Protesters at the Manus Island immigration processing centre in May. The protesters were calling for an end to their detention, which the Papua New Guinea supreme court ruled illegal
Stevensons job on Manus Island and Nauru was to counsel the Wilson Security guards so that they were able to do their jobs keeping safe and under control those held in the offshore detention centres. But Stevenson says he made it a part of my job to understand the lives of those held, as well as those holding.
I have to be very certain as to whats happening in the lives of the asylum seekers in order to help the guards to be able to manage those situations.
After every critical incident, I would go down into the camps, and I would talk to the people who were involved in those incidents, and in doing so, I would come into contact with the real issues that were occurring in the camp.
Most of the guards are from military backgrounds, many have served in the Australian and New Zealand armies on overseas deployments. Some of those, Stevenson says, were well-suited to the job, passionate about caring for the asylum seekers welfare, and proud to be doing the best they could in difficult circumstances and an oppressive physical environment.
But the bulk of people were there for a different reason, and that is to get a good income in a very short period of time for their own personal reasons they were there to work.
The trauma of offshore detention does not discriminate, Stevenson says. All who exist in that environment, as jailed or jailer, are scarred.
More than anything, theres a demoralisation about the work the guards do. The people who are very compassionate and concerned about their work burn out pretty quickly those who are probably the better people probably burn out earlier, and those who are more disconnected to their job, those who dissociate more from their clientele, probably tend to last longer.
Ive seen it, in terms of a good person burning out, Ive seen it in one deployment. One week, two weeks, people who have done one deployment and never come back for a second.
That demoralisation and the struggle the guards face reconciling their task with their empathy is starkly apparent in the incident reports.
In one report, an asylum seeker is initially referred to by his six-character boat ID when Stevenson first arrived on the islands no one in detention was referred to by their name but as the report progresses, through the bureaucratese emerges a moment of genuine communion and humanity.
I was talking to client [ID NUMBER REDACTED] as I notice he was relocating his bed from the rec area to the trees near C10, he was saying his UN meeting this morning was no good. Trying to lighten the mood, I said it will be good when the new buildings go in. [FIRST NAME REDACTED] replied I no have friends, I wont be needing a room, a bed, any food or water. Its just me now. He then said he is tired and closed his eyes and tears rolled down his cheek. He told me he had just spent 70 minutes on the phone to his wife. His wife is being pressured to divorce him and leave him here.
Nauru and Manus are lands with their own language.
Reports are littered with acronyms and initialisms, conversations contaminated with code and call signs.
A code green is a security breach or an escape. A code black is a request for assistance, usually to break up a fight.
A code pink on Nauru is when the women of the camp go naked in protest, sending camp managers scrambling to find female guards to watch them, who then often have to work double shifts.
But by far the most common call signal on the radio is code blue. Code blue is a medical emergency, almost invariably a suicide attempt or act of self-harm. The call goes out over the radio and everybody responds, Stevenson says.
You see people drop everything and run to the site, but I think thats got something to do with whatever is happening in their day too. These are the moments that some people live for, because all of a sudden theres a bit of excitement.
In a 12-hours shift, you can have 11 hours of sheer monotony, and then all of a sudden the alarm bells are going, people are racing to the scene. There is an excitement about it.
But the constant criticality of the environments of Nauru and Manus both desensitises and wears on those who have to live and work there.
Some days there are four, five, six code blues: a razor blade swallowed; washing powder ingested; somebody found hanging and cut down by a guard using hook knives issued for that very purpose; mothers trying to kill themselves in front of their children. One desperate attempt after another.
It does become very normal and people become very desensitised to it so we find that even amongst the guards, theres a desensitisation to a whole range of traumas.
If theres six or so [suicide attempts] in a day, then youre starting to get an attrition about that.
But beyond the moments of grim intensity lies the numbing monotony of long, slow hours and days.
Every critical incident will be followed up by maybe 12 hours on close observation, and so the next staff member spends 12 hours standing in the opening of a tent watching somebody, and thats their entire shift.
Shifts spent on high watch, also known as arms length watch, involve a guard monitoring a single asylum seeker from a distance no greater than arms length, in order to stop them hurting themselves. It means watching them sleep, walking behind them everywhere they go, writing down everything they do or say.
It is humiliating for an asylum seeker an advertisement to the entire camp of a mental breakdown or unsuccessful suicide attempt and grindingly boring for the guard.
In offshore detention, self-harm has become a currency, Stevenson says, a tool used as leverage to win some perceived advantage, no matter how small, debasing, or ultimately self-defeating it might be.
People might be attempting suicide because they cannot stand their lives in detention and they want to die, or they might be self-harming because they want to be transferred to an air-conditioned seclusion tent, or because they want to attract attention within the camp or back in Australia.
This is what detention does to people, Stevenson says. It turns them against themselves to use themselves as currency. And thats a very very significant level of traumatisation, when somebody does that. All they have is their own body to negotiate with. If were in any way supporting the development of that very, very mentally unstable phenomena we need to do something about that.
Two refugees have
deliberately set themselves on fire this year on Nauru. Iranian Omid Masoumali died in a Brisbane hospital two days after his immolation. A female Somalian refugee transferred more quickly to Australia survived her self-immolation and remains in hospital in Australia. Another woman locked herself in her room and set it on fire, in what was reportedly a suicide attempt. She too, survived. But the brutality of these acts have shocked Australia.
Stevenson says they were entirely predictable.
The self-immolations are definitely an expected outcome. Whether or not it was a serious suicide attempt, its hard to say, because in the self-harm activities, which is a currency on the island, you never know how far its going to go. You never what a burning was intended to be, and you never know whether or not it got out of control and got so much worse than it was intended to be. Certainly hanging and choking and head butting and swallowing pills and nails and detergent and all that goes on as a matter of course.
Children regularly witness their parents committing self-harm, or are forced to intervene or raise the alarm.
The incident reports reveal that in January last year one girl watched as her mother swallowed screws in an attempt to harm herself. When guards came rushing to intervene trying to prise the screws from her hands, the girl told them she had already swallowed two, as her mother fought the guards telling them: Its too late, its over.
When children are not witnessing acts of self-harm, they are committing them themselves.
Just after breakfast on 26 September 2014, six young boys all on Nauru without parents or family all attempted to kill themselves at once. They were found bleeding and initially refused any medical assistance.
After the emergency response team the armed squad used to respond to riots was called in, a single, bloody blade was taken from the boys and they were treated for their wounds before being moved to another part of the detention centre for observation.