The Australian government used private security contractors to collect intelligence on asylum seekers on Nauru, singling out those who were speaking to journalists, lawyers and refugee advocates, internal documents from 2016 reveal.
Intelligence officers working for Wilson Security compiled fortnightly reports about asylum seekers “of interest”, including individuals flagged as having “links with [Australian] media”, “contact with lawyers in Australia” or “contacts with Australian advocates”.
The reports, seen by the Guardian, were circulated among a group of senior government officials, including superintendents and commanders in the Australian Border Force, officials in Australia’s immigration department, members of the Nauru police, the Australian federal police and other private contractors operating on the island.
The reports were compiled in a year of intense protest against offshore detention, and were designed to brief the government about the activities of individual asylum seekers, including children, who were viewed as a threat to the regional processing centre.
They identified influential community members, protest organisers and anyone spreading “negative propaganda” about offshore detention or having a “negative influence” in the centre. Wilson also kept tabs on asylum seekers who were considered “pro-security” and may have the ability to influence others in the detention centre.
The Wilson team – acting as subcontractors to Broadspectrum, the government’s main Nauru contractor in 2016 – also gathered intelligence about the Australian-based families of those detained on Nauru.
“Husband resides in Australia and therefore has connection with lawyers,” one report said of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker, who the Guardian will not name.
“Has contact with Lawyers in Australia. Additionally has family in Melbourne,” the same report said of another asylum seeker, identified as a leader of the “Iranian cohort” on Nauru.
One man being closely watched by Wilson was Nasir Badawi, who was detained on Nauru for four years after fleeing persecution in Iran.
The Wilson reports identified Badawi as a source for Australian media. They also briefed the government that Badawi had family based in Australia.
Above mugshots of Badawi, his wife and his two young children, the reports said: “Links with AUS media & has family in Melbourne.”
Badawi, who was finally able to leave Nauru in 2018 and now lives in Sydney’s west, is still scarred by his time in detention.
In an interview with the Guardian, Badawi spoke of the trauma of watching detainees set themselves on fire.
He remembered waking up with his young children one morning to find a man dead in the bed next to them.
“These memories just stick with us,” he said. “And my son now, he’s 14 years old and he always talks about those experiences. I tell him: ‘OK, look, just stop thinking about them. Just let it go. Just forget what happened.’
“But he said: ‘I can’t. It is impossible that I stop thinking about my experiences over there. It’s in my mind and I can’t forget them.’”
Badawi said he always felt his family had been singled out and treated differently.
He said he was the subject of constant threats from detention centre staff, was denied a medical transfer despite serious health issues, and was kept in tent accomodation even after being found to be a refugee, unlike others who were moved to better accomodation.
Now he believes the Wilson reports identifying him as a source for Australian media may explain his treatment.
“When we were on Nauru … we mentioned many things [to the media] that [the Australian government] might use against us. For example, we said that the government is cruel and [a] dictator. Now I’m a bit worried because we said many things out of anger … but I’m worried maybe they would want revenge.”
It is unclear what methods Wilson used to gather its intelligence.
But the company drew widespread condemnation in 2015, when it was revealed Wilson staff had covertly tailed Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young during a trip to Nauru.
At the time, Wilson said the staff that tailed Hanson-Young were operating without authorisation and had been disciplined. Asked whether Wilson was conducting other forms of surveillance on Nauru, then executive general manager for the company’s southern Pacific operations, John Rogers, told a Senate inquiry: “We do not conduct any surveillance activities at all.”
The Wilson intelligence briefings, which commenced the following year, were sent to a group known as the joint security committee (JSC). The JSC comprised of ABF superintendents and commanders, Nauru police force superintendents and constables, officials within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the AFP, Broadspectrum and the Health and Medical Services.
The Guardian found another asylum seeker identified in the reports, who is now living in Australia in community detention. The man, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said his experiences on Nauru were like torture.
He was kept in an overcrowded tent in extreme heat and humidity, without air circulation, air conditioning or refrigeration.
Mould and skin disease were common, he said, and asylum seekers were forced to go to the toilet and shower in filthy conditions.
Asylum seekers were left with a feeling of helplessness and frequently told they would never get to Australia, he said.
“All of these statements that were coming to try to make people hopeless, it was the reason … that many people attempt suicide,” he said. “They burned themselves. They were just taking [medicine] to kill themselves. There were like lots of suicide attempts as a result of all the statements that they were making.”
Asked how he felt about being monitored, he responded: “What can I say about this? If a person is happy about torturing others, we won’t expect anything else from them. And we have faced many worse things.
“If I think about Hitler. Hitler was killing people. But this system made people kill themselves.”
Other documents suggest that Wilson also provided intelligence about individual asylum seekers to the Nauru police.
In one email exchange, a member of the local police asks Wilson for “profiles” of two asylum seekers.
“Is it possible if we get a copy of [named removed] and [name removed] profile? Just want an update of what activities they been involve (sic) with.”
Wilson’s team replied: “You would need to talk to the intelligence unit to get that information. The next JSC meeting is on the 30.9.16 at 1pm,” the Wilson employee said. “If you come along then and speak to intell (sic) and our bosses they should be able to sort it out for you.”
Zaki Haidari, a refugee rights campaigner with Amnesty Australia, said the conduct of the government and its contractors was “shocking” and “alarming”.
“This is another example of the Australian government playing politics with people’s lives and failing to uphold their human rights – in this case people’s right to privacy,” he said.
The documents were published by activists on Enlace Hacktivista, a hacking website. They were part of a trove of 82 gigabytes held by the Nauru police force, which was hacked by the activists. The hack was done in protest of Australia’s offshore detention policy after an agreement last year to indefinitely keep the regional processing centre open.
“We decided to hack the Nauru police force, who were tasked by the Australian government with policing the island, and obtained 285,635 confidential emails related to abuses that they tried to cover up, and we are making them all public,” the group said.
Wilson declined to answer questions about its work on Nauru, directing them to the government.
The home affairs department said Wilson was subcontracted by Broadspectrum, the main garrison and welfare services provider on Nauru in 2016.
“As a sub-contractor, the Commonwealth did not have any contractual role with Wilson Security,” a spokesperson said. “As the garrison provider at the time, Broadspectrum was responsible for the good order, operation and security of regional processing centres.”
The spokesperson said the collection of information about “issues that may increase risk” was needed to manage the security of the centre and “ensure the safety of all transferees”.
“The collection of such information supports this risk management and security approach,” the spokesman said.
“The practices employed by service providers are lawful.”
Earlier this year, Australia agreed to resettle 450 refugees from Nauru in New Zealand over three years.
Haidari said there was a clear public interest in publicly exposing the treatment of those detained on Nauru.
“I think it’s for the public to know, with the taxpayer’s money that we pay, where does our money go,” he said.
“But also for refugees, I think it’s important for them to know that this has happened to them. I’m also very hopeful moving forward that this shouldn’t happen to other refugees in a detention centre, who are very powerless and being spied on.”