The Salvation Army and refugees

By Andrew Martin — A common perception of the Salvation Army is that it is a well-meaning charity spreading Christianity through its care for the down and out — those who have fallen through the cracks of society’s welfare net. Apart from its quasi-military structure of volunteers, door-knock appeals and sporadic invasions of pubs rattling tins of loose change, it would seem an unremarkable charity.

In recent years the Salvation Army has broadened its mission to include providing social services, with funding coming directly from the government. It has also tried to contemporise its message by giving support to social justice causes. It has spawned many youth-based organisations that have co-opted a counterculture image. In the UK, one such group is called aLove. Its mission statement reads: “Calling a generation to dynamic faith, radical lifestyle, adventurous mission and a fight for justice”. In Australia the Salvation Army has expressed support for reconciliation with Indigenous people and support for refugees.

However, its support to the refugee rights movement has been received lukewarmly by activists. There are reasons for this. For one, the Army’s focus is patronising or worse towards those it claims to care about.

Government contracts

It is well documented that mandatory detention has produced mental illness among refugees, including children and unaccompanied minors. Many refugees have suffered the most traumatic experiences imaginable and require specialist care. Having made their way to Australia’s shores, they are then thrown into what are, to all intents and purposes, concentration camps, exacerbating the traumas they have already suffered. Incidents of self-harm are endemic within the system of mandatory detention.

The government has awarded contracts to the Salvation Army to provide services to the refugees who will be detained on Nauru and Manus Island. Chris Bowen, the immigration minister, has said this will include “case management, community liaison programs and activities”. While the government has yet to release details, it is already evident that the services are grossly inadequate, even aside from the issue of detention itself. The mental health support the government has promised to provide is alarmingly tokenistic. For hundreds of detainees, there will be only a handful of nurses and psychologists, with a single psychiatrist being available only on a part-time fly in, fly out, basis to both islands.

This did not stop Major Paul Moulds, the Salvation Army’s director of social programs, going into overdrive for the government to spin the islands as a humanitarian solution: “I think Australia is doing an amazing job in caring for these people under difficult circumstances. Certainly the facilities are still developing around but as I stand here today, I mean the ADF have been amazing, like they really come in and see a transformation of this site with new facilities going up. It is true people are under canvas. But you know the thing that I get actually being here, is that it’s not what you’re under that makes a home, it’s not what you’re under that makes security, it’s actually the way you're treated, it’s the fact you’re free from persecution, it’s the fact that you’ve got access to decent meals and things like that. And I have to say there is actually a good spirit in the camp and I'm just so proud of our people and the care that they’re giving to the people that are in this place.”

For the last 15 years all the Australian government’s own inquiries have called for more assistance from psychiatrists. The government will not even provide direct access to counsellors for those held on Manus Island. The only service will be a telephone connection to Sydney that refugees will have to queue for.

At Nauru there are only two counsellors for 1500 people, and the government may detain even more people there. As any mental health care professional will affirm, there is a certain futility in providing mental health services to those in detention when the primary cause of their mental health disorders is the detention itself. But therapy is worthwhile for those in need, even if it will not resolve the primary cause of mental illness.

The refugees will be detained in very rudimentary tents behind barbed wire. The conditions can hardly be said to be sanitary or respectful of the rights to privacy and safety of the families and individuals detained there. There is a nightmarish sense of deja vu among political activists with memories of the horrors of Nauru.

In 2005 several activists and journalists visited Nauru and described the appalling conditions in which refugees were kept. Self-harm and suicide attempts were rife; mental health care professionals were unable to cope with what they described as persistent “unmitigated sadness and horror, psychotic fears and suicidal thoughts” among the refugees. Decisions relating to their applications for a visa were often relayed through radio, rather than in person, exacerbating the frustrations and isolation.

Aslam Kazimi, one of the refugees on Nauru, wrote in a letter to the regional representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: “As you can see here and this miserable situations by the eyes of your heart we have been living here for years and it is really unbearable for every individual of us in which I and my friends faced anxiety, frustration and another physical or mental illness. Every night I deny going to my bed due to the horrendous nightmares and every day I feel confused and have too much headache in which I’m thinking that my head is going to burst.”

In 2005 electricity was supplied only sporadically to the camp. The sanitation was woeful, with toilets able to be flushed only occasionally and effluent trailing out to sea. Tropical diseases flourished.

A reactionary organisation

While the Salvation Army may give assistance to the homeless and those suffering from broken homes, it’s worthwhile considering its origins and theology. The Salvation Army first started its missionary work in Australia in 1880, converting first alcoholics, morphine addicts, prostitutes and other “undesirables” in an intensely conservative Christian society. It grew rapidly during the economic slumps of the late 19th century as more people were thrown to the margins of society.

It has continued to grow and in the US ranks as the fourth most popular charity. Perhaps the most reactionary part of its belief system is active and vitriolic discrimination against homosexuals and the LGBTI community more broadly. In a discussion on a Christian radio station in Australia, Major Andrew Craibe, the Army’s territorial media relations director for the Southern Territory (which includes Australia) stated that it was in line with their doctrine that gay people should be put to death. In the US, the organisation was embroiled in a legal battle with the New York City Council, threatening to remove all services from the city unless it was exempted from providing domestic partnership benefits to its gay employees.

The Army’s active opposition to abortion has also rankled supporters of women’s rights. It is also a rather dubious proposition that it would provide services to refugees without fear or favour considering that most refugees are coming from predominantly Muslim regions.

No bounds to discrimination

Strangely, the Army’s doctrine is not limited to discriminating against people. The Salvation Army in Calgary, Canada, refused to accept toys based on the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises because it perceived them as satanic. A volunteer working for the organisation claims the toys were destroyed rather than being passed on to another charity.

There is also an issue that is close to home, which the refugee rights movement would do well to remember. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the Salvation Army in Australia was responsible for sheltering approximately 30,000 children. It systematically covered up sexual abuse, and it wasn’t until 2006 that the Australian Salvation Army acknowledged that sexual abuse might have occurred. For decades, it had denied claims from up to 500 people who had come forward. The real number could be and most likely is much higher.

While the brilliant film directed by Jim Loach, Oranges and Sunshine, was based on the Bindoon Boys Town run by the Catholic Church, it could just as easily have concentrated on one of the Salvation Army’s workhouses, such as the Box Hill Boys Home, where young boys were systematically beaten and raped.

While some genuinely compassionate people may volunteer and work for the Salvation Army, its involvement in the refugee rights movement should be opposed. Its cooperation with the Australian government on Nauru and Manus Island shows the moral bankruptcy of the organisation. The UNHCR has condemned the Australian government for sending its responsibilities towards refugees offshore. If the Salvation Army was genuinely concerned with the plight of refugees, it too would have condemned the government.

By providing a “humanitarian” cover for the government, the Salvation Army has aided it in its persecution of refugees. The Army in a press release explaining its involvement with services to Nauru and Manus Island asked “all Australians of faith to pray for our personnel who undertake this important work and for all those who will come into our care”. It will take more than prayers to win the trust of the refugee rights movement.

Direct Action — October 8, 2012