International Women’s Day: Something To Celebrate, Unless You’re In Immigration Detention


Another International Women’s Day has rolled around. There will be breakfasts and gatherings as women celebrate the gains in rights and opportunities. And rightly so, says refugee rights activist Pamela Curr. But what if you’re a woman who doesn’t enjoy those freedoms?

I am old enough to remember the difficulty in buying my first car because I didn’t have a male relative to sign off. My father was dead and my brothers too young. Eventually my mother was allowed, but only after much negotiation. Women had few economic rights and this was in the 70’s, only four decades back.

A cousin who was a GP practising in the 1980’s told me how certain doctors at Sydney University excluded the few women in medicine from the lecture theatre. She passed by getting lecture notes from male students. We’ve come a long way.

But for me, this year is yet again tinged with sadness and grief because of the continued cruelty at the hands of politicians to small groups of women – Aboriginal women and refugee and asylum seeking women remain a target for brutal policies.

The January Border Force statistics list 97 women locked up in immigration detention centres. Most are these are women and girls who have overstayed their visas, or ex-prisoners. Hopefully their loss of freedom will only be weeks.


However there is another group of women hidden away in long-term indefinite arbitrary detention who are suffering. Their “crime” was to flee persecution from the worst of the world’s hell holes. They are being punished for surviving horrendous journeys by truck, plane and boat. Some have come from Nauru for medical treatment following brutal physical or sexual assaults, being bashed and burnt. They are now entering their fourth year of incarceration. If they were our daughters or sisters, every kindness and care would be given to them to help them recover from the crimes committed against them.

Most of these women are officially recognised refugees through the Australian process in Nauru. They were placed at risk in the community in huts in isolated parts of the island with no security. They had to walk down lonely bush tracks to the road to the supermarket, fending off wild dogs and men who saw them as game. At night they locked themselves in their huts but this offered no escape from the men who broke in and stole their things or worse.

When they were transferred to Australia, they became transitory persons devoid of legal rights, and so locked up again. Only the Minister can release these women. They must await their freedom at his pleasure. Some of the women say “The Minister hates us but we do not know why”.

Since Border Force took over in July 2015, the treatment of women in the camps here in our suburbs has become brutal. Women are now subjected to physical searches, intrusively touched by female guards while male guards film the procedure. Handcuffs, flexi cuffs, shackling belts and masks with knockout spray are now in use. If they are deemed to be at risk of self–harm, male guards are assigned to sit beside their beds in tiny rooms. These are women who have already suffered at the hands of men. Our requests to at least put female guards in the rooms are ignored.

Most recently a young woman who weighs less than 45kgs was taken to hospital with an abscess and fever, having been denied treatment for days. She was placed in a shackling belt with her hands tethered tightly to her sides and had three guards as an escort because Border Force have classed her as “high risk”. They only released one hand after medical staff were unable to get an intravenous line inserted for antibiotics. Doctors and nurses in one of our major hospitals allowed the shackling of this sick woman. Another young woman was handcuffed to a hospital bed for three days. Cruelty is catching.

Their rooms are searched without notice. Clothes and possessions are thrown everywhere. The women say that this is their only space to call their own. In Brisbane, squads of dogs are brought in to jump all over the beds. The women say that they are lined up in a “woman line and a man line then the dogs smell us up and down”. The women are usually woken at 6am and then not allowed to go to the toilet or wash, but are pushed outside to wait for two to three hours.


Recent searches have involved confiscating the most trivial of possessions as rules change without warning. The latest is toothbrushes. Each girl is now only allowed one toothbrush even though they were selling them at the canteen. The explanation from Border Force is that they are issued with a toothbrush on arrival in the camp.

The girls say that these are very poor quality so when they have earned points, they use the points to buy a better one at the canteen, which means that they have two. This is now a breach of regulations.

Rules in detention are arbitrary and ever changing. USB sticks are now restricted to one of 1GB, so they can no longer watch movies or listen to music from home. Nail polish is not allowed but they can go to a one hour ‘women’s activity’ where they are supervised by guards as they paint their nails. Knitting, sewing are other activities must also be supervised. They earn two points for staying one hour in these activities.

Can we imagine the indignity and complete loss of a sense of self for these women whose “crime” was to flee persecution? They’ve been taken to Nauru, where further harm has been done to them, and then to Australia where they are physically safe but mentally tortured every day by being watched, touched, searched, surveilled, bullied and told what to do every hour of every day. At night guards bang on their doors, shine their torches or turn on the lights to count them through the night.

This International Women’s day take a moment to contact Minister Dutton’s Office and ask him to release the women. There are houses and supporters waiting to welcome them into the community.

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.