What Happens When An Aid Group Sees Abuse, But Is Sworn To Secrecy? : Parallels Save the Children had to sign confidentiality agreements to work at a migrant detention camp run by Australia in Nauru. The group's Mat Tinkler discusses what they did and didn't say about abuses.

What Happens When An Aid Group Sees Abuse, But Is Sworn To Secrecy?

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We've been tracking the story of asylum-seekers on the Pacific island nation of Nauru. As we've heard on this program, the aid group Save the Children signed up to help refugees who sought shelter in Australia. Instead, it was accused of staying quiet about abuse. A former employee made that accusation, Victoria Vibhakar, who told us yesterday that she became a whistleblower.


VICTORIA VIBHAKAR: I chose to make a report, an anonymous submission, detailing the abuse and systemic violations of human rights to children and families on Nauru. And I attached several thousand pages of documentation as well, and I sent it to the commission.

MONTAGNE: Australia's human rights commission was investigating that country's rather unusual refugee policy. The Australian government keeps its migrants out of the country, parking them instead on a distant island, Nauru. For a time, Save the Children Australia provided services on that island, and our colleague Steve Inskeep brings us the agency's side of the story this morning.


Mat Tinkler of Save the Children told us via Skype his organization never approved of Australia's policy but most Australians do.

MAT TINKLER: So in the election that happened in June here in Australia, we had the federal minister for immigration saying in a public interview that these people will come and take your jobs. And he said at the same time they'll come and accept your welfare benefits, so it was a bit of a non sequitur, that argument. But it was a deliberate attempt, in my view, to play on the fears of people.

INSKEEP: Despite its reservations, Save the Children decided to do what it could for refugees on that island called Nauru. And Mat Tinkler acknowledged to us Save the Children also agreed to sign confidentiality agreements.

Why did Save The Children agree to that?

TINKLER: Because it was a condition of supporting children in that terrible environment, so that is correct. We were required to sign confidentiality agreements. I've signed one myself. What that means is when we saw rights violations or the impact of detention that was grave enough to warrant us speaking out publicly, we would do that. But it was important that we did that in a careful and controlled manner.

It wasn't appropriate that we had, you know, all of our 300 staff members speaking to the media about any they may have observed. That would not have allowed us to continue working in that environment, and our contract would have been terminated.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to get a sense of why Australia felt it necessary to demand such strict confidentiality.

TINKLER: My view on this - the Australian government has deliberately cloaked this area in secrecy because if the Australian public had a full view of the impacts of this policy, they would not support it. There's no independent human rights monitor or child rights advocate working in the detention environment in places like Nauru, and there should be. It is a problem, and we have advocated strongly and consistently to unveil the cloak of secrecy to allow people to judge whether this policy is worth it.

INSKEEP: So what happened behind that cloak of secrecy on the island of Nauru?

TINKLER: So one of the things that I'm very proud of is that Save the Children was the agency in that environment who was essentially the conscience of the island. So when children didn't have appropriate footwear, we were the ones advocating to get them decent shoes. When children were being educated in a tent, we were the ones advocating to get them out of those tents and into an air conditioned facility so they could actually learn. And publicly, we were the ones advocating to end this process because the impacts and the harm being done to children and their families were extreme and should not be tolerated in a country like Australia.

INSKEEP: But when a human rights commission, the Australian Human Rights Commission, came around asking not about kids' shoes but about child sexual abuse and criminal violations of that sort and asked for information, we're told that Save the Children told them nothing.

TINKLER: Well, that's not correct. I gave evidence in person to that human rights commission inquiry, and we also provided a written submission to the inquiry. The commission very much understood that we had to play a very careful balancing act here between providing evidence to the inquiry and maintaining our position in Nauru. And I can tell you that the commissioner herself told me that it was in everyone's interest that Save the Children remain in Nauru and therefore she understood that our evidence need to be finely calibrated.

Importantly, however - and this is a really key point - the fact that we didn't say publicly to that commission we observed incidents of child abuse does not mean that we weren't reporting consistently any type of issue that we observed like that to the government. This was standard practice. It happened all the time, I've got to say, and far too often on Nauru. When our staff observed that kind of incident, we would alert the government. We would alert all the service providers. We would alert the police on Nauru. We would make sure that incidents were investigated to the best of our ability. But ultimately, it was a matter for the government then what they did with that information. It wasn't a matter for us to determine.

INSKEEP: You used the word calibrated. You calibrated your testimony to the commission. Do you have some sympathy then for former Save the Children employees, one of whom has spoken on this program, who felt that the organization didn't reveal enough and ended up giving their own documents to the inquiry?

TINKLER: Yes, I have some sympathy for them. These people worked at the coalface of human suffering on Nauru. And I can understand why this is a highly emotive and personal issue for them, and they want to see justice for those people. And I'm not going to criticize that at all, but what I will say is most staff would not have been able to have that opportunity to observe and work and support those children, and speak to the media now as some of them are doing, had we not stayed on Nauru. And I can tell you that the night I gave evidence to that human rights commission inquiry, we had a phone call from the government threatening to terminate our contract because I gave that evidence.

INSKEEP: That's Mat Tinkler of Save the Children Australia. His group sent us a transcript of his testimony from back in 2014. And in that testimony, he discussed limited access to books or to exercise and a mood of despondency. The testimony did not discuss allegations of abuse. More recently, Save the Children lost its contract to work on Nauru, and Tinkler says the aid group is now more vocal in its criticism.

Did you feel that you were in a morally treacherous place?

TINKLER: When I went to Nauru, I came back feeling like I'd witnessed a stain on history. And I felt like I had witnessed something that will be judged very harshly over time. And how we responded to it was to walk this fine line as best we could around providing support to those children and helping them and their families.

INSKEEP: We have invited Australia's government to discuss its treatment of refugees.

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