28 Aug 2013

'You're In Detention, This Isn't A Hotel'

By Ben Pynt
Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre
Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre

When human rights advocate Ben Pynt visited Wickham Point detention centre in Darwin, he discovered that dehumanising asylum seekers is standard practice

Earlier this month I was in Darwin to visit asylum seekers in the four detention facilities around town.

The first is the Darwin Airport Lodge, which holds families with small children, and is famous for having rejected gifts of crayons at Christmas 2011.

Next is the Northern Immigration Detention Centre, part of a high security army base. The others are Blaydin Point Alternative Place of Detention and Wickham Point detention centre, which are within 250 metres of each other but couldn’t be more different.

Blaydin Point was constructed as part of the Ichthys LNG project, which will be the one of the world’s largest gas hubs when it becomes operational. Blaydin is a relatively nice facility; it’s colourful and allows freedom of movement within the centre. At present 590 asylum seekers are living there, including 221 children.

Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre a high security facility, with 1541 asylum seekers including 50 pregnant women and 357 children. There are two 30 foot electrified fences around the perimeter with prison-style airlock gates between each section. CCTV monitors every part of the compound that separates single men from families and children with high fences and guard posts.

Serco officers at Wickham Point call asylum seekers by ID number rather than name. I witnessed this on two separate occasions, including once where the officer was handing out ID cards at the end of a visit (with photo, name and ID number) to a group of six asylum seekers including girls as young as 12, two single women and a married couple who have experienced significant torture and trauma. The asylum seekers were so accustomed to this that they knew each other’s ID numbers almost instinctively and pointed each other out as they were called out, yet some of them didn’t even speak the same language.

I questioned a senior officer about this dehumanising practice on my way out of the centre. I told the officer I thought it was inappropriate and went against Serco policy. He responded that this was standard practice, and that asylum seekers “would be more embarrassed if we mispronounced their names”. He realised I wasn’t impressed and justified his statement: “It’s too hard to try to know everyone’s name – they move through the centre pretty quickly you know.”

Asylum seekers have complained about this to guards, and told me guards often respond, “You’re in detention. This isn’t a hotel”. I’ve now submitted a complaint, as have others.

I have since obtained a copy of a letter sent to Darwin refugee advocates in January 2012 assuring them that “it was disappointing to hear suggestions that a staff member had referred to people by boat number. It is explicit in our policy to always address clients by their names – it’s part of practicing Serco’s values to treat those in our care with decency and respect for their human dignity.” Eighteen months later, the problem is worse.

A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship confirmed that the policy is for all detention staff to address asylum seekers by their name. The department is aware of these claims, which are currently under investigation by Serco. The spokesperson confirmed that should the investigation find an officer not to be complying with this policy, they would be “counseled in line with Serco’s performance management framework or, at its most serious, removed from their role”.

At the same detention centre, our visits were “supervised” from less than five metres away, with the officers clearly listening to our conversation. To Serco’s credit, our right to privacy was respected in visits to other centres. It is not surprising that the most restrictive environment has the worst culture among guards and administrative staff.

Several families I saw had been separated across different detention centres.

Sometimes they're in different sections of the same centre, and other times they're in different locations altogether. Those who were in different compounds in the same centre were not allowed to talk to each other through the fence, and were able to meet in supervised rooms once or twice a week. Those who were in separate centres were able to speak over the phone, but very rarely if ever get to see each other in person. We met brothers and sisters, and mothers and (adult) children separated without explanation, which was causing them insurmountable distress.

Other, more disturbing reports have been confirmed by local asylum seeker advocates (and regular visitors), as well as by different groups of detainees.

I was told by asylum seekers at Wickham Point that women there are given one menstrual pad at a time. It is a great source of embarrassment when they are forced to ask officers for more. Only three nappies are available per child, per day, they claimed, even if the child is sick with diarrhea. One woman asked an officer what she was meant to do to stop her baby defecating when it was sick and she had been denied extra nappies. She said the officer shrugged and responded “I dunno”.

A female asylum seeker told me that her friend is pregnant, and outgrew her underpants quickly. She asked for more and was told she couldn’t have any. She went without underpants for months, and didn’t have a dress that fit properly. Her complaints went unanswered.

The Blaydin Point/Wickham Point area is infested with mosquitos and biting midges, as revealed by a government report commissioned for the Ichthys Project. The report reveals that an area of exposed skin equivalent to a single leg could suffer up to 10,000 midge bites in an hour at the worst times of the year in some parts of the peninsula. Six traps were set in a series of experiments, and attracted up to 1.4 million midges in a night at certain times of the year.

Although present lower numbers than biting midges, disease carrying mosquitos pose a moderate risk of infection with Ross River virus, Murray River encephalitis, Barmah Forest virus and Kunjin virus, with a low risk of malaria and dengue fever.

When approached for comment by New Matilda, the DIAC spokesperson said that “physical barriers are installed in windows, perimeters and crawl spaces under demountable buildings to prevent the intrusion of adult insects”. A Biting Insect Management Plan has been developed and enacted according to NT legislation and guidelines to minimise the number of mosquito breeding habitats in the area.

