Whether On Nauru Or Australia, The Detention Industry Harms Women


OPINON: From major traumas to small, everyday intrusions, detention grinds women down. The struggle for our rights is not over until all women are treated with dignity and respect, writes Pamela Curr.

Another International Women’s Day arrives, bringing with it a moment to reflect on the road to equity and fairness for women. We older women particularly remember a time when our lives were dependant on the goodwill of men. Such times are well past for most women in Australia today but not for all.

The cruelty of the lives of women in Australian on- and offshore detention camps is heartbreaking. This terrible secret is largely unknown because media are denied access, staff are threatened with jail if they speak out, and the women themselves are fearful of even worse treatment or of removal if they complain. For those transferred back to the mainland, their great fear is of being returned to Nauru to endure life in mouldy hot tents with little to no water, stinking toilets and vermin. Life in Melbourne, Brisbane and Darwin detention centres seems paradise by comparison until the family separation and mental torture wears them down.

Even in Australian detention centres the small, routine harshness grinds women down. Imagine having to endure a body search by a female guard using both hands to squeeze your arms and legs, patting your breasts and bottom and poking fingers under the bra and into the groin before you go out, and then once again on return. This is the situation for women when they leave the camps to go to a medical or counselling appointment.

This search is filmed by a male guard at close range. The woman is then escorted to an awaiting van by two guards holding her upper arms. This is the new Border Force Enhanced Escort Position or EEP. The search makes no sense other than to cause maximum distress and loss of dignity.

After months of seeking an explanation for this abusive and intrusive process, it has been confirmed that this is not over-reach on the part of the contractors, but rather part of Border Force policy.

Each night at around 11pm and then again at 5am, guards bang on their doors calling out “how many”. The women tell us that many guards do not wait for an answer but barge straight in with torches to shine in their face, waking their children. During the day a guard may come at any time. Women tell me that they are afraid to be caught on the toilet or in the shower. Doors can be locked, but guards have the keys.

Women who are deemed to be High Risk because they are crying or upset, or who are thought to be suicidal, are put on the Psychological Support Program (PSP). A guard can follow them around or sit inside their room, a short distance from the bed. In the past they sat outside the room in the doorway and female guards were placed on watch for women. Now, a woman can wake in the night to find the door closed and a male guard at her side. We’ve argued with Border Force that only women should perform this role but have been rebuffed.

Women say they are going mad in this high surveillance environment with nothing meaningful to do. One woman had a sewing machine given to her by SERCO. She made clothes and bags out of recycled jeans and always had a box full of mending for others in the camp. Even SERCO guards gave her uniforms for repair. Two other women asked visitors for machines to make things for their children and to keep busy. The machines were offered and placed in property, but never passed through to the women.

This International Women’s Day we remember that our struggle is not over until all women are treated with respect and dignity. As we have apologised and lamented over cruel policies towards Indigenous women and single mothers, we will one day be called upon to apologise for this cruelty to women seeking safety. Enough of this cruel government policy now.


Pamela Curr is a refugee and detention rights advocate at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. She was admitted to Victorian Women’s Honour Roll in 2009.