Volunteers at detention centres speak about Scientology influence
The Sydney Morning Herald
January 17, 2011
A CHARITY that recruits volunteers to run recreational activities at detention centres is on the brink of deregistration for failing to provide a single financial statement to Fair Trading NSW since it was formally created in 2003.
Fair Trading wrote to the founder of the Australian League of Immigration Volunteers, Gary Taylor, on December 15, demanding he lodge the documents within 28 days. But it has received no response.
The Herald understands Fair Trading wrote again last week asking Mr Taylor to show cause why the organisation should not be deregistered.
A priest who worked with the league's volunteers at one centre is concerned about the group's restrictive regulations, which he says are unlike any he has encountered in 30 years of charity work.
Former volunteers have speculated that it is being run on the principles of Scientology, while Pamela Curr, the campaign co-ordinator of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, fears for the well-being of the vulnerable detainees.
Volunteers who spoke to the Herald said they valued the work they did with asylum seekers but were worried about the organisation, angered by the strict confidentiality agreements they were obliged to sign, and bewildered by some of the group's intrusive rules.
Asked why the organisation had failed to provide annual reports, Mr Taylor said yesterday: "Wow! Oops!" before explaining that volunteer organisations tended to focus on providing services rather than on administration.
He said he was unaware of Fair Trading's action and that volunteers in the administrative section could have missed correspondence during the holiday period.
The league's website offers a history beginning in 2001 that ends with the note: "November 2006 - We got tired of updating the history so now the history is history LOL."
The last annual report posted on the website is from 2006 but the organisation remains registered as a charity at least until April.
Ms Curr said she could not understand why volunteer labour was being used to provide services that Serco, the company that runs Australia's detention centres, is required to provide under its $400 million contract with the Department of Immigration.
The 729-page contract confirms Serco is responsible for language, cultural and recreational programs. Serco says it does provide such services and that the league simply supplements them.
But league volunteers said they were the only people providing such activities for much of the time they were at the centres.
Mr Taylor said he had worried that the volunteer labour he supplied was benefiting a $5 billion multinational company, but said corporations had always struggled to provide such services in private detention centres.
The department said it had seen no evidence it was being charged for the volunteer work the league provided, and it would investigate any such claims.
Ascertaining the value of the volunteer work is difficult, not only because of the league's failure to provide financial statements, but because it has no contract with Serco. It simply charges Serco about "half a million a year" in expenses for the estimated 140,000 hours of free labour it provides.
The league allocates groups of 20 volunteers who rotate monthly at Christmas Island centres, and groups of 12 in Darwin.
Volunteers say they are concerned that in some cases they have no training to conduct the activities. One was ordered to instruct a yoga class despite never having even attended one. The English teachers are qualified, they say.
Mr Taylor said other than his 10 years' experience with his charity he had no qualifications, and apart from the time he lived on a daily allowance, he survived by drawing on either health or unemployment benefits.
One volunteer said league staff normally worked 12-hour days and were required to attend group debriefing sessions that could last late into the night. At these, each person was required to state one "positive" and one "negative" about their day.
Another reported that after her nightly debriefings volunteers were required to fill out online debriefings to be sent to Mr Taylor. "I don't even know Gary and don't know how he was interpreting what we were writing, so I was giving one word answers," she said. "Then we got feedback a few days later saying we had to write more … my impression was that they just wanted lots of happy stories."
The league has a strict policy against "nattering" which, like the Church of Scientology, it defines as negative discussions outside the group setting.
Mr Taylor said Scientology was one of a few religions he had spent time with as a younger man, and he had used some of its ideas in the personal development of his volunteers, but he was no longer associated with the church.
Other volunteers, who live in communal housing, said they felt obliged to spend all their time in the group, even during their one day off each week.
Mr Taylor said he believed group dynamics worked better when the group stayed together.
Some detainees, Ms Curr said, joined in the league activities because they feared if they did not they might complicate their visa applications. Mr Taylor said he had made some mistakes but he believed the level of control he had over his volunteers was appropriate for the environment they worked in.
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