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Published in ONLINE OPINION 16 May 2013

On the 29 April the ABC Four Corners program ran a story, “No Advantage”, about conditions for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru Islands. Major Paul Moulds of the Salvation Army appeared in that story. What he seemed to be saying was that conditions on those islands were not conducive to the well being of asylum seekers. He expressed concern and as such, implied criticism of the management of those facilities.

Others who had worked on the islands, including workers employed by the Salvation Army, and a doctor, who had been fired after expressing his concerns, by the contracting company employing him, were far more forthright in their condemnation of conditions in the asylum seeker camps.

In early December 2012 I wrote an article critical of the involvement of the Salvation Army in seeking to ‘ameliorate the condition’ of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Islands. For that they have been paid $75m, with nothing to show for it except a spate of resignations by Salvation Army staff working on the islands.

In that article I said that the Salvation Army was wrong to think that it could make a difference to the physical and emotional needs of asylum seekers in those detention centres.

Paul Moulds, the head of the Salvation Army mission to Nauru and Manus Islands, wrote, in response to my article that, “Our presence on Nauru or Manus Island does not mean that we have endorsed this policy or given it ‘legitimacy’…We have spoken clearly and publicly about our opposition to off shore processing, but as Mr Haigh knows, the implementation of off shore processing was inevitable. It was recommended by the Expert Panel and endorsed by both major political parties…Who was best placed to provide humanitarian support and care for these people? A security firm? A facilities management company? Or an organisation that brings to this task over a century of experience and skill in working with the distressed, vulnerable and marginalised people, and boundless amounts of faith, hope and love.”

Sadly all that boundless faith, hope and love have not prevented an undocumented number of suicide attempts and inmates from sewing their lips together in distress and despair at their appalling living conditions and ‘no advantage’ incarceration, which is sending them mad.

Moulds continued, “We also understand Mr Haigh’s point that future generations may well look back on this policy and see it, like the removal of aboriginal children and the care of children in large institutions, as flawed and inappropriate. But our concerns for our future reputation should not prevent us now from responding to the urgent need to bring some compassion and humanity to a tough policy. We are content to let the future judge our actions and response.”

And further on, “The Salvation Army is continually advocating directly to the government for improvement in facilities and conditions, and we have seen positive response.”

In the light of the ABC program that last statement by Moulds is a porky. By his own testament on the program he gave the lie to the words he wrote to me on 24 December last year.

The Salvation Army has fulfilled none of the objectives outlined by Moulds to me. It has been marginalised by a ruthless and fearful government. It has taken $75 million of tax-payers money to deliver outcomes which Moulds and his co-workers admitted have so far failed, and given the current loss of decency and moral courage by both major parties, are unlikely to succeed.

If it wants to retrieve any credibility the Salvation Army should go to the barricades and publicly advocate for the rights of asylum seekers to be upheld, as embodied in Australian legislation and under International Law and Charter.

To do otherwise is to spend tax-payers money on a fig leaf.

At a time when they will be shortly facing examination from the inquiry into child abuse, particularly as it existed in orphanages and religious institutions, it might be prudent to clean out their stables, leave the islands, hand the money back and advocate for the rule of law to apply to asylum seekers.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, refugee advocate and former Member of the Refugee review Tribunal.