The Australian government is offering its most sincere “sorry, mate” to Save the Children Australia for a completely erroneous report that claimed the charity was “inciting asylum seekers to self-harm.” The government offered to settle with an undisclosed cash payment for damages incurred to the charity.
There have been a series of terrible events surrounding refugees in Australia in recent years. Some have sewn their mouths shut, others drank washing powder and, recently, there have been reports of at least two self-immolations. Following some of these incidents, Australia’s former immigration minister Scott Morrison accused Save the Children Australia’s staff of “coaching” or “coordinating” the protests. Ten STC workers were subsequently fired.
However, two independent reviews of the incidents decided the government’s “evidence” was unsubstantiated. This cleared the charity, but it didn’t wipe away the stain on their reputation or get the fired employees their jobs back. Thus the financial compensation.
Meanwhile, this massive PR mistake had put a spotlight on two of Australia’s offshore refugee detention camps on Nauru and Manus islands. Papua New Guinea has said it plans to close the Manus immigration center because “detaining people who had committed no crime breached the country’s constitution. Australia quickly announced it would not accept any of the 800 asylum seekers currently detained on Manus.
And this is only the tip of a growing iceberg of bad PR for both countries. Rumors and reports of widespread horrible conditions in the camps have persisted for years. Accounts of sexual violence, child abuse, and assault have become common. None of this can be corroborated because journalists are not allowed on the islands.
From a public relations perspective, there is little worse than pervasive and consistent rumors of widespread specific violence. First, because the rumors are specific, the horrors are detailed. Second, because there can be no confirmation or debunking, readers and viewers are left to their imaginations.
The human mind is capable – and inclined – to make things bigger and worse than they may appear. Left to our own devices, multiple horrors will become constant horrors. Bad will become worse. Distasteful will become intolerable. There will come a tipping point at which it will not matter if the rumors are true or not. They will become “true” because enough people believe them.
Those in charge of the camps need to fix the problems if they exist and offer proof that said issues have been addressed before they reach a point where no amount of washing will be good enough to make the stain go away.