Out Of Sight Out Of Mind


When it was announced in June last year that asylum seekers from Christmas Island would be transferred to a disused miners’ facility in the remote WA goldfield town of Leonora, many people rightly wondered: what does the government have to hide?

Located about 900km northeast of Perth and 300km north of Kalgoorlie, the town is about as remote a place as you can find. Conditions at the centre are basic, there are very few essential services, and the weather is scorching hot.

The facility — known officially as an Alternative Place of Detention, but in plain English "a place where low-risk families are held" is run by Serco, the company with the contract to manage detention centres across the country on behalf of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC).

Serco has come under fire over the management of centres before both here and overseas most notably after a mass breakout at the Darwin detention facility last year. At the time, a spokesman for DIAC said "contractual obligations" prevented the government from inquiring into the incident, and that Serco would conduct its own internal report.

Now, allegations have emerged that a guard at the Leonora facility has been verbally abusing and intimidating detainees. Advocates from the Refugee Rights Action Network say they have spoken to disgruntled Serco staff about the incidents and that management at the facility know about the problem, but that no action has been taken.

Last month they made a trip to Leonora to visit detainees and remind Serco management that out of sight is not out of mind.

Victoria Martin-Iverson from the Refugee Rights Action Network spoke to New Matilda’s Scott Mitchell this week. The following is her account of the lead up to the trip and what she saw at Leonora.

Late last year we were contacted by some people within the immigration detention system with allegations of bullying and inappropriate behaviour by a guard working at the Leonora detention centre. People in the system had started leaking information to us and this one guard’s name came up several times.

It has been claimed that this guard bullies and intimidates people and is verbally abusive. He has, allegedly, called people who are self-harming or at risk of self-harming "nutters". It has been alleged that he’s made comments about the size of women’s breasts, both co-workers’ and detainees’.

We were also told that this guard is responsible for an interpreter leaving — it was claimed that she was being sexually harassed by him via text message.

Recently we received an email from a mental health professional who’d done work at the Leonora centre mentioning this guard, completely independently without us mentioning him. I’ve had a phone conversation with this health professional as well and he spontaneously mentioned this guard. More astoundingly, this person told me he’d complained to the centre manager and was aware of several other complaints that had been made about the guard.

Staff from the centre have started to speak out because they are frustrated that their complaints to management have gone unheard. They’ve tried to deal with the situation internally with Serco, but to no avail. They’re frustrated; their attitude is "I’m in here trying to deal with people in detention, to help them get through this period and I’ve got this guard singling people out for punishments, bullying, just acting bizarrely". This is actually interfering with these people doing their jobs and providing care.

We decided to take a trip to the Leonora facility in January to let that guard know that we knew about the allegations and to make sure the centre manager knew about the claims. We also wanted to check on conditions at the centre because it is so isolated from public scrutiny.

This is the Refugee Rights Action Network’s second trip to Leonora. As a group we’ve been out to most of the detention centres in the country, including those that have been mothballed. The only ones we haven’t been to are the offshore facilities.

We are a network, composed of all kinds of different people from teenagers through to healthcare professionals, nurses, doctors, lawyers.

Our members have always agreed that the most important detention centres to monitor are the most isolated ones, because out there they are not under constant scrutiny from visitors.

In the urban detention centres such as Perth you’ve got visitors going in and out every day. The guards know they’re under scrutiny. In isolation, out in these remote environments, it’s very easy for a culture of abuse to flourish and the guards can believe they are immune from observation, oversight and repercussions. And out there, they’re not good conditions for people to be detained in. The care is far from optimal, as is the access to services.

The first time we went out to Leonora in August last year was because it was clear to us that Chris Evans, the immigration minister at the time, was lying to the Australian public by saying that no children were being held in immigration detention, that they were being held in an ‘APOD’ — an Alternative Place of Detention. We visited Leonora to bring back photos and stories that would prove children were being held in detention; that the APOD was in all ways a detention centre.

The trip was remarkable. We’re talking a 10-hour trip, straight towards the desert — that’s the level of isolation.

When we got there, the place was surrounded by dozens of police officers who had come out all the way from Perth to monitor us.

