremely disrespectful. The children were, there was there was many fights that occurred within the camp due to the difficulties with managing so many people in such a small space and so there were a lot. And there was and with the children themselves there was due the lack of privacy many reports of inappropriate touching going on between security and those living within the camps towards the children and the female women. Which was, you know, constant thing that we had to deal with and have discussions around with staff about boundaries.
There was at the whole, I mean the whole, there was nothing most of the time from when I first got there. So, I can explain I worked with this one family who arrived probably within the first two weeks that I actually arrived on island and they were informed when they were leaving Christmas Island that Nauru was a better place for them to go because their asylum seeker request would be processed quickly and then they would be able to be resettled in another country. So, they agreed to go, and they were actually quite encouraged about when they first got there thinking that this would be a lot quicker, because they've been on Christmas Island already for 18 months with nothing occurring no processing nothing happening. So, when they got to Nauru when they walked down to the camp, I just watched this family cripple. They could not believe the conditions because they were not explained to them of how they would be living. And over the 18 months that I worked with the family on Nauru their mental health deteriorated so significantly that these loving caring parents no longer could actually care for their children or watch their children because they could hardly get themselves out of bed due to the depressive nature of their situation and the children and the oldest girl had to, you know, look after her brother t times because the parents were so devastated. There were many medical problems that also happened for this family and it was [sigh] just such a depressing situation and lack of resources to help them and there's no real counselling or support for these families. You would try and encourage them to speak to someone but as you know working in this field in you can't treat someone for trauma when their living, when they're actually living the trauma on a day-to-day basis. The first thing you have to establish is safety and there was no feeling of safety where they were.
Tricia: So, they were lied to as well?
Tricia: And from hope, from having hope, to an absolute decline into despair.
Alyssa: Absolutely. Yep, and I mean, I mean the children, and I was part of a group that supported setting up what we would call sort of what, well what the counsellors wanted to call, that was linked in trauma specialist counsellors who came on island now and again to try and support the children who were displaying significant traumatic behaviours. And they tried to set up a counselling type therapeutic group, which ended up just being unable to be, you just couldn't run them because the kids would just become so out of control and actually removing them from an area to another area to try and work with these children they just they had so much fear and lack of trust in people coming in and just saw the whole thing as being… it was unfathomable to the point where kids were feeling so frightened of being what was trying to be set up as a safe space is feeling more frightened. And there was, there was pretty much 80% of the children involved in that at some point expressed self-harm, actually committed self-harm acts, head banging, actually slicing themselves with any type of sharp objects they could get a hold of. I mean these were day-to-day things that we were having to report and deal with.
Tricia: I mean, it's like going into a torture chamber while someone's being tortured and then trying to offer some recovery while it’s actually happening, you know.
**Alyssa: **That's exactly it, is exactly it, was absolutely crazy and I mean they just, the department of, the Border Force just really had no idea. Their response was why can't these kids just behave. Well because can’t make children behave in a situation like this. It just isn't going to work and it's not behavioural issues. It's not because their parents aren't trying their best, it’s because you've put them in a cage and you're treating them like animals.
Tricia: Mmm-hmm. It's interesting how human beings can separate say these children's experiences from their own children, you know. It's quite fascinating how “othering” and dehumanising has an effect and as we know from World War 2 and how the Nazis treated people and the experiments, the psychology experiments that show us that people can easily descend into that once they start thinking about people as not people.
Alyssa: Exactly and that I mean, that's really what was going on, you know, as this time went on in these detention centres. That's exactly what was happening because there was absolutely no hope and the way in which the people are treated there, they weren't treated as humans, they weren't treated as having feelings or reactions. I mean you just have to look at what happened when Morrison decided to set that policy and inform them that they were never going to be resettled in Australia. I mean they put up, I just remember it happening, they put up a TV in a room and invited all the asylum seekers to sit in this room and watch Morrison basically tell them they had no hope left in the most cold and demeaning, and he expected them just to accept it and not for them to be protests occurring afterwards or distress happening. I just started, it was crazy to think that you could do that and think that there would be no reaction and then to go on and blame that Save the Children staff who were trying to get each person, we really were there in the end just to get them through each day finding ways for them to find one thing that you could do and celebrate and have hope about each day to get them through to the next. And that's how our work ended up being while we were over there.
Tricia: And I mean the political propaganda had a lot of similarities with the Nazis I must say and this false dichotomy in the justification to the rest of Australia that we have to treat people this way otherwise they'll drown. So, this is false dichotomy. You lock them up or you drown, but that also draws attention to me to what you guys had to put up with because they passed a law where you and all other workers on Manus and other detention centres, if you spoke out you could be imprisoned.