Despite this management plan, each asylum seeker I saw at Wickham Point had fresh bites that were raised and irritated. Those who had been at Manus Island all had scars of infected bug bites that had taken months and several courses of antibiotics to heal.

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Que Bro
Posted Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 16:49

Bulldust Ben is beating things up again!  The Icthys LNG Project report says "Mosquitoes are a serious potential public health risk in the NT" but someting Ben doesn't let on is that the report says "mosquito populations at Bladwyn Point ...are not as high as other areas of Darwin.. " and "Mosquito pest problems at Bladwyn Point are expected to be minimal"  http://www.ntepa.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/5792/draft_eis_appendix_21.pdf???  

He mentions that there a Bitiing Insect Management Plan is in effect but fails to outline what this plan entails such as regular insect fogging and the free availability of personal insect repellent for detainees.        

Posted Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 17:36

The illegal immigrants put themselves in these predicaments and expect us to pander to them. If you don't want to get bitten by by Northern Territory insects don't come to Australia without an invitation.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. thomasee73
Posted Wednesday, August 28, 2013 - 21:29

Um, Que Bro, you don't have to read Ben's article too carefully to observe that the main concern emphasised is for biting midges and that he acknowledges that mosquitoes are present in lower numbers and present only a moderate risk. Its also fairly clear on a cursory reading of the Ichthys LNG project report that midges, not mosquitoes, is the more significant pest species in the area, so that the relatively minimal impact of mosquitoes in the area is inconsequential.

It's not that hard to find fault with arguments that don't actually appear in the article. But trying that on as a way of discrediting the author is classic bulldust-artistry. 

So either you don't know what you're talking about, or you do and you're being deliberately disingenuous. Either way, your credibility is about on par with a tobacco company executive on the health benefits of smoking. 

Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 00:51

Commonewealth, you might take a different view if your children came bundling over my fence into my yard because my dogs were attacking them in yours.

Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 08:28

You are a bleeding heart sucker Rockjaw. Most illegal immigrants are liars. They pass through, or near, dozens of other countries where they could flee to, but they go all the way to Australia for the welfare benefits. Sometimes they even fly into Indonesia where they deliberately contract with the people smugglers to come here through the back door. They are up to every trick in the book, dumping ID papers, lying to officials, setting up communications with their fellow countrymen already here to advise them on sly tactics. Take a trip to London where 69% of the school children are non-white. Imagine Sydney with genuine Australians outnumbered 2 to 1! That's what we're headed for.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 12:17

The big opinion-dividing question is on whether or not the present citizenry of Australia should decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come. If your answer to that is 'no we should not be able to', then an open-door immigration policy along the lines of that presently being presented by the Greens is the one for you. 

If your answer is 'yes', then radically different policies logically flow from it.

So far in this election campaign, only a (fairly vocal) minority seem to be in favour of the first option.

At the present time, the Islamic world is going through the same sort of convulsions that Christian Europe went through 500 years ago. What emerged out of those religious wars was capitalism, colonialism and flowing from the latter, imperialist rivalry. Oh, and representative government. The human casualties and refugees from that process became the founding populations of colonial North America and Australia, there followed by massive waves of emigration.. 

As the Islamic world continues to convulse, refugees will keep leaving its component countries. Those left behind will watch with great interest what happens to those leaving. The more successful refugees and economic migrants will keep acting as stimulus for others to follow in their tracks. This is why the boats were on an exponential increase before the PNG solution was put in place.

The most myopic and brainless Coalition politicians, in de factor alliance with the Greens and the 'open the doors' alliance of refugee advocates, gleefully sieze on every sign of difficulty the PNG solution might be having. That can only help the people smugglers persuade more people to get on more boats: particularly since Abbott's slogan 'we'll stop the boats' transforms progressively into the hare-brained line of 'we'll buy the boats'.

Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 13:38

Personally I am not particularly concerned where the asylum seekers come from per se. I do worry about Afghans and Pakistanis, though. They are bringing with them a brutal, religiously hidebound culture that produced the Taliban and other extremist Muslim views. Do we really want that kind of thing here? Do we want people who shoot little girls in the face if they are trying to get an education or don't feel like marrying a 70-year-old uncle? Because make no mistake, the same culture that produced the Taliban also produced the people who are now trying to get into Australia. And they WILL eventually assert their backward views, the same way they have done in European cities.

Que Bro
Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 15:07


My post was trying to make the point that Ben Pynt has a habit of beating up issues (such as biting insects) and portraying them as bad management or in this case “dehumanising” treatment of asylum seekers when the issue is ubiquitous for all Australians living in the NT and many other parts of Northern Australia.  He casually mentions that a Biting Insect Management Plan that accords with the Icythus Project Report has been adopted at Blaydin Point/Whickham Point but deliberately fails to disclose that this plan provides asylum seekers with better protection than that afforded to or enjoyed by Darwin’s ratepayers or indigenous communities throughout the Top End .

This user is a New Matilda supporter. douglas jones
Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 16:14

Mr Puhleez unlike the other commentators attempts to field a rational explanation, good but foolish at this time when opposition to any not Australian is so high. I except of course members of our protector the USA.

