It emerged recently that detention centre manager Serco views unannounced visits from journalists as a threat in the same order as chemical weapon attacks, bombings and riots.
Documents obtained by the Daily Telegraph revealed that Serco had upgraded the unauthorised presence by media in detention centres from a "major" incident to a "critical" one. The Department of Immigration’s ubiquitous spokesman Sandi Logan tried to explain away the embarrassing internal memo by claiming it was designed to ensure "journalists… who need information in a timely manner, are given that by the Department".
As Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes rightly put it: if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. Such is the level of cynicism to which the Labor Government has sunk when dealing with the media on the issue of immigration detention.
In fact, the Department, and Minister Chris Bowen’s office, go to great lengths to obscure even basic information. Questions regularly go unanswered, even seemingly innocuous ones such as: how many detainees are currently being held at a particular compound? Or: how many detainees have been moved off Christmas Island since the riots there?
The irony of Immigration’s increasingly opaque tactics is that they are encouraging more journalists to visit immigration detention centres to find the answers to these questions themselves — which could explain why Serco has upgraded the threat posed by an unannounced media presence.
Recently, New Matilda was contacted by refugee advocates with reports of increased violence within the Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney. They told us of asylum seekers being beaten and threatened by groups of fellow detainees, and of complicity by some centre staff, too. A fortnight ago we visited the centre to speak to detainees about the problem.
Villawood’s lower security Stage Two compound is often the last stop for asylum seekers who have exhausted all avenues of appeal. To visit the centre you need to know the name of the person you are visiting, fill out identification forms and store your property in a locker, then pass through a metal detector before being escorted into the compound.
The high-fenced, well maintained visiting area, complete with barbecues and fake grass, is the "showpiece" of the centre, as one refugee advocate described it to NM. Here family members and visitors spend time chatting and sharing snacks with detainees, out of sight of the area in which detainees are accommodated.
NM spoke to a Chinese man who has been in detention for 14 months, had recently had a heart attack and is suffering from depression. Through a translator, he told the story of how, in early December last year after being released from hospital for double bypass surgery, he was surrounded by a group of seven or eight fellow detainees and punched in the face. He was hit so hard he fell to the ground and sustained bruising on his forehead.
After the assault, the victim was moved from Stage Two across to the higher security Stage One compound — where high risk detainees and those who have served time in jail for serious crimes are held — because, he was told, he needed to be separated from his assailants and it was "easier" to move him, as opposed to his assailants, since there were more of them.
Isolated and still very ill, the man became increasingly depressed. In late December he was visited by a refugee advocate and a psychiatrist, who came to assess his mental health. However, when they arrived they discovered a more urgent matter that needed immediate attention: the detainee had not been issued with the prescribed Anginine tablets or nasal spray for the serious chest pain he continued to experience.
In his report the psychiatrist noted: "These drugs are one of the mainstays of treatment of people who are at risk of heart attack. If he does not have these drugs available he is at increased risk of another heart attack."
"[The detainee] complained of various symptoms including continuing chest pain, back pain, fearfulness, depression and insomnia and that he was unable to get off to sleep until about 3AM worrying about what would happen if he had to go back to China. Since his heart attack he was also afraid of dying in his sleep. He suffers from nightmares in which he sees various dead relatives, sees someone coming at him with a knife and wakes up shaking and sweating with a headache."
"He said he had never previously felt depressed despite all of his problems in China. He had only started when he went to Villawood."
It wasn’t until a refugee advocate brought the man’s medical situation to the attention of management that he was moved back to Stage Two and given his medication. He has since had further heart surgery.
Frances Milne from the advocacy group Balmain for Refugees organised for a complaint to be lodged on his behalf with the United Nations, claiming that his risk if returned to China has not been assessed thoroughly.
She told New Matilda: "With asylum seekers from China, Australia is very reticent about finding they are refugees because we want to trade with China."
"Assessments about the degree to which they will be under threat if they are sent back are unduly influenced by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade — a body that is interested in maximising profits and diplomacy. In my experience, the Refugee Review Tribunal chooses in the first instance to give preference to the advice coming out of DFAT."
This was just one of the cases we heard about during our visit to Villawood, but there were other disturbing reports too — including the involvement of a Serco staff member in an attack on a detainee. Disturbingly, some of the men we spoke to did not want their stories told because they were worried it would affect their chances of getting a protection visa.
One man told us that soon after the riots in April he was dragged by Serco officers from the bathroom at Stage Two and moved to Stage One, naked except for a towel. Another said he was assaulted in the centre in December last year by a detainee from New Zealand. He reported the incident to police but there was no follow up and he has since been told by centre management that they have no record of the complaint.
This same man told NM of another incident in which a detainee kicked a Serco officer. "They quickly brought [the detainee]to court," he said, highlighting the double standard that many detainees clearly feel is at play when it comes to violence within the centre.
On the wall behind the reception desk in Villawood’s Stage One compound there’s a sign that reads "People should be treated fairly in detention", with details of how to complain to the Human Rights Commission. Another sign informs people how to lodge a complaint with the Ombudsman.
According to Milne, those complaints are being made, but it seems little is being received in the way of response.
If the exclusion of journalists from detention centres didn’t sufficiently undermine the shaky claims made by the Gillard Government about accountability, the obscure response to media queries certainly does. Even more worrying is the silence in the face of complaints about violence and neglect. People should be treated fairly in detention. Get past the security barricades at Villawood and it’s clear they are not.
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