Inside the Detention Centres

See and read about Nauru and the “Pacific Solution”. What was it like on Nauru after the Tampa? Read Elaine Smith’s submission to the Senate Committee inquiring into the amendments to the Migration Act. (with many photos.)

Cornelia Rau’s sister, Christine, visited Baxter Detention Centre during May 2005. She wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald May 25th.

“The real tragedy of those in the Baxter detention centre is the sheer waste, writes Christine Rau.…

…”In Iran, with political prisoners, they kill you straight away. [Here] they will not kill us physically but little by little, one day at a time; we are gone, we are dying.”

I visited Baxter to thank those asylum seekers who had brought the plight of my sister, Cornelia, to the outside world. She was one of more than 100 “accidental Australian detainees” whose cases are being investigated by an expanded but closed federal inquiry headed by the former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer.

These shy, mainly Middle Eastern strangers had different stories but similar messages. They asked that their names not be used. Most had had some contact with “Anna”, as Cornelia called herself.…”

“…Approaching Baxter after a four-hour drive from Adelaide, what is most striking is how the majestic landscape dwarfs the detention centre. It’s the stuff of classic Australian poetry: ochre, stony soil, stunted shrubs, vast plains and hulking ranges. And, in the middle, a silvery spider web of electrified fence: 9000 volts, we were told. The barrack-like structures of the compounds concertina into the distance.

Certainly, from the little visitors get to see, it’s hard to imagine it cost $42 million to build. Or that it’ll cost the Government $300 million to run places such as Baxter until 2007. There are about 100 long-term asylum seekers in Baxter now. Many detainees with visa violations are also there.

Only four of the nine big compounds are in use and they are designed so detainees can look only inwards and up at the sky, not out to the horizon.

You have to book visits at least 72 hours ahead by faxing in a three-page form. The corporation that runs Baxter, Global Solutions Limited, reserves the right to refuse entry to visitors. Any items, such as food, go through an airport-style scanner, and each visitor is scanned bodily. Then you run the gauntlet of seven steel doors, six of which require a guard to buzz you through. Visitors are allowed only in the visitors’ centre near the main gate. The compounds remain hidden.

The regulars said the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, had made just one visit, more than a year ago. She had been escorted at 6am through an empty compound, Red 2, and had not talked to any detainees….”

“…That night, one of the Baxter guards approached me and a friend of Cornelia’s in Adelaide. He also did not want to give his name. He said: “I’d release them all tomorrow if I could. You see them getting ill and getting berserk because of the length of time they are in there. It’s appalling the way [the Immigration Department] just lets them rot in there.”

Stories from detainees and more, in the article itself. Sydney Morning Herald May 25th.

As the population of Australia’s prison camps in the desert becomes smaller, the situation of those locked inside becomes ever more desperate. The same goes for detainees still incarcerated outside Australia under the Pacific Solution

child behind wire fence
© AI / Australian Newspapers

Scroll down for links to further reading.

Thoughts from my recent visit to Baxter – by Jane Keogh, May 2004. Those remaining in detention have mostly been there over three years now. Some have been there for six years. And there is no end in sight. Most are losing their minds and their physical health. I have been visiting some for two years now and the deterioration is extreme in some and obvious in all …

Australia’s “GITMO” SystemDetainees at Baxter report on a new regime instituted by Global Solutions Limited (GSL). Its purpose is to “teach you detainees to be respectful in the Australian way”.

When human lives no longer matter by Senator Andrew Bartlett, Australian Democrats. July 31st 2003. An account of his visit to Topside Camp on Nauru. So many children, young children, three, four, five years old, gathered at the gate. All of them kept in camps since 2001. The inescapable question arises again. How can this be that the Australian taxpayer funds the deliberate imprisonment of children?

Doctors, Nurses, Hospitals, ACM, DIMIA & the Detainee. What happens when a detainee goes into hospital? As Pamela Curr explains, they do not become patients – they stay detainees but with even less rights than in a detention centre … a person whom you have been able to visit in a detention centre, once in hospital is unable to have visitors or receive phone calls. Read the account of three women who tried to visit Roqia Bakhtiyari in hospital when she had her baby. They were told their friend didn’t exist, and even flowers send to her were being returned.