Alyssa: Yeah, and there was a lot of intimidation towards us on the island as well, that we felt as well as workers. So, often our reports or our recommendations or our assessments were often downgraded. Or we were requested by Border Force to change things or they would change things. Or we could we were told we couldn't do those types of things and that we can't put those in our reports and there was a lot of intimidation that went on island. Especially in the last, I was up there. I was on Nauru for the last, I was one of the last group of Save the Children to actually leave staff. So, I was part of the very tail end and in the last two weeks that we were there that was there was some information and an email, or some sort was leaked to the press. It wasn't that even I don't believe that significant they've been a lot more stuff that have been leaked to the press but I guess because they knew we were leaving and they were very possibly concerned. I don't know what their motives behind it, but they really put the intimidation into us. So, we got raided on two occasions. Luckily, I wasn't actually in the office as the raiding occurred, but I know from staff they felt that were there was very intimidating.
Tricia: Was that raided on the island or raided in Australia?
Alyssa: Raided it on the island. So, they came into the office blocks and removed all of our computers. Also, if anyone had personal phones or personal laptops on them, they were also confiscated by the Nauruan police and they did that on two occasions. And then there was a further threat that they were going to actually raid our personal block in which we were staying and remove any computer equipment or personal phones or any type of information that we have with us. Well, we never stored of course confidential information with us, but that's what they were looking for.
Tricia: Is there still a threat, I understand the law still exists but no one has been prosecuted but does that risk still hang over your head.
Alyssa: There is a risk for us talking, I mean it has not been removed from the law. It's still there. I have got friends of mine who continue to speak out and discuss the issues that are going on. We have contact details of lawyers if we ever do need them, but I guess I've come to the point now being off the island since November last year that these people need a voice and they need to, and it needs to be heard by those who actually experienced what's been going on and I would rather be persecuted for speaking out then not saying anything at all and allowing this to keep occurring. And these people to not be heard and the government to continue to persecute these people and so I'm willing to take that risk. I don't think that the government would pursue it, I honestly don't. I think that they would be. It would not look…
Tricia: They would look stupid wouldn’t they because most of Australia is behind you the government sort of stands alone with a few minorities.
Alyssa: Yeah, I would think that they would be more of a headache to them than anything else if they actually, I mean they already are dealing with the litigation that fell out for when they removed the 10 people, 9 people I should say, from Save the Children during the protests and the court case that went on regarding that and the apology they had to do because it was all false. So, I mean and how can you take someone to court when they're speaking the truth?
Tricia: Mmm, that's right because more will come out than they want people to know as well. So, I mean it's not only the way the government, even though they say it's the Nauruan government now, even though our government it's the way they treat these people. It's the abuses, and the rapes, and the child abuse, and the self-harming, and the mental health declines that are going on in these camps, but that is also conflict with the locals as well isn’t there?
Alyssa: There is conflict because I mean you've got to imagine that this is a very very tiny Island. I mean, it's you can, you can walk around the island in three hours. You can drive around the island in 40 minutes going and then the speed limit there is a maximum 50 kms an hour. So, you can drive around in 40 minutes at 50 kms an hour and it's a very poor nation. And they've just brought in over a thousand asylum seekers and basically almost, well given nearly doubled the islands population who have got very, very mixed cultures, mixed religions. Whereas Nauru is a very Christian, conservative country and it's just a melting pot for things to be happening. And the feeling of animosity between the different people and cultures that are there, and there has been no integration. There's been no support to actually get these different cultures to really understand each other, and there's, and so there's a lot of fear around the different cultures on either side because they don't. So, it's just it's honestly a recipe for disaster. I mean you can imagine if it was a small country town in Australia and over 1,500 asylum-seekers suddenly arrived in that small country town overnight, how would they cope.
Tricia: And I assume also there was no training or education for any of the security staff or guards?
Alyssa: Not in relation, the training is more in relation to security training. They would do daily drills of how to combat riots. So, that was their training. Save the Children were rolling out, wanted to roll out, and actually started a program with child protection staff were trained to go on island in actually discuss child protection issues, and things like that. And they wanted it to roll out to not only Save the Children staff but also to Wilson security and also transferred staff, but that was never allowed. It was only allowed to, they decided, it was only to be with Save the Children staff members. Which really didn't make much sense when you're thinking that most of the staff over there are welfare workers or child protection workers themselves or those who have worked in nonprofit organisations all their lives and have an understanding of child protection ideas. So, the program itself never got off the ground and there was no other training for that. The only real training that staff got there was in relation to that what their role was there.
Tricia: Alyssa how did you and staff generally cope, because you're there with that trauma day in and day out and feeling very helpless yourselves I'm sure. So, how did people deal with it?
