My Sunday was spent visiting Villawood detention centre, which was organised through the social justice council at school and the Queens of Peace social justice group which runs out of the Normanhurst parish of the same name. You hear a lot of crap in the media about the "queue jumpers" that are invading our country, stealing our jobs, bludging on the dole, and perpetrating criminal acts. I'll tell you right now, 99% of it bullocks. The people who our government is illegally locking up are everyday people just like you and me who are in the wrong place at the wrong time, or have been persecuted unjustly in their home country. They come to Australia for a better life and to escape persecution, something which a bunch of convicts decided to a little over 200 years ago. Now we've set up our own little utopia for ourselves, we don't want to let others in to share it. The real criminals are the "Liberal" conservatives who illegally detain them, and the Labor party for not being socially and morally responsible and objecting to the way these people are being treated.
This is a small part of my experience on the day, as well as a few stories from the inside.
Getting inside was the hardest part of the whole experience. The whole process is designed to keep you out, and make it as confusing as possible along the way. We're weren't able to park inside the centre, so we had to park out on the street which is about 200 meters from the centre. Once passing through the gate which bars entry to the facility, we were asked by an immigration officer whether we've been to the facility before. Our group leader Chris said yes, which was true for half the group, and we started to pass up the road 200 meters. Chris said that if you say no he'll ask you all sorts of questions about who you are, where you've come from, who you're seeing, how long you're staying for, etc, although he doesn't really care and just wants to tie you down a bit longer. At the end of the road we were confronted with a 3 meter high barb wire fence, as well as a smaller fence behind it, as well barb wire on the ground around the fence. We headed up towards the main entrance, but before we entered the facility we had to collect a form so we could be processed by the security officers later on. Never mind that they don't advertise that you have to get one of the forms to be processed. We had to collect the form from a small building on the other side of the road, and then cross back and ask the officer to let us in. Once we were inside the entry building we had to collect a number and wait to be processed. There are only 2, a maximum of 3 officers who are processing visitors, so it gave us more than enough time to fill out the form.
The form isn't the most intuitive thing to fill out to say the least. There's a whole heap of administrative crap spread all over the form, making it difficult to work out which parts you're suppose to fill out, and which parts you're not suppose to. The worst part about the whole procedure is if you incorrectly fill out the form because the processing officers will not accept it and send you to the end of the line to fill out another. Eventually one by one we were called up after half an hour of waiting (although it can take up to 2 hours) to present our forms as well as photo identification with our addresses on them. My processing officer was in a fairly good mood, not asking me too many questions and finally giving me a hospital-style bracelet to wear. Unfortunately one of my friends was not being allowed in due to some bureaucratic crap that the processing officer contrived. She brought up some completely bullshit clause in some law, saying that they wouldn't let him in because he was regarded as a minor (he's 16, but so are other people in our group), and they need written consent from his parents that the leader of the group was his legal guardian for the day. Fortunately Chris was extremely well versed in the procedures and laws that bound the detention centre, and was able to argue quite strongly that he was legally allowed to go in without written consent. Since their definition of a minor was someone "Under 18 years of age", one of the members from the parish quietly told me to ignore what was happening and get through the metal detectors into the compound as quickly as possible.
Once I passed through the checkpoint we had to be stamped with UV ink so they could differentiate between visitors and inmates during a lockdown. The security facilities have recently been upgraded, and now they're decked out with some of the best metal detecting equipment available in Australia, courtesy of 3 million tax-payer dollars - don't bother considering upgrading the facilities of the detainees. Meanwhile, the other person from school had gotten through while they were too busy having an argument with Chris, so we moved into the meeting area while he sorted out the mess. It actually worked out really well, because once we were inside Chris was able to argue that they just let in two minors without any problems, so why should the third be any different? My personal opinion of the staff wasn't too high. Did you know that the government doesn't actually run the detention centres? They outsource it to a variety of different companies, Villawood belonging to a company named GSL (Global something Logistics). Most of the people there seemed nice enough, but overall they weren't the brightest of sparks, especially the managerial staff. I met a Croatian lady inside that said that she was beaten up by another detainee while a guard looked on and did nothing. Chipped her front two teeth, and they wouldn't let her prosecute unless she went through the Australian Federal Police - the AFP didn't give a toss about her and did absolutely nothing.
Once we were inside we met up with a detainee named Noori who's friends with everyone, including some of the guards. We had brought some food with us too (things like grapes, biscuits, sweet and savory things), and we put them down on they table for the detainees to take what they want. Noori is having a 7 day hearing starting Monday that could possibly get him released, so he was quite anxious about the whole thing. He's been there for a number of years now. He arrived in Australia with his family of 4 and was sent straight to Villawood to await processing. His family was released after 28 days but he's been trying to get out ever since.
Descriptions of the centre were pretty dire, although the detainees were in reasonable spirits.
