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


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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