Hunger Strike Refugees 'Kept Isolated'

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Twenty-five indefinitely detained refugees are now on the fifth day of their hunger strike at Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne. Three have been hospitalised, one of whom was returned to the centre this morning. Some have had blood in their urine.

Their faces are drawn and pale and they barely speak when visited. There's “a lot of just sitting and staring”, say refugee advocates who have visited them in the euphemistically named Melbourne Immigration Transit Accomodation.

The refugees are stuck in legal purgatory. Their claims for refugee status have been judged to be valid, but because of negative ASIO assessments, they are detained indefinitely. The catalyst for this week's hunger strike was a disappointing visit by retired judge Margaret Stone, who provided independent assessments of the refugees' security status.

According to advocates who saw the assessments, the “statements of reasons” given to the refugees were perfunctory and in keeping with what refugees have come to expect from visits from case workers and the Immigration Department. One Sri Lankan refugee was assessed negative because he ran a shop where Tamil Tigers were alleged to have done business. Another is claimed to have trained with the Tigers — he insists he was at university at the time and can prove so through enrolment and attendance records.

In any case, because Stone's assessments are redacted for national security reasons and ASIO's decisions cannot be scrutinised before the courts either, none of these can be tested; it's the refugees' assertions, which are only available to the public through advocates who have built relationships of trust with those behind the wire, against the word of Australia's inscrutable intelligence services.

Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor told the press yesterday, “We will attend to their needs but people have to understand that we will not make policy changes in such a manner”.

But while the government has a national policy on refugees and asylum seekers, when it comes to day-to-day interactions with detainees, the process appears to be completely arbitrary. The department admitted to NM earlier this week that there are no hard and fast policies to deal with hunger strikes. At least none that are available to journalists or the public.

Last night I went to a vigil organised by the Refugee Action Collective outside Broadmeadows detention centre, and spoke with advocates who have visited the refugees there. The following observations are based on their testimony only.

The consensus among advocates is that there are no consistent policy guidelines or procedures for interactions with detainees. In most cases it's up to the whims of guards on duty, advocates say. Visitors keep each other in the loop about which Serco staff are rostered on and avoid those who take “power trips” — such as one guard who insists on wearing sunglasses at all times, including while indoors.

Sue*, one advocate who has been visiting for over a year, described two recent visits (including one on Wednesday) where she had arranged to meet particular refugees. Upon arrival, she was told in each case by Serco staff that they had spoken with the detainees in question, who said they didn't want to be visited.

When Sue insisted, she was told “You can't make people see you”. Serco later called to apologise. 

A second advocate, Mary, who has two years experience, said that since the hunger strike started Serco have become stricter with visiting. Where Broadmeadows had been considered a more lenient centre, now Serco requires advocates to know the full name of the refugee, and for them to be present in the visiting area — a “large, sterile room” — before getting access.

This policy, which is the norm at more restrictive centres like Maribyrnong, where advocates say 50-odd refugees are housed alongside criminals awaiting deportation, means that advocates must rely on word of mouth and the like to find out which refugees are actually inside the centre. Vice versa with the detainees themselves, who must give the name of an individual advocate to get access.

Obviously, children suffer the most under such a system. Unaccompanied minors need to request visits 24 hours in advance, a situation that leads to children receiving far less contact with the outside world than adult refugees. “At the moment there's not many children, but when there were quite a lot [Broadmeadows once exclusively housed unaccompanied minors] only about 5 per cent were getting visitors,” Mary estimates.

A third advocate, Jane, with around a year's experience, told me that on three separate occasions she had applications to see minors rejected upon arrival at the centre. In one instance, she could see the young Tamil man she was supposed to be visiting through a window, but was not allowed to speak with him — even to tell him why the visit had been rejected.

Since the construction of a second building on site at Broadmeadows, the visiting area has been shifted to the new “sterile” visitors' centre. Previously, advocates would speak to the refugees in their communal quarters and play cards or backgammon. Other refugees could walk in and out, and join in the conversations. Now advocates can't include them in group conversations, or, Jane points out, say “Hello, salaam, you're another human … they are kept isolated from one another”.

It's also common for refugees to be on sleeping pills, because they suffer recurring nightmares. Some, Jane says, have been taking them for up to two years. Many on the current hunger strike are also suffering from drug withdrawal. Anti-depressant usage is less prevalent, but not rare.

Confiscations are also commonplace. In the past Mary has had no problem taking her entire handbag through security; on other occasions she has had food in glass or ceramic containers confiscated, in addition to knitting needles, notebooks and CDs and DVDs with movies or music.

At Maribyrnong things are more dire. Recently, Sue says, chilli powder was banned because, according to Serco, it could be used to make a bomb. Likewise, chocolates wrapped in aluminium foil have been confiscated in the past because the foil could be used to make weapons, Jane says.

“Maribyrnong is a hellhole compared to Broadmeadows,” Mary says. “If any of these guys have protests like they're doing, they get singled out and threatened to be sent to Maribyrnong.”

Refugees in that centre are mixed in with foreign criminals, according to Mary. “It's horrific … very common to hear jail stories about drugs. The guys are really scary — you go in there for a visit to see these little Tamil men and there's a mafia guy making out with his girlfriend in the corner.”

Some young Tamils she knew in the centre about a year ago were bullied and victimised by the other prisoners. Mary says one Tamil made a complaint about drug trafficking to Serco guards but was ignored. When she recently visited a pregnant refugee in Maribyrnong, there was “a guy charged with sexual assault” sitting at the next table in the visitors' room, she claims.

But it's not all bad news — the strikers' morale is holding. At last night's vigil, chants of “freedom” from the crowd were returned by the strikers, who could be heard softly in the distance.

“We know Australians are kind people and do not want to see people like us suffer. We are very happy to see the people supporting us outside the centre,” they told the Tamil Refugee Council. The vigil will continue for as long as the strike does.

* Names have been changed.

New Matilda

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