theguardian.com,Wednesday 23 April 2014 22.48 BST
There have been reports of ‘a lot of conflict’ between Save the Children staff and Wilson Security employees on Nauru. Photograph: Department of Immigration/AAP
Security guards at the family camp on Nauru have been accused of verbally and physically abusing child asylum seekers in a letter of concern from staff at the centre.
The letter by a Save the Children Australia worker to the charity’s Nauru contractors expresses “extremely alarming” allegations of “mistreatment and inappropriate behaviour” directed at asylum seekers by guards employed by Wilson Security, also now contracted at the Manus Island facility.
The letter, obtained by Guardian Australia, alleges that on 27 March a Wilson guard was seen by a Save the Children staff member chasing an asylum-seeker girl in the recreation area inside the centre and “hit her on the back of the head”.
It continues: “His [the guard] force and size was so big that the blow caused the child to fall to the ground.” It says the guard proceeded to verbally abuse staff from Save the Children, which provides support to child asylum seekers on Nauru.
Guardian Australia understands this guard was a local employee and is being investigated by the Nauruan police, having been stood down from duties in the family camp following the allegations. It is unclear if he continues to work for Wilson.
On the same day a Wilson security guard was also observed by a Save the Children employee using “excessive force” to remove a child from the playground in the centre. The letter continues: “The father [of the child] also witnessed the incident and yelled out to the guard, believing that it was not the first time this guard has mistreated his child.”
The serious allegations raise doubts about remarks made by the immigration minister, Scott Morrison, on Tuesday. He described the detention centres on Nauru as “running well”. Morrison has consistently maintained that Nauru is an appropriate location to send families and has recently begun transferring unaccompanied minors to detention centres on the island.
Further questions about the safety of the Nauru detention centre were raised on Tuesday after Guardian Australia revealed that an unexploded second world war bomb was found inside the family camp.
The allegations in the letter of concern include that on 30 March, an asylum-seeker child reported to a Save the Children staff member he had been pushed by a guard at the recreational tent, which also serves as a classroom. The letter states this was not witnessed by Save the Children staff, but the guard was later seen “standing over the child in an intimidating/ threatening manner”.
The letter continues: “The guard reported to staff that the child had sworn at him and when the Save the Children staff member raised the issue of his intimidating behaviour, he waved his arms and walked away agitated.”
On 25 March, a child asylum seeker was reported as being “very unwell” and needing “pressing medical attention” because he was “close to passing out and was extremely weak”, but Save the Children staff reported the approach of Wilson guards to assisting the child was “very casual and resistant”. The family of the child were told they would have to wait for half an hour before being moved to medical facilities.
One contractor on Nauru told Guardian Australia there was “a lot of conflict” between Save the Children staff and Wilson Security personnel.
The letter continues: “The nature and extent of these incidents is extremely alarming given the mistreatment and inappropriate behaviour directed from Wilsons staff.” It adds that all the allegations – which also include another on 26 March of a guard swearing at and mocking an adult male asylum seeker – would be formally reported as incident reports, which are submitted to the Department of Immigration.
A spokesman for Save the Children said the organisation had a “zero-tolerance approach to issues of physical or mental abuse of children”, describing the safety and wellbeing of children on Nauru as their “No 1 priority”.
“Save the Children immediately documents and escalates any incidents of concern involving children. While we remain concerned about the harmful impacts of prolonged detention on children in Nauru, we are satisfied that for any such incidents raised, appropriate steps are taken to prevent any additional harm,” the spokesman said.
A spokeswoman for Wilson Security said the company had started a “thorough and detailed internal investigation” as a result of the allegations. She said it would be “highly inappropriate to speculate” until due process had been followed.
“Wilson Security staff all receive training in working with children and other vulnerable groups. All staff undergo mandatory police and character checks. Operations are closely supervised, and include oversight from independent parties,” she said.
The company did not comment on whether the guard accused of assaulting a child was still employed by Wilson.
A spokeswoman for Morrison said the allegations were being “taken seriously” and that any instances of assault were referred to the Nauru police for investigation.
Asked if the allegations had any effect on the policy of offshore processing for asylum-seeker children, she said “the government will continue to operate the full suite of border policies”.
The minister had been advised Wilson Security had a “positive working relationship” with all other service providers on Nauru, the spokeswoman said.
“Transferees also have access to a robust service provider complaints mechanism at the offshore processing centres,” Morrison’s spokeswoman said.
Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ spokeswoman for immigration, said: “Reports that children are being verbally and physically assaulted by local security staff at the Nauru detention centre are extremely concerning and must be addressed immediately.
“The government has a responsibility to provide care and protection to these children and they have neglected that responsibility today.
“The department must investigate these incidents immediately. An internal investigation undertaken by the very organisation allegedly responsible for the attacks is simply not good enough.
“We know that indefinite detention has serious mental health implications for children and now there is mounting evidence that these children aren’t even safe at the hands of the very people responsible for looking after them.
“The Abbott government cannot ensure the safety of these vulnerable children when they are locked up on a remote island prison.
“They must be brought to Australia immediately where they can live in a safe environment, free from threat.”