As we walked through toward the visiting area, mothers were pushing up against the fences shoving their hands through the mesh towards us. Staff at the centre had tried to block us off by hanging black material over the fences, but the detainees were trying to hand us notes and letters, things describing the conditions and they were crying out, "miss, miss, please miss" and the guards were so desperate to just shut them up. They warned us, "You talk to anybody but the lady who you are hear to talk to and you are out of here".

There are such basic conditions in Leonora that pregnant women have to be transferred to Kalgoorlie or Perth for treatment, which are both six to 10 hours away. The worst thing of all is you’re talking to people who have come out of warzones and they’ve got shrapnel and bullets still sitting inside them, some of them are missing limbs … and you sit with them and they’re so scared.

We had brought with us a Persian speaker who had been in detention during the Howard years and is now a citizen. We developed a relationship with this man while he was detained and when he got out he decided he wanted to work with us. When we arrived to speak with the detainees at Leonora, he dismissed the Serco translator and the detainees started to speak openly.

Out of the things they told him, the saddest thing wasn’t so much "please help me", "I need this or that", but things like, "our children are wetting their beds, they’re telling us they want to die, this is not good place for children to be". They’re not allowed to cook for their families, they can’t walk their children to school.

It’s a place where you’ve got guards who can walk in when you’re in bed with your wife at any time. A guard can walk in when you’re getting dressed. There is no part of your life that is private. If you’re a woman and you’re in detention you have to put in a request for sanitary products if your period is due, but you might have to wait a week or 10 days for it to be processed and for those goods to be delivered. We’ve heard of mothers having to put requests in for baby formula and the days and weeks it takes for it to be processed by the system.

This is a penal system, it is founded on the concept of a penal system and it’s not set up to support families.

We’ve heard of people asking for their medical records and being denied them.

And yet if I’m too specific about people’s situations, if the department can figure out whose case I’m describing, that can have repercussions for people’s visa applications. At Leonora for example they were told if they walked out to meet us unarranged, their photographs would be taken and sent to Canberra and that would affect their visa. They are told if they complain, it will affect their visas — and advocates from every refugee advocacy group in the country will tell you that detainees get told that either implicitly or directly; that complaints will lead to visa trouble.

On our most recent visit, in January, the families were in lockdown so everyone except those we had arranged to visit was confined to the accommodation and the windows were sealed and they weren’t to communicate with us.

One child got a window open and their brother or sister started waving at us, we waved back at them and a guard walked over and yelled at them to get down and banged on a board. But the window stayed open and the child stayed at the window, so the security personnel resorted to getting two of their big buses and drove them in front of the window to block it from view. I mean, the pettiness of it, why can’t they wave at us?

We decided to schedule our most recent trip in January because it was school holidays. With school term over, the detainees would no longer be getting to go out of the facility and go to school. Parents were in contact with our network already a week after school had finished telling us, "my daughter will not get out of bed, she will not eat, there’s nothing to do".

One father said his little girl was suffering developmental regression. He said to me, "Our 10-year-olds are like 6-year-olds, our 6-year-olds are like 3-year-olds and now our 3-year-olds are acting like babies".

It is not even controversial any more to say that detention centres are mental illness factories. Children detained during the Howard years are still undergoing treatment today. There is no argument or debate about this — you won’t find one in the mental health profession.

During the trip we requested a meeting with the centre manager, Denise Alexander, to raise the allegations we had heard about the guard. She agreed to meet me alone in her office, but we asked that she come out to the fence to hear the allegations in front of witnesses. When she refused to do this I read a statement, in front of at least four Serco staff members, the gathered police and the other members of our group, detailing these allegations. To this day, nothing has been done about them.

We now intend to lodge formal complaints with the Department of Immigration, Serco, the Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission and the WA Department of Child Protection.

New Matilda raised the allegations made in this interview with the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. A spokesperson for the minister advised that no formal complaints had been made to Serco by the people in detention at Leonora or by the Refugee Rights Action Network in relation to the behaviour of any Serco employees, and said Serco has undertaken to further investigate the claims.

View a gallery of photos from the Leonora detention facility at The Australian‘s website here.

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.