Naina’s story: the daily life of a child in detention. I have a friend who calls me twice a week. Well, actually, she calls me when she can get to a telephone and I call her back … Naina lives in an institution where there are 2 telephones for all the people who live there. I think there are more than 100 people … My friend’s name is Naina and she’s 15. She’s been living in these institutions, in Australia, since she was 11. She’s a beautiful young woman and very, very clever. English is her second language, but she comes top in her class in lots of subjects, especially maths and science.

Report on Baxter Detention Centre Visits – January 2003. Jane Keogh of the Canberra Refugee Action Committee made seven visits over three days to detainees in the Government’s new detention centre in South Australia. She describes conditions for visitors and inmates, and tells the stories of some of the people she met there.

How Australia treats innocent people: some detainees’ accounts (February 2003) – Extracts from asylum seekers’ accounts of their treatment over recent months. There seems to be step up of the government campaign to break spirits and make conditions so bad that they will voluntarily choose to go home to likely death or persecution.

Detainees have good cause to rebel – Phil Griffiths, Refugee Action Committee – from the Canberra Times, 3 January 2003. “The rebellion at Australia’s immigration detention centres was no surprise to most refugee advocates.” – and links to other RAC material about the New Year 2003 events at Baxter, Port Hedland, Woomera and Villawood. Compiled from information gained from detainees, guards, and other well-informed sources.

Inside Woomera – by lawyer Jacquie Everitt, as told to the Refugee Action Committee forum on 10 April 2002. She speaks in particular about the UAMs – unaccompanied minors: “These children have been neither charged nor convicted of any crime. They have merely been sent to safety by parents who could only afford one fare. They are alone and of all asylum seekers are the ones who are in the most desperate need of humanitarian assistance.”

The country where we live: The true cost of Australia’s mandatory detention policy – Naleya Everson’s address to the RAC forum on 10 April 2002 on the social, economic and human costs of Australia’s policy of mandatory detention, illustrated by the tragic stories of people she has worked with in the Villawood, Port Hedland and Curtin; and the cost to Australia..

Villawood petition – this petition by the detainees dated March 2002 gives an idea of what the conditions are like.

A Visit to Villawood – by Gillian Hunt. “A voice over the loudspeaker announces the end of visiting time. What can I say to them? That I will come again? Not easily. That I feel a sense of shame about what is happening in detention centres in Australia? That I will remember to pray for them because now I know their names and can picture their faces? I tell them both these things.”

Conditions in Curtin Detention Centre – the account of a visit by WA’s Inspector of Custodial Services, Professor Richard Harding. He concluded that the riots were inevitable due to the unacceptable conditions there.

Links to further reading

The Detention Industry – ABC Radio National Background Briefing, Sunday 20 June 2004. Produced by Tom Morton.  “In many ways, detention centres are a legal no-man’s land, where detainees have fewer legal rights than convicted criminals … a damning new report argues that our own government used its contract with ACM, the private company which used to run Australia’s detention centres, to evade responsibility for serious human rights abuses.”

A last resort? – The Report of the National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention was tabled in Parliament on 13 May 2004. The report website includes a summary guide and educational resources. ” … the traumatic nature of the detention experience has out-stripped any previous trauma that the children have had …”   Read Chapter 3 in Word format  See also this Statement by Dr Sev Ozdowski.

Refugees and Mental Illness – by Dr Carmen Lawrence; presentation to the Mental Health and Human Rights Conference, March 2004. “The Government encourages us to turn our faces away from the refugees and even to deny, as the former Minister did, that depression is a mental illness … The plague of self-harm and suicide attempts [in detention centres] are, in his eyes, not the companions of mental illness but rather crude attempts to engineer refugee status..”

