The following article by Richard Ackland appeared in The Guardian Australia online on Tuesday 11 March (see http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/mar/10/goodwill-letters-to-asylum-seekers-on-nauru-returned-unopened?CMP=share_btn_tw ).

“Thousands of goodwill letters sent by Australians to immigration detainees held on Nauru have been returned unopened. …

The letters were directed to people whose identity and boat number are known to Burnside. Each letter contained a self-addressed stamped envelope so the detainees could reply to the sender if they wished.

The letters were designed to let the detainees know that Australians were thinking of them, that they were not alone and that not everyone is hostile to refugees.

By the middle of last year it was apparent that the letter writers had not received any replies from Nauru.

Burnside followed up with an email inquiry to Nikki Keirven, then the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s lead service delivery officer at the Nauru offshore processing centre. On 25 June 2014 she replied:

“Thank you for your email. I appreciate you have an interest in knowing whether the letters you have been sending are arriving in Nauru.
“I can confirm that they are arriving and are being distributed to transferees by the service provider [Transfield Services]. This is a work in progress given that letters continue to arrive.
There are also a number of letters which have arrived for transferees who have departed Nauru. Where forwarding addresses are available, they will be forwarded on.”  …

What followed was months of email correspondence between Burnside and the department. It emerged that the Nauruan postal authorities would only accept the self-addressed envelopes if the Australian stamps had been purchased in Nauru.

Burnside continued to press for information about what had happened to the letters. On 11 August he wrote:

“I am disappointed not to have received a reply. You probably do not need to be reminded that it is a serious offence to interfere with mail. People held on Nauru have written letters in response to letters from members of the Australian public. Those replies are not being sent out. You are aware of the blockage. I have offered to put them in the Australian postal system if the reply letters are returned to me in bulk: they all have Australian postage stamps on them.”

There was no response. Two days later, he inquired again of Kierven: “Where are the letters?”

The correspondence was later referred to Tanya Findlay, director of the department’s Nauru operations coordination section, but by September, a month later, Burnside had not heard from her and replies from detainees had still not been received back in Australia.

By November last year the matter had moved to the department’s acting assistant secretary, Kylie Scholten, who emailed Burnside advising him that if he wanted to follow this up with the relevant postal services, “I recommend you search online.”

She added: “In future if you have any feedback about offshore processing, please contact the department’s global feedback unit” and provided a web address.

On 22 December Burnside received three large boxes from the department. They contained all but nine of the letters posted to asylum seekers. The letters were unopened and marked “Return to sender”.

Burnside wants to know why he was told by the department in June that the letters “are arriving and are being distributed” when this was not the case….”

As a result of Richard Ackland’s article, the media have been making enquiries of the Department, which is now offering the following pro forma explanation:

“Thank you for your email, no one is available for a pre-record video. You can attribute the following response to a spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection:

• The Department is aware that Mr Julian Burnside organised a letter writing campaign to asylum seekers at the Nauru and Manus Regional Processing Centres (RPCs).

• Upon receipt of the letters, service providers at the Nauru and Manus RPCs attempted to deliver all letters to transferees.

• Most of the letters were not able to be delivered because asylum seekers had departed or were unwilling to accept letters from an unknown Australian source.

• Mr Burnside was in direct contact with several officers from the Department in regards to the status of the letters. During the course of these discussions, the Department organised the return of all undeliverable letters to Mr Burnside, as per his request.

Kind regards,
Jamie-Lee
Media Operations
Communication and Media Branch | Executive Division
Immigration and Border Protection Portfolio
24-hour media line: 02 6264 2244
E: media@customs.gov.au “

They are lying. Between 2001 and about 2005 I conducted a letter writing campaign to refugees in onshore detention and in Nauru.
Thousands of letters were sent, thousands of replies were received. I never heard of refugees who were unwilling to receive letters.

If refugees were unwilling to accept letters this time, that explanation could have been given to me in June last year but it was not. On the contrary, they told me that there was a problem with replies being posted with Australian stamps that had not been bought in Nauru!

They lied to me in June last year. I have no difficulty believing they are lying now.

This raises two important questions: Why is a government department withholding letters from asylum seekers? It looks like part of a concerted attempt to break their spirits.

Why is a government department playing us for mugs?