Food is served three times a day, first at 7.30, then at 12.30, and then finally at 16.30 - they are not fed in the 15 hours between dinner and breakfast. The food is prepared by the Bangladesh detainees, so most meals consist of rice or pasta with a curry. Many of the other detainees are not used to the spiciness of the curry and suffer horrible digestive problems, especially the Chinese. The same food is served in a 5 day cycle, and there are no changes made to the menu whatsoever, not even for religious occasions. The medical situation is even worse. The detainees are unable to keep painkillers in their rooms and are only able to receive medical treatment 2 times a day, these times separated 4 hours apart. The medical staff are also completely indifferent to the medical condition of the detainees and regard them as an annoyances rather than people. One of the detainees told me that some of the detainees had ringworm and were not being treated for it by the doctors on site. Poor hygiene standards exacerbate the problems of communal health too. All toiletry and shower facilities are communal, and sanitary waste is often left months before it is removed. There's also a faulty generator at one end of the compound which makes a constant grating noise at night when the detainees are trying to sleep - can't be doing any good for their state of mind.
The visiting area was a 60 meter square grassed area with a tree and a few gazebos. One of the detainees told me that before October last year there was no grass or gazebos. The reason they were put in was because the United Nations High Commission sent a delegation to assess the conditions at the centre. The government were trying to promote an image of the centres much more delightful than the harsh existence that was a reality for these people. The delegation were not allowed to visit the "living" quarters.
The detainees go through a number of different stages of detention. When they arrive, they are sent straight to Stage 1, the highest security stage of the entire system. There they are treated harshly by the guards, and are given very few rights. I am not clear on whether they are kept in solitary confinement, but it would not surprise me. If they progress out of Stage 1, they move onto Stage 2. Stage 2 is much more lax, with the detainees being afforded more rights. They are able to see visitors more freely, and are given work to do during the day. The detainees are not paid in money, but in phone cards and other such material. There are drink dispensing machines within the centre, but they are unable to use them unless they are slipped money by visitors. Stage 3 is the final stage before moving out into the community, and is the laxest of them all. Conditions are still terrible, but they are mostly treated better by the guards.
All detainees leaving the centre are told the same thing when leaving - they are not told whether they are being deported or legitimately released. Detainees are told to report to management, where they are told to pack their belongings and report back as they are being released. Once the detainee returns to management, they have to fill out forms and wait to be released by the officers. Sometimes the detainees who are being legitimately released are held in limbo for a number of hours by management just to make them sweat, keeping them wondering whether they are actually going to get out or whether this is all some sort of cruel joke.
Detainees who are being deported are handed over to an AFP officer and leave straight for the airport. This normally happens on Friday afternoons so the detainee's legal representation is unable to get an injunction to stop the deportation. They are usually flown to Perth, where they are then put onto a plane to Johannesburg, and out of the responsibility of the Australian government.
One of the most shocking things I found during the visit was the amount each detainee is charged for staying in detention per day - $175. Let's say the average detainee is held for 2 years. That's $127750. If they've been held the full 7 years possible, that's $447125. Now imagine a family of 5 who have been detained illegally for two years while being processed. That comes to $638750. How on earth is a family suppose to pay that back to the government whilst supporting children, buying food to stay alive, as well as paying rent?
The government offers to waive this fee if they leave the country, but these people have obviously come here for a reason, and who wants to be sent back to a country they've been trying to escape from?
What grates most is that for the money that these people have to pay they should be in at least 3 star facilities with decent food and medical attention, maybe even an area to do some exercise or let their children play in.
Instead our government sees fit to imprison them for the crime of wanting a better life.
Getting out wasn't a too difficult experience. We said our goodbyes to our friends who were unable to leave, and gave our promises to come back soon. With a touch of sorrow and tearfulness we passed out of the visiting area. The guards seemed much more relaxed now that we were leaving, and one or two of them seemed genuinely happy. We had to leave the compound through a different entrance, and only in small groups. I was in the second group, and as we were waiting to go through the second checkpoint we could here one of the guards through the glass shouting at one of his mates who was operating the first entrance not to open it and let our last group out - our last group consisted of an elderly couple. There was no reason to do this, he simply wished to keep them standing outside for 5 minutes or so to keep them anxious about whether they were going to get out. Disgraceful. Fortunately his friend on the door misheard his friend and unlocked the first entrance, letting them into the chamber where we were waiting. The guard was not very happy at all, and shouted a fair bit at his friend.
They finally let us through, checked our UV ink, cut our tags off, and let us out into the waiting room. We were able to leave through the final gate and head to our cars, but we were not allowed to stop and talk to the detainees through the barbed wire fences. I'd like to publish some more of the detainee stories, but I feel that I should ask for their permission before I do this. Hopefully next month i'll be able to put something up on each of the people that i've talked too.
I think the following best sums up the whole experience.
"You see, once we meet them, hear their stories, share their pain, it is impossible to ever view them as a faceless entity again - as queue-jumpers, as boat-people, as illegals and criminals. For they each have a name, a face, they had a life once, they are someone's father, daughter, brother, friend. They hurt and feel pain just as we do. They deserve our empathy, our help. When we look at them, do we see ourselves looking back?"
-- from the ChilOut's Visitor's Guide