Your thesis may be correct, may indeed be aided by still rampant colonialism but a simpler explanation might be as follows. 

These asylum seekers, NOT illegals as the ignorant are want to say demonstrating they have done little homework to aid understanding, ref is the UNHCR 1951, may well be increased by actions of the West, invasions by USA and followers intent on gaining resources or by upheavals associated with past colonialis, or revenge BLOWBACK for the past Mossadeq or the carve up of the Middle East. If this is the case it is reasonable that reparation is made. The UNHCR refugees are folk who have reason to fear their lives if the stay where they are. Most then of the 2 million displaced from Iraq are thus not under existing law entitled to staying, though they may seek asylum; nor those fleeing  Afhganistan for the most part etc but each is entitled to asylum. His/her case being then tested for determination as refugee. 

So an immediate though of improbable, means of correction at least in part would be to stop trying to control other countries geopolitics becomes more human not nationally oriented. Next we might all try to slow perhaps deverse climate change, global warming that was, because there will be many more seeking refuge, as first low lying countries are covered by the sea, (Maldives or Vanuatu or bits of Bangladesh, Holland, London, the North Shore, first?).

To change subject to another of 'momentousimport' the election. Niether side has placed in their budget money for making good fire.flood or storm endemic now global warming has reached as far as it currently has and increasing fairly rapidly. RMI argues we have the technique for using renewables, thus negating Climate Change but like the asylum seeker problem many do not have the empathy, the will to cooperate for a humane solution to our idiocy in ignoring Ehrlich Club of Rome and so many others, again the developed world bears greater culpability than the third. But had we paid attention we would surely not have been the nationalistic short term psychopaths we are. I should add an article I read indicates we all have some degree of being such just that some have much more well in below of any legal culpability but exceeding tyhe level of desirable empsathy. 

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Tokujiro
Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 20:35

I find quite distressing the lack of humanity and respect for our fellow human beings - not only by the SERCO vested-interest private security company employees towards asylum-seekers locked up in their gulags but also by the responses of many of the ignorant posts from readers of this essay! Is it about cynical cleverness or merely blatant trolling I wonder. I want to praise Ben PYNT for caring about our fellows and condemn those who have no heart nor - obviously - the ability to imagine walking in the shoes of others!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Thursday, August 29, 2013 - 22:16

Douglas Jones,.

I have been maintaining for a long time now in commenting on NM articles like this that the UN Refugee Convention is outmoded. Australia's continued support of it only acts as a 'pull factor' for the boats. It is long past high time we were out of it, the more so since all legal challenges to an open door policy are based on it.

I have no doubt that many refugees have gruesome stories to tell, as do so many of their country fellows they leave behind. The last count I saw said there were over 20 million on the UNHCR books, but I would say that the figure would easily rise to double or treble that the more boats are successful.

Drownings at sea could be stopped and all people smugglers put out of business if Australia started a low fare ferry weekly service between Indonesia and a port in PNG: no papers required.

A ship about the size of the Queen Mary should do, or maybe a converted supertanker.

The rest of your rant is noted.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. O. Puhleez
Posted Friday, August 30, 2013 - 10:12


Correction: legal challenges to government action against people smugglers, and others who behave as if Australia has or should have an open door to anyone who presents as a refugee, are based on the country's obligations under the refugee convention.

Posted Monday, September 2, 2013 - 16:51

The lawyers would love this beating around the bush. The best circuit breaker would be to pull out of the refugee convention and undercut the shyster lawyers. We do not need this. Stop making a complex legal issue out of a simple practical problem. If one does not enter the country the correct way, one should be turned back, no ifs, buts or maybes.

Everyone is critical of the European peoples, but the same critics would have our relatively successful societies flooded by people with strange religions and customs. The irony is that imperialism and colonialism were so demonised that it was disbanded. Now the same colonialised people want to come to live with the former colonists and imperialists. If they cannot run their own countries properly, or if they are victims of primitive tribalism, what's it to do with us? Let them sort out their own problems. We have enough of our own.

And yes they are illegal immigrants, not refugees or asylum seekers. We were warned by George Orwell that in order for us to lose our freedoms, one of the first things that had to happen was to redefine the meaning of words, even if it was the opposite of the true or original meaning.

Posted Friday, November 8, 2013 - 10:47


1. Asylum seekers are not illegal.

2. They have an invitation - it's called the UN Refugee Convention which Australia is signatory to. It is not illegal for refugees to arrive in Australia by boat and without paperwork to seek asylum - WE are the ones breaking international law by locking them up.

3. They can't stop in nearby countries because such as Indonesia because these countries are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, as we are.

4. If having migrated here or coming from a family who migrated here means a person is not a "genuine Australian" as you so charmingly put it, then the only genuine Australians are the Aboriginal people. And how badly do you think THEY'RE outnumbered in Sydney?! Colonialism killed your right to use that argument a long time ago mate.

5. You're a racist and an imperialist and I'm embarrassed to share a country with the likes of you. Educate yourself before you open your mouth again for god's sake.