Modern-day torture: Government-sponsored neglect of asylum seeker children under the Australian mandatory immigration detention regime – A study written by Barbara Rogalla, Human Rights Activist for refugees in Melbourne

‘The Rules’: Nursing in a Detention Centre, by Michael Hall, former Nurse at Curtin IRPC. I looked up and saw a long line of men, women and children waiting to have their blood taken. I was standing beside a small table in a RAAF tent with a co-worker. It was 40 degrees Celsius in the Kimberley November humidity. Both ends of our tent were open in a vain attempt to get a breeze through as we worked side by side with flies buzzing around our faces and hands and sweat running down our bodies.

The Razor Wire Looking Glass by Greg Egan: an essay about Port Hedland. Nearly everyone here has been locked up for close to three years, and many for more than four. Four years without freedom is a long sentence in anyone’s language. Some people who tell their families back home that they’re still in detention after all this time are simply not believed. “Did you rob a bank?” they’re asked. “Did you kill someone?” How could anyone be imprisoned for so long, just for crossing a border to ask for asylum?

Port Hedland Detention Centre: Carmen’s eye witness report (Sept 2002) – “I was not prepared for what I saw when I finally set foot behind the barbed wire that contains the asylum seekers’ lives. While they have valiantly tried to make the incarceration more tolerable by painting murals and flags on the outside walls, by planting gardens and decorating their airless rooms, nothing can disguise the palpable air of despair”. Carmen Lawrence writes in the Sydney Morning Herald.

A child in detention: dilemmas faced by health professionals – MJA article [MJA 2003; 179 (6): 319-322] reproduced on the Project Safecom website. Details the psychological trauma inflicted in a child in detention.

Australia’s Detention Camps – from Project Safecom. Includes statements by prominent Australian persons deploring the current policy.

Secrets from Woomera: ABC’s Four Corners 20 May 2003 – as Margaret Piper commented: “no new information, but … a sobering reminder of the situation in detention centres across the country”. Reveals among other things how ACM short-changed the Australian people, DIMIA, and its own staff – not to mention the asylum seekers themselves (80% of whom were eventually found to be Refugees and given a temporary visa) in pursuit of profit.

Inside Port Hedland – includes letters from detainees

MDC WATCH – A site devoted to the Immigration Detention Centre at Maribyrnong, Melbourne, Australia, and its inmates. Includes Messages from Maribyrnong – the detainees own words:

Baxter Watch – “a web site for the people imprisoned in the Australian Government’s new Baxter Detention Centre to keep the outside world informed about what is going on in there” Includes horrifying details of this new state-of-the-art electronic prison, including a report of life in Baxter from an eyewitness.

Behind the Razor Wire – Kathy Tyndale’s account of a visit to Villawood.

Seeking refuge: losing hope – parents and children in immigration detention. From Australasian Psychology, June 2002. [PDF file] “Families arriving to seek asylum in Australia have already experienced displacement, loss and, frequently, exposure to violence and war in their countries of origin. They are vulnerable, desperate and poor, with few material or psychological supports. Immigration detention profoundly undermines the parental role, rendering the parent impotent, unable to provide adequately for their child(ren)’s physical and emotional needs … Parental depression and despair leaves children without protection in an already terrifying and unpredictable place.” Illustrated by children’s drawings of razor wire, guards with batons, and water cannon.

A case of public policy confusion The mental health of immigrant and refugee children and adolescents; I Harry Minas and Susan M Sawyer, Medical Journal of Australia: Editorials 2002 177 (8): 404-405. … Current immigration policy, in the form of prolonged detention of asylum seekers and the move to temporary visas for some, is resulting in harm to the mental health of already vulnerable children, adolescents and adults. The mental health impact of this aspect of immigration policy appears at odds with national mental health policy and with the successful settlement policies that still apply to authorised immigrants and some refugees. The study by McKelvey and colleagues shows that we can do very much better than this.

