Pressure from a group of teenage detainees inside the Leonora Immigration Detention Facility eased a 24 hour stand-off between Serco and a group of Refugee Rights Action Network protesters over the weekend.
Refugee Rights Action Network members were told on Friday by a member of Serco staff that the detained boys did not want to meet with protestors. But over the weekend demonstrators were informed that they would, after all, be allowed to meet the 160 unaccompanied minors, boys aged between 14 and 17, living in the compound.
The protesters were allowed to to enter in groups of four to meet the boys.
New Matilda spoke to protester Emma Norton, 21, who was in a group who met with nine Hazara boys from Afghanistan aged between 15 and 17.
Norton said the boys inside had demanded an interview with the protesters when they saw one of the placards said "Azadi", the word for freedom in Afghanistan.
"A few them had managed to see us waving placards and banners displaying peace signs and it was when they saw the Azadi sign they insisted on seeing us," she said.
Norton told New Matilda that one boy, who was 16, said he had been in detention for two years and five days. "Most of the other boys had been in detention for a year and others have been detained for many months," she said.
"They just want to be free," she said. "They are spending their childhood locked up."
Norton said the boys were friendly and polite. "They were just so happy to see us. The boys came and went during the interview. At first Serco wasn’t going to let us have an interpreter but then Serco changed their minds again and an Iraqi boy of about 16 who spoke good English interpreted for us. He kept telling us the boys wanted to thank us for coming such a long way to see them. They couldn’t believe we had driven all the way just to see them," she said.
"They said they were on holidays at the moment and would be schooled inside the compound. They said they weren’t allowed to attend the local school as far as they knew they were having lessons inside the centre."
"We slipped some handwritten notes to them with website addresses so that they could try and contact us if they had any concerns.
"When we asked what conditions were like at Leonora the boys would say ‘Serco good, Serco good’ but then they would wink at us in a discreet way so the two guards couldn’t see.
"One boy came out and said the conditions at Leonora were worse than the detention facility in Darwin."
Refugee Rights Action Network spokesperson Clare Middlemas expressed frustration with Serco’s behaviour. "The staff just constantly contradict themselves. One staff member told us that the boys were so excited to see us while another was saying we wouldn’t be able to go inside," she said.
"Once we got a chance to talk to the boys inside they told us, through a 16-year-old Iraqi interpreter, that they hadn’t been told anything about us at all and they never said they didn’t want to talk to us.
"But we knew something wasn’t right. We didn’t believe Serco. We told them we had presents — MP3s and sport equipment for the kids and Serco told us the kids didn’t want the presents. I mean what teenage kid doesn’t want a present?"
Middlemas and Norton were just two of the 38 Refugee Rights Action Network advocates who made the overnight bus trip to Leonora. The group included students, parents with children, teachers and mental health workers.
Middlemas told New Matilda by telephone that when they arrived on the Friday that she could see the children waving at the protestors from behind the fences. She said 16 unmarked police cars were already parked outside the detention facility when the RRAN group arrived to protest the decision to send the teenage boys to the isolated town.
RRAN first visited the Leonora immigration detention facility in August 2010 and then again in January 2011. when they were able to enter the facility freely and talk to the detainees. This time Serco took a tougher stance.
"There is always a police presence here as well every time we come out — there’s usually as many police as protestors — but we’ve always been allowed to talk to detainees," said Middlemas. "But each time we come out we can see even more barriers have gone up outside the compound."
This tough treatment is far from the sympathetic regard expressed by Chris Bowen last March when he argued that when children’s refugee claims were being processed in Australia, they should be treated with care.
"Regardless of whether they are recognised as genuine refugees or returned to their homeland after consideration of their claims, they should be given the chance to learn and grow while they are here," he said.
Children are no longer held in Australia’s high security immigration detention centres but they are still held in low security immigration detention facilities. These include immigration residential housing in Sydney and Perth, immigration transit accommodation in Melbourne and Brisbane and various "alternative places of detention" on Christmas Island and the mainland including the facility at Leonora. In July 2011, DIAC reported that there were 872 children in immigration detention on the mainland and Christmas Island as of July 2011. Of these, 446 children were in community detention and the remainder were in immigration detention facilities.
In October 2010 Chris Bowen announced he would begin to use his existing residence determination powers to move some families and unaccompanied minors into community detention.
A Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) spokesperson confirmed that the last of the families accommodated at Leonora had been moved to family accommodation in Darwin in recent weeks and that Leonora was now a facility for 160 unaccompanied minors aged from 14 to 17 only. She said there was no time limit on the stay of unaccompanied minors at the detention facility in Leonora but moving the children into community detention was a priority.
"People are placed in a particular facility due to individual needs and operational requirements — and everyone’s case is different," she said.
"Some of these unaccompanied minors have come straight from Christmas Island and some are from Darwin. The Minister announced to the media last year that moving vulnerable clients into community detention was a priority and it is something we continue to work toward. It’s not a case of once you land there you stay there."
The DIAC spokeswoman said that groups of boys would be taken on supervised visits with volunteers into the town.
"Education for the unaccompanied minors will include ESL and Life In Australia classes which are all about preparing them for life in Australian communities and other programs and activities which will include supervised excursions into the town to play sport and swim at the public pool."
The spokeswoman said onsite education services for unaccompanied minors using qualified and registered teachers were already in place at Leonora but there were no concrete plans to send the boys to school next term — although children had been allowed to attend the local school last year.
"Leonora high school only goes to year 10 — these clients are mostly 16 and 17 years old," she told New Matilda. "It would also be disruptive to the community to put them in school and take them out again in a matter of weeks."
"The Department will continue to ensure all appropriate services and education services are provided."
In March 2011, Bowen reiterated his commitment to moving the majority of children and vulnerable family groups out of immigration detention facilities and into community-based accommodation by June 2011. And in January 2012, 160 youths remain at Leonora.
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