Hell at Villawood


We are sitting in a room with pale walls, and bars on the windows. Outside, spotlights illuminate possible escape routes and rain rattles against a steel roof. The hum of a vending machine is drowned out by a child kicking a soccer ball against a wooden door in the next room.

Ali Humayun sits with his boyfriend, Julio Lorenzo. Lorenzo strokes Humayun’s neck occasionally, but quickly moves his hand if anyone else enters the room. The couple don’t want anyone to see them touching.

For the past two years, Humayun has battled depression and been ‘psychologically tormented’ by his fellow detainees at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre (IDC)  for being gay. ‘People shout abuse at me when I’m on the Internet, walking in the courtyard or eating my evening meal,’ says Humayun. ‘It’s devastating.’

Villawood Detention Centre. Photo by the author

The 26-year-old recently found the courage to tell his family back in Pakistan that he’s homosexual, but his father disowned him and his brother has sworn to kill Humayun ‘in the name of family honour’ should he return home.

Just when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) has just informed Humayun that his application for asylum has been rejected, and he will soon be deported.

Humayun came to Australia in 2000 on a student visa. After completing a diploma in Information Technology in 2001, he earned a place at Canberra University. But he slipped into depression and subsequently failed a semester. Although the university cannot comment on individual cases, they are ‘required by law to advise DIAC of international students’ academic progress.’ And that is exactly what the international student advisor did. Even though Humayun says he explained his situation to the faculty and they agreed to give him a second chance he was called in for a meeting with DIAC, his student visa was cancelled and he was put on a bridging visa.

To support himself, Humayun took a cleaning job, but by working he flouted a condition of his visa and was taken into custody at Villawood, 27 kilometres southwest of Sydney.

When Humayun first arrived at Villawood he was placed in the medium security Stage Two area. But then ‘A staff member wrote an anonymous letter claiming I was planning to escape,’ he explains. ‘I had no intention of escaping.’

Humayun was transferred to the maximum security Stage One. It was there he met Lorenzo, who has now been released from Villawood after two years in detention.

Although he looks drained and his eyes are glazed, this affable man’s words are still charged with emotion.

For the past few weeks, Humayun has been frantically organising an appeal against DIAC’s decision. ‘Detention centre staff have put hurdles in the way,’ he says. ‘Firstly, they told me the fax machine was broken so I couldn’t send my paperwork through. When I asked them if I could use the fax in Stage Two they refused. Then they told me all the JPs had gone home for the day when it was still well within office hours. I had to get my lawyer involved.’

During that time, Humayun feared ‘the extraction squad’ were coming to remove him from his cell. ‘Guys in padded body armour can burst into your room at any time,’ he says:

If they come it means you’re being deported. Sometimes they use tranquilisers but only on the people they know will give them trouble. There’s no notice. It happens so quickly. I was speaking to a friend late one evening and when I woke up in the morning he was gone.

The Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) believes that Humayan has fabricated his homosexual tendencies in order to be considered a refugee, and has suggested that he relocate in Pakistan, away from his brother. ‘I consider that [Humayun’s] relationship is simply the product of a situation where only partners of the same sex are available,’ wrote Giles Short, a member of the RRT and the decision maker in Humayun’s case.

‘I’ve offered to have sexual intercourse with Julio in court,’ says Humayun in response, his face deadly serious. ‘I don’t know how else I’m supposed to prove it. Could you prove that you’re heterosexual, for example?’

Humayun is not the first person to be asked to prove his sexual orientation to the RRT. An Iranian man’s case was once rejected because he was not aware of Oscar Wilde, Greco-Roman wrestling or Madonna. ‘In Iran, where there is death for some people who are homosexuals, these people are not in the forefront of the mind,’ Justice Kirby argued for the defence. ‘Survival is.’

It is no wonder that Humayun is reluctant to return home. ‘A couple in Pakistan has just been given three years’ jail and fined $200 for being in a same-sex relationship,’ writes Rachel Evans, from Community Action Against Homophobia (CAAH). She has been handing out petitions and was also involved in a candlelight vigil in Sydney’s Taylor Square marking International Day Against Homophobia on 17 May which called for Humayun’s release.

Life inside Villawood ‘has no structure and the guards don’t tell us anything,’ says Humayun. There are psychologists in Villawood but ‘the last two stayed for four or five months each before leaving. It’s frustrating because it means that, just as I’m getting somewhere with one of them, they leave, and then somebody new has to get to know my case all over again. It feels like I’m back to square one.’

Humayun dwells in the company of former prisoners and drug addicts, and has developed a heroin habit since being detained in Villawood. ‘You can get anything you want in here,’ he says. ‘Ice, heroin, weed. One guy swapped his sound system for a fix.’

The ABC recently reported  that Humayun is suing both DIAC and management at Villawood IDC for breaching their duty of care by placing him in a room with a known heroin addict.

Similar to prison, there is a hierarchy inside the Detention Centre that is enforced through intimidation. There have been beatings resulting in hospitalisation. ‘If you really piss someone off then sometimes they just rush into your room and bash you,’ says Humayun. ‘I spend most of my time in my [single]bedroom. If it wasn’t for you coming here today then that’s where I’d be now.’

There is also the fear of arbitrary searches. ‘Last week there was a shutdown,’ explains Humayun:

They stormed into the dorm and demanded we all went outside. Then they locked themselves in there; they’ve never done that before. They filmed the search with a camcorder and found a broken broomstick in my room. When they asked me what it was for I panicked and said it was for self-defence. I was naïve because I’ve never been in a fight here The guards never told us why they carried out the search.

Humayun is afraid the broomstick incident will give Villawood staff cause to cancel this month’s home visit. Once a month detainees are allowed to be escorted to an address of their choice for four hours. Humayun visited Lorenzo’s family home for the first time at the end of May. ‘They don’t take their eyes off you,’ he says. Although the scrutiny is constant Humayun believes ‘these trips go a long way in terms of a detainee’s mental health.’ Despite the fact he cannot be intimate with Lorenzo, Humayun is grateful for everything he can get.

‘You don’t appreciate what you have until you come to a place like this,’ he says.

‘It’s funny how the DIAC’s slogan i
s People Our Business,’ says Humayun. ‘Take that how you will.’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.