Australia's New Detention Capital


Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre is Darwin’s newest detention facility. It’s a 40km drive south of Darwin and by the time you turn off the main road the view from the car window is nothing but dry scrub and red dust. The centre itself is built next to a mosquito-infested swamp. When it opened, local advocates reported that the NT government had previously deemed the area to be unsuitable for human habitation.

The centre currently holds around 750 people (though the last official count was 468). With a capacity to hold 1500, it looks like Wickham Point is the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s (DIAC) latest flagship centre. Billed as a model facility — you can take the Department’s guided tour here — the three compounds are named Sun, Surf and Sea. A visit to the centre makes these labels seem deliberately cruel.

Wickham Point is one of the reasons that Darwin has been nicknamed "Australia’s new detention capital". It’s also why the national refugee rights movement chose Darwin as the site of its national convergence over the Easter Long Weekend. This year’s convergence, 10 years since the first at Woomera in 2002, marks 20 years of mandatory detention.

Over the weekend Darwin locals and around 40 activists and advocates from across Australia held protests outside of Wickham Point and Darwin’s two other detention centres — the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC) and the Darwin Airport Lodge. The weekend kicked off with a community rally in the centre of town. For the rest of the weekend, the convergence split its time between the three centres.

An important motivation for the convergence is that it gives activists a chance to make direct connection with the detainees inside, many of whom, because of the isolation of these places, have far less access to visitors and advocates than those in major capital cities. DIAC and Serco — the private company with the contract to manage the centres — consistently attempt to ensure this can’t take place. 

Last year at the Easter convergence at Curtin IDC they refused visits to activists, a ban that resulted in a hundreds-strong sit down protest and hunger strike inside the centre. This year in Darwin the same routine played out. DIAC and Serco selectively cancelled personal visits for all out of town visitors before the protests had begun, citing "operational reasons". Both Allan Davis, the DIAC regional representative, and the Serco guards who blocked visitors at the gate, refused to explain individuals’ visiting bans any further. 

As well as restricting personal visits, management aimed to prevent any contact between outside protestors and those being detained. When protests took place at NIDC detainees were locked down in their compounds, with extra Serco guards. Detainees later told us they had been warned by Serco that any action responding to protests — even a simple wave or a hello sung out in reply to chants from outside — would result in the detainee’s file being sent on to the Australian Federal Police.

On Sunday at the protest outside Wickham Point seven activists were arrested but not charged when the protest breached the centre’s perimeter fence as activists climbed the hill that blocks all view of the centre’s compounds. The action was in defiance of DIAC and Serco’s attempts to keep the protest in the strict confines of the car park.

Darwin Airport Lodge, located just around the corner from the baggage carousels at the International Airport, was the third site we visited. In the Australian context where we’ve grown to associate detention centres with high walls and barbed wire, what’s striking about the Airport Lodge is that it is completely exposed to outside view. The people detained there could be seen on the compound balconies or walking around the centre from the airport’s internal roads. They came to the guarded fences to talk when they saw us approaching.

The lodge’s three compounds are what’s known an "alternative place of detention" (APOD) under the Migration Act. The creation of these lower security detention facilities was a reluctant response to calls for families and vulnerable people to be released from detention. The children we saw at the Airport Lodge — both accompanied and unaccompanied — are some of the more than 500 minors still held in detention.

Talking to those in the Airport Lodge it became obvious that APODs don’t seem like such an alternative to those detained in them. At the fence we were given dozens of hand-written notes telling people’s stories and asking for help. Those inside chanted "freedom" in Vietnamese, Farsi and Arabic.

Because large-scale, high security detention centres are a relatively new addition to Darwin, the city has only recently found itself at the sharper end of debates around migration and refugee policy. Unsurprisingly though, the well-documented health effects of detention have become quickly apparent in the Darwin centres.

Incidents of serious self-harm have been particularly high at NIDC, with advocates at the end of last year reporting a suicide attempt by detainees within the centre on an almost weekly basis. Throughout 2011 and into the new year asylum seekers detained in NIDC staged a series of protests including general hunger strikes and roof-top protests. Most distressingly detainees began digging their own mock graves.   

Numbers at the centre have reduced drastically over the last few months. Currently just over 100 single men remain locked in the compounds hidden behind the two layers of barbed wire fencing and trees. Although numbers are hard to confirm, regular visitors estimate around half of those detained are Indonesian crew from boats that brought asylum seekers into Australian waters. They are now facing mandatory sentences on charges of people smuggling under legislation passed in 2010.

It seems no coincidence that NIDC is now in the process of being emptied, though the Department has given no clear reason for this move. It would not be the first detention centre to be "phased out" amid detainee protest and widespread criticism of the high levels of mental illness in the centre. 

The Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia’s Detention Network finally released its report in late March. It’s another in a long line of government-produced reports calling for some kind of time limit on detention, this time demanding that "all reasonable steps" should be taken to achieve this goal. Until there is some kind of meaningful legislative change to immigration policy the centres will continue to open and close as a vain attempt to deal with the destruction that they wreak.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.