Image: Nauru from the air. Credit: ARM Climate Change Research Facility.

Mark Isaacs.

Mark Isaacs.

Amid the political controversy of asylum seekers, boat people and people smugglers so prominent in Australian media and the topic of social media conversations, some people are actually witnessing the daily reality of detention centres.

Mark Isaacs is one of them. He has just returned to Sydney after spending ten months on Nauru working with the Salvation Army.

Untrained in social work or aid care yet eager to help and more than a little curious, Mark’s background in communications studies enabled him to witness the hardships that the men live with and relate these with clarity.

In his very first visit to a detention centre, in early 2012, he met men with injuries both physical and psychological.

“The first man I met in Villawood had rope burns around his neck” Mark said.

“Then I started to hear stories of all these asylum seekers detained in detention centres around Australia for years on end not knowing when they might be able to leave.”

“It moved me a lot so I started writing quite a bit about it for Oxfam.”

Months later Mark heard about an opportunity working with The Salvos on Nauru and within a few weeks he had signed on for the first of  several four-week stints, resigned from his job and flown to Micronesia.

But his experiences at Villawood contributed to apprehensions of what he might find at Nauru.

“Every time I visited Villawood I’d be wanting to leave after a couple of hours because it was so depressing. The hopelessness just sucked the energy out of me,” he said.

“So to be flying to a detention centre renowned for being a horrible place, to work ten hour days with these men, I was…I remember thinking what am I going to say to these guys and what am I going to be doing every day?”

Even with his experiences at Villawood, Mark felt poorly prepared for what he was to find when he arrived at Nauru.

“Actually witnessing self-harm and talking to the men after suicide attempts, being given responsibilities that the majority of workplaces in Australia wouldn’t give you purely because of your age…

“One thing I have to say is that the workers who work for the Salvation Army are an incredible group of people.”

Mark said that prior to his experiences on Nauru, the deprivations experienced by asylum seekers both in their homeland and now in Australian detention centres was a hard thing to fathom.

“You talk to these men [in detention centres] and I feel that it’s impossible not to see how much we have and how little they have,” he said.

“Coming home, it becomes difficult to appreciate what you have got without looking back at these men.”

“You go to the beach, you have a swim, and you think oh I’m allowed to go to the beach, I’m allowed to swim, I’m allowed to drive to Newcastle if I want to, and it’s hard to get that out of your head for a long time,” he said.

From his experiences, Mark believes that some of the reason for the anger within these camps is because the men don’t know what their future might hold for them or when they will know and the immediate outcome is strain on both the men and their families.

One of the reasons for the delays in processing asylum seekers on Nauru is Australia’s ‘no advantage’ policy.

Having spoken with many of the detainees, Mark said the majority were unaware of Australia’s asylum seeker policies or the lengthy delays in processing that would await them however, with few choices left to them, they would have made the attempt anyway.

“You don’t flee your country, you get killed” he said.

“The majority of men that I spoke to said if they could stay in their home countries and they could stay with their families and they weren’t at risk of being killed then of course they would want to live in their home country.”

Mark found working on Nauru frustrating.

“Every day you were fighting an uphill battle for the men in a system that is designed to make things worse for them,” he said.

Since returning to Australia in June this year, Mark’s energies have been focused on the humanitarian issues of the asylum seekers.

“Whatever the asylum seekers come to our shores for, we have a responsibility to care for them,” he said.

“We need to treat them with humanity and dignity and do our utmost to welcome them to our country rather than turn them against our country.”

“Within that, [it] involves humane conditions and rapid processing.”

To the question of whether the Australian public ‘got it’, Mark said he thought it was extremely difficult to know the facts and to understand the policy.

“One man (an asylum seeker) told me Australians don’t know what peace is because they don’t know what it is like to be at war or to not have human rights.

“For Australians, human rights is for everyone to be equal, for these men human rights are about not being called a dog every day, to not have guns pointed in their faces, to not be restricted from going to school.”

Mark agreed that it is difficult for Australians to understand the asylum seeker issue when all of the information is based on media coverage but said more information is out there if people want to find it.


Mark Isaacs has a blog of his articles and press releases at

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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