I have just returned from the Easter convergence at Curtin Detention Centre in far north Western Australia where human rights activists protested the ongoing imprisonment of asylum seekers in the notorious remote immigration detention camp.
Activists came to express their solidarity with the men suffering inside, but came away inspired by the courage of those struggling for a measure of justice in the face of increasingly harsh treatment and a largely indifferent — and at times contemptuous public.
Supporters of the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) have grown increasingly alarmed at the number of suicide attempts and the expressions of despair we have heard about from those with whom we are in contact in the camp.
Asylum seekers have suggested that as many as 1000 applicants may have been refused refugee status in their first attempt, and a growing number have failed their independent merits review. Their next hope is to apply to the courts for a review of that decision, which means — at best — another attempt at the review stage. The entire process is riddled with unfairness and political interference.
I was privileged to be able to assist in some legal visits with the lawyer that came out to join us. Even though I visit people in detention weekly, the experience at Curtin left me terribly despondent. The region is so remote, hot, humid and the conditions so substandard. The whole area reeks of fear.
I met a torture survivor and one poor man who just shook like a frightened deer the whole time. However the messages we received after the legal visits were heartwarming. People felt they had some small measure of hope offered to them by friendly strangers for the first time since they had arrived in Australia a year or more ago.
It is now the case that there is a group inside Curtin who know how to access the courts. So some at least should be able to initiate this process themselves in future with the assistance of those who have been through the process. Still, I expect there will be great need for more human right lawyers to assist in the months to come. The lawyer made it clear he would not have come out were it not for the convergence. If his giving advice to asylum seekers was all we accomplished it would have been a trip absolutely worth taking. But I do believe we accomplished a lot more.
The activists all felt very uplifted and damn proud of the men inside we had been making connections with these past months. They are the real refugee activists: the 800 or so men protesting peacefully down the long road on the other side of the fences.
I was also personally very proud of the crew at our end of the protest, especially those who made the choice to commit acts of peaceful civil disobedience to show their abhorrence of this atrocious policy.
RRAN arrived at Curtin Saturday afternoon fully expecting to begin the social visits we had applied for, and which had been approved.
As Serco and the Department for Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) were first obstructive about social visits, then they simply lied to us — despite a petition signed by 900 of the men in favour of our visit. When visits were denied, asylum seekers started a hunger strike.
RRAN had done everything to ensure Serco and DIAC had limited excuses to deny social visits. We wrote to the centre staff manager, explaining our intentions in a very polite letter weeks out from the trip. We filled in all the paperwork ahead of time. We then emailed or called the centre and spoke to managers to ensure they were approved. Yet when we arrived we were informed no paperwork had been received. We have all this on camera — extraordinary!
We had brought the paperwork with us, and copies of the emails telling people their visits were approved. They then told us we needed ID numbers, saying "we only know people by their ID numbers". We then showed them we had most of the names on the forms with ID numbers and searched our databases for a few more to add so they could find fewer excuses.
Then after stuffing us around for three hours we were told that visits were approved for those with the ID numbers. Inside the men waiting for us were also being lied to.
At one point on Saturday afternoon the men inside told us via email and phone that Serco officials had told them we turned the bus around because they would not allow visits. As we had almost constant email contact thanks to the genius of our technical team we were able to stay in touch throughout this process. It was surreal sitting in the Kimberley sun communicating with them, yet separated by several kilometres of bitumen and a double electric fence.
On Sunday when they informed us they were staging a sit down demonstration inside, some of the RRAN crew staged one as well on the road outside the temporary short fence blocking the access road. I think perhaps 16 arrests were made, but in the end just "move on" notices were issued.
By Sunday midday it was revealed that many men had been on a hunger strike, though this was denied for almost a full day by the Department.
By Monday people were starting to collapse. We had reports from inside that 20 had been taken to medical, and later some were transferred to hospital. "Please come back", they begged us. Although we expected Sunday to be our last day at the fence, five of us returned on Monday, including our three mental health experts: no bus, no cameras, no banner.
We tried to argue that since the protest was over this was just an ordinary social visit and if that they let us in, the men had assured us they would end the hunger strike. We pleaded for just a small delegation, even two of us, but to no avail.
The horror of this: that DIAC would rather risk people dying than allow these men social visits. They would be prepared to accept the death of people who have committed no crime rather then have human rights activists expose the conditions in this camp.
The last message I have heard from Curtin is that five people were taken to hospital in Derby so we remain very concerned.
The men inside have reinforced how grateful they were for our trip and protest in solidarity with them. Amazing!
I was told by one of the men in the legal visit that hundreds of people were sitting under the tree they call the crying tree, which people climb to sit and cry and threaten periodically to throw themselves off.
I can confirm from my time in this grim place that Serco has reverted to the egregious practice of stripping people of their humanity by calling people by their ID numbers rather then their names. They are doing this even when they have the clipboards with the names on them in front of them.
I was also told by the Tamils with whom I did legal visits with that several hundred of them were living in shipping containers. I could see an area with shipping containers as I was being escorted in a van into the interview area where the legal visits took place.
Conditions at this camp are, in my opinion, tantamount to torture. There have been two deaths so far; self harm is a daily occurrence. During my visits I saw people with the marks of torture from their country of origin scarring their bodies. But the hardest thing to see was the pain in their eyes from the mental torture they endure in this camp.
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