Human Rights and Immigration Detention in Australia – full text of Justice Bhagwati’s report on his visit to Woomera, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Psychological disturbances in asylum seekers held in long term detention this research report by Aamer Sultan and Kevin O’Sullivan from the Medical Journal of Australia (2001; 175: 593-596) describes how the detention process is inflicting “grave ongoing psychological injury” on refugee families. One of the authors, is an Iraqi doctor recently released on TVP after three years in Villawood. See also Phillip Ruddock’s reply claiming the article contains “errors of fact and distortions” and arguing that “detention is humane and is not designed to be punitive”, but not denying (or even addressing) the article’s main thesis, that detainees display serious psychological symptomsas a result of their imprisonment.

Also from the MJA: The mental health implications of detaining asylum seekers, by Zachary Steel and Derrick M Silove (MJA 2001; 175: 596-599) This paper canvasses various studies and reports. It identifies not only the conditions of detention but the process of application, rejection and appeal as a psychological stressor: “The close association between administrative procedures and psychological reactions is particularly worrisome, as it endorses the concern that these procedures, in themselves, act to undermine the psychological well-being of detainees.”

Nurse Moira-Jane tells of life inside Woomera: “I have many horror stories …. The stories I want to share with you are some from the camp. The daily humiliations and indignities. The abuses of human rights and children’s rights, the flagrant breaching of the UNHCR minimum standards for detention.”

Australian Government Must Immediately Reform Mandatory Detention“The medical community represented by the Alliance is very concerned about the conditions and facilities at detention centres and an insufficient level of medical, social welfare and educational services.” – media release from the Professional Alliance for the Health of Asylum Seekers and their Children. Go here on the RACP website to read other media releases and the Alliance’s submission to HREOC’s inquiry into Children in Detention.

Blowing the whistle on hidden suffering in Woomera – the Age, April 24 2002. “Almost every day, asylum seekers inside the Woomera detention centre cut and slash their bodies, drink shampoo or try to hang themselves. But mostly they are ignored.”

Life inside an Australian refugee detention centre – description of conditions in Maribyrnong Detention Centre, February 2002. “The regime inside is designed to reduce the men, women and children imprisoned there to an existence in limbo and to rob them of any hope.” From the World Socialist Web Site.

Margot O’Neill’s report on the conditions inside the Curtin Detention Centre won the 2002 Walkley Award for Current Affairs Reporting (less than 10 minutes). The report appeared on Lateline on 22 February, 2002.

Palm Sunday website – “Compassion for refugees, truth and justice”

Spotlight on Woomera – Australia’s detention centre in the desert. From BBC UK – “Australia has traditionally been generous when it comes to resettling people already recognised as refugees elsewhere. But people arriving there illegally to claim asylum find themselves facing one of the toughest regimes in the world.” See also BBC online news reports on the Easter 2002 Woomera protests, and links to other features on Australia’s refugee policy.

Inside Woomera, asylum seekers treated like animalsGreen Left Weekly report by Sarah Stephens, December 2001

POLITICAL PINBALLS The Plight of Child Refugees in Australia – Moira Rayner “. . . our treatment of the 600 and more children already arbitrarily detained within Australia and all the others for whom we propose to pay that they may be detained outside it, is inhumane; fails to take account of the Crown’s responsibilities as parens patriae, the children’s guardian of last resort; and puts us in breach of our international human rights obligations.”

ABC Radio National Health Report 13 August 2001 on Asylum Seekers in Detention – a special report that won the Walkely Award.

Desert Camps: Australia’s Detention Policy to Deter Asylum-seekers (PDF document 746k) – Interim report of the United Nations Association of Australia’s Peoples commission of enquiry into Australia detention practices. Includes first hand accounts of asylum seekers’ experiences and some of the children’s drawings.

The Effect Of Detention Centres On The Health Of Children – position paper by MAPW Australia (Medical Association for the Prevention of War) “Children currently held in detention centres have been exposed to serious psychological distress in adults, adult self-harming behaviours and have experienced cultural dislocation and community trauma. In these circumstances it is likely that many will develop PTSD and that this may become chronic with effects on development.”