The Australian government and the security giant it contracts to secure offshore detention centres, G4S, are facing a raft of lawsuits alleging staff were put at risk while working on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, suffering physical and psychological harm during riots.
At least four cases have been filed to Victoria’s supreme court by different law firms alleging that staff at the Australian-run detention centre, including security guards and managers, were not provided with a safe workplace, and that the Australian government and G4S failed in their duty of care.
Earlier in December, Guardian Australia reported that a former manager at the Manus Island detention centre had sued, alleging he was misled about conditions at the centre, which he described as unsanitary and marred by violence. A further three cases have since been identified by Guardian Australia, with other staff making similar allegations.
G4S and the Department of Home Affairs have refused to comment on the allegations, citing the ongoing court actions.
A former security officer, Gregory Wisely, alleges that during a riot that broke out in the centre in February 2014 he was struck in the head by a rock, sustaining a brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, neck and spine injuries, hearing loss and ongoing psychiatric issues, including depression.
The statement of claim filed to the court alleges G4S failed to provide Wisely with a safe system of work or with head protection, and failed to ensure projectiles and weapons were removed from the detention centre. Wisely alleges that, after suffering his head injury, G4S did not allow him to stop work, and that he was not provided with any equipment to radio for help.
At the time, the then immigration minister, Scott Morrison, confirmed days of rioting at the centre had left one person dead and injured 77 more. Thirteen suffered serious injuries, including one from a gunshot wound.
The statement of claim goes on to say G4S provided Wisely “with little or no training as to the manner in which he should handle the traumatic or stressful situations to which he was exposed”, failed to “heed complaints by the plaintiff as to the impact of the stressful situation to which he was exposed” and failed to “provide any or any adequate first aid facilities”.
It alleges the Australian government failed to process detainees in a reasonable timeframe, did not provide detainees and staff with adequate infrastructure, failed to keep detainees informed about their situation to avoid unrest, and failed to employ adequate numbers of security personnel. The government also failed to gather intelligence and foreshadow the rioting, the claim alleges.
A separate case set for trial in September 2019 before a judge and jury alleges that during the same riots a former safety and security officer, Grant Potter, was left with major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and suffered loss of income.
It alleges the riot led to violent behaviour by Papua New Guinean nationals, locals and expats employed by G4S. It alleges G4S knew by at least 13 September that there was increasing tension at the centre due to frustration among the detainees at being brought to PNG rather than Australia, and anger at the Australian government’s policy that anyone found to be a genuine refugee would be resettled in PNG.
G4S was allegedly aware of detainee complaints about lengthy processing times and a lack of information and growing anger at the uncertainty of their futures. The security firm allegedly knew “that there was growing antagonism between the transferees and Papua New Guinea nationals employed at the centre” and “that the physical security arrangements at the premises were inadequate, and unsuitable and unsafe for managing a large number of refugees”. The documents also allege G4S employed “incompetent and malicious security staff, who escalated the violence at the premises during the riots and contributed to the death of one transferee and the injury to other transferees”.
After the rioting stopped, the only treatment G4S offered to Potter was a valium tablet, it is alleged. It is also alleged that, when the Australian government’s detention centre coordinator received an email advising him of imminent rioting due to the lack of detainees’ access to legal personnel or information, the government failed to take action.
In its defence filed to the court, the Australian government admits it contracted G4S to provide security, operational and maintenance services, that it transferred asylum seekers to PNG, and that rioting occurred that resulted in one death and injury to detainees and staff. But it denied all of the other allegations.
In its defence filed to the court, G4S admitted it owed Potter a duty of care as his employer. But it also says that at the relevant time, the centre was under the control of an administrator appointed by the PNG minister for foreign affairs and immigration.
Another case also set for trial in September alleges a former officer at the centre, Peter Baehnisch, was injured during the same riots. In its defence filed to the court, G4S said it was acting on behalf of the Australian government, who it claimed “asserted control and direction over provision of services” to detainees.
“Further the first defendant [G4S] relies on the fact that the services provided by it were for and behalf of the second defendant [the Australian government] and for its benefit, as it allowed the second defendant to implement its No Advantage Policy and Operation Sovereign Borders Policy,” the defence states.
Operation Sovereign Borders was initiated under the Abbott government in 2013 and was described as a military-led response to combat people-smuggling.