Alyssa: When you're on the island, you're really, it's because you do such long hours, you're within the camp from eight in the morning to at least sometimes nine, ten o'clock at night, depending on what's going on. Support within the staff themselves, we had amazing supervisors on Island. That I give wholehearted credit to for managing all of us there. Taking time out for yourself, watching a lot of movies in your room. I mean most of the time most people would just be so exhausted you go back to your room and you'd find a quiet space in your room just to try and reflect and distance yourself what's going on around you. Support from family and friends, I mean the usual things I’d do for myself. A lot of things that I implemented were my general well-being things that I know that work for me, such as spending time with my family and friends when I was off island, trying to exercise, reading, watching movies, the general self-care things and I have utilised my own counselling as well. When I first transitioned, when I first finished up on Nauru, because I felt I needed a lot of reflecting on what I'd experienced and how to move forward and a lot of staff have done that.
Tricia: And it's still with you Alyssa?
Alyssa: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I don't think I will, I did talk about her on Four Corners [Australian Broadcasting (ABC) production], the toll. I worked for that family quite closely, especially towards the end of my time on Nauru and the things that I saw and the distraught within that family and the children themselves in the trauma from those children will always be with me. There is also…, pretty much all the families. Yeah, they'll be a lot of things that I'll probably take with me for a very long time. But in saying that they're some of the most resilient, beautiful people I've ever met, strong and just and the parents just want a better life for their children. That's all they're asking.
Tricia: Because they have escaped real fear and real, well, they haven't escaped they’ve been put in another situation, but the circumstances of people leaving their countries and being very real and very traumatic for them and they've just become re-traumatised.
Alyssa: Yeah, and I really fear for these children, especially those who have do not know anything else, but trauma. Those have come from war-torn country or persecution from their own countries then into a detention center and the long-term impacts. I mean we know about childhood development, we know about how trauma affects the brain, and destroys connections within those brains and also stalls development and, you know, and we've got unfortunately too many examples of what happens, and I don't, and it surprises me that we've continued to go with this process when we know what this does.
Tricia: Alyssa what would you like to see happen?
**Alyssa: **To be, for them to close detention centres and for these people to be resettled in a country who is willing to support them, and allow them to have the freedoms that everybody else should have - education, being able to work, and also provide them with real support and counselling to move forward with their lives. Because I mean, even if we were to resettle them in a country these are families who have got significant trauma. Not only the adults but this the women, the children, all of them will have significant trauma. And so, they need a country in which is going to really support them through that and help them to be able to live good lives because a lot of the problems I think will also come from if we're not we don't have really well set up resettlement processes.
Tricia: Australia should be paying for their therapy for the rest of their lives.
Alyssa: Absolutely. Absolutely and I and that's my other concern is the rhetoric that's been going on in the in the politics today, especially with Dutton talking around the refugees at the moment and blaming the way in which resettlement processes has happened in the past. Well, you know.
Tricia: Things have changed. I mean in the 70s after Vietnam War boat people came and they were welcomed, and they've made a more successful Australia.
Tricia: And now we've got this paranoia all for political gain.
Alyssa: Yeah. It's just the political climate at the moment is all around fear, and it really, that worries me a lot that this is continuing and I think a lot more people are hearing the wrong messages, and that worries me because the funding for the, for those, who are coming, and we are taking in refugees, the resettlement for them the services aren’t there and they need those services. So, not only do we need to close these centres, but we really need to have some really strong policies and support for people who are coming as asylum seekers and refugees.
Tricia: What else would you like us to know Alyssa, or the world to know?
Alyssa: I just hope that more people who are really interested in and want to learn more actually go out there and do get an understanding of why we're here today, and why this is occurred, and to really speak out against these policies. Whether that be writing to your local MPs, whether that attending rallies that are set up, whether that is even sending letters of hope to those who are on Nauru and Manus Island. Just anything you can do to basically have the, to work, on having these policies changed and to really see that the plight this will have an impact for generations to come and what we do today will affect tomorrow.
Tricia: And Alyssa you've been there, and our politicians haven't.
Alyssa: That's exactly right I mean there was a stage where Dutton has been on the island and also Turnbull came to the island at one stage, but they only looked at the accommodation for staff and never went into the camps themselves.
Tricia: You’re joking?
Alyssa: No, they never went down to the camps. The quote being that was because it would be a security risk. My response to that is well if it's a security risk well maybe there's a reason for that. If you’re willing to put people in these situations, and they’re not criminals, and you should be able to have frank discussions face to face, and politicians should be doing that, and they don’t.
Tricia: Alyssa you’ve certainly given these people a voice and I think the whole of the social work profession around the world is behind you and many, many, many, the majority of people as well and it's just awful those people are still there. They're being victimised and re-victimised and it really does need to stop.
Alyssa: It absolutely does.
Tricia: So, thank you so much for talking to us.
Alyssa: Thank you for having me.
Tricia: Thank you.
[Musical outro 34.40 to END]
Interview ENDS: 35.05