In this extract from his recently-released Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein visits the remote and jealously guarded Curtin Immigration Detention Centre.
It’s a 30-minute drive through the desert from Derby to the Curtin Air Base. A number of signs warn us to turn back because it is ‘Private Property’. We approach the first checkpoint, where a logo on a fence with a forward arrow reads ‘Serco’. Even here in the Kimberley, Serco branding is slapped on infrastructure.
A dark-skinned man asks us for ID and the Serco entry forms that we faxed to Curtin a few days earlier – we were asked to list our professions and the names of the detainees we want to visit. I open my window and feel a rush of hot air. It is close to 40 degrees Celsius. We are allowed to proceed.
Curtin is surrounded by scrubby desert as far as the eye can see. I can’t imagine a more isolated place to be detained. Demountables are scattered beside the road near the car park and high barbed-wire fences surround the detention compound. We can see new houses being constructed nearby, and a freshly laid concrete pathway leads to the main entrance. The last years have seen the construction at the centre of gymnasiums, religious rooms and classrooms.
The Serco sign hanging over the reception area reads, ‘Welcome to Curtin IDC’. Staff, including a subcontractor from MSS Security, smile as we enter the heavily air-conditioned room. They ask to see our faxed Serco forms so they can confirm they received the documents at least 24 hours before the visit. Caroline says that, uncharacteristically, a Serco manager from Curtin rang her a few days ago and said they were looking forward to welcoming us. It was an unprecedented move, without any discernible reason behind it. ‘It’s impossible to understand how this system truly works’, Caroline routinely tells me during our time together.
Serco posters and signs advertising the company are ubiquitous in the reception area. They display the smiling faces of happy staff and multicultural imagery that includes a Muslim imam. A colour brochure emblazoned with four grinning faces from various racial backgrounds sits on a small table near some lockers.
‘Bringing service to life’ is the company’s motto. The pamphlet says that Serco ‘promotes the inherent dignity of people in detention in line with the Australian government’s new immigration detention values’.
A number of other pieces of Serco literature are scattered around reception. ‘Visitor Conditions of Entry’ states that there are three visiting periods every day, including between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., but also says that arrival after 5 p.m. will not be permitted. There are dozens of rules and regulations on the sheet, including: ‘Respect the privacy and dignity of all people in the centre’. It’s a noble goal, but one that staff routinely breach, detainees later tell me.
We are given keys for a locker in which to store our personal items. I am not allowed to carry a camera or a mobile phone, but I can bring a pen and notepad. I am surprised. I have been told it’s common for journalists to be denied even these basics here. Usually a cap and bottled water suffice.
The site’s operation manager, who is decked out in the Serco uniform of shirt, shorts and black shoes, says he’ll take us to a holding area to wait for the refugees we’ve asked to see. Normally, Caroline, who has been to Curtin many times before, meets detainees under a large tree inside the compound, but we’re informed that this isn’t possible today. No reason is given.
We enter the centre and walk near the perimeter fence. We come to a large metal gate, 4 metres high, and stand there silently in the soaring heat. The gate slowly opens to reveal a narrow no-man’s-land – 150 metres of earth bookended by fences. There’s an eerie silence in the compound. It’s mid-afternoon and it’s simply too hot for anyone to be outside at this time of the day.
We walk along dusty paths for five minutes, moving through locked gates that require authorisation via walkie-talkie to open. There are a few male asylum seekers behind a nearby fence, defying the heat, but we aren’t allowed to go near them. They wave and we reciprocate.
The banality of the process is dehumanising. This is no different to a high-security prison in a remote area where escape is close to impossible. The aim is clearly to make detainees feel isolated, cut off from the millions of Australians who have no idea, or who don’t care, about what is being done in their name.
We finally enter the holding area. The Serco guard accompanying us points out the TV and DVD player in the room and says to ‘use it if you like’. A DVD case for the Jackie Chan movie Rush Hour 3 sits on a low cabinet. Tea, coffee and hot water are available, and there are fridges with ‘Staff Only’ signs. The air-conditioning is so effective I start to feel a chill. The room is anodyne, resembling a claustrophobic airport holding cell.
While a few male Serco staff sit nearby, looking bored, a number of refugees from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan warmly welcome us. They are all men in their twenties and they include a few Hazara from Afghanistan who have recently achieved refugee status and shortly will be released into the Australian community. As Caroline and I start talking to them, I see a young Serco guard washing his hands with disinfectant – he had just shaken the hands of the detainees.
Two Tamil men, Agilan and Ajinth, both of whom speak good English, have been in detention for 19 months and 22 months, respectively. They both wear silver studs in their ears and one has a trendy haircut, with a partly shaved head. Agilan has some family in Germany, where his father lives, but a sister and his daughter remain in Colombo. Detention centre food soon comes up as an issue. Both men find the food very bland and they desperately want to be able to cook their own ingredients with spices, but it’s something they can only do covertly.
I ask Agilan and Ajinth about their treatment by Serco staff. Some are very kind, they say, while others tell them to go back to their home countries. They tell me that Serco has organized a cricket series with the Derby cricket team. Their outings include the old Derby jail, which we all think is strange because the men are already in detention. They also tell us that Serco staff learn swear words from refugees and curse each other in various languages.
We talk about the reasons they left Sri Lanka, mainly because Tamils still face widespread discrimination there, and why they can’t go back – they would face imprisonment, interrogation and possibly torture if they did. We also discuss the stultifying boredom of doing nothing day after day.
Caroline and I chat to the refugees for two hours, with Serco staff constantly looking at us. The detainees seemed to like the distraction of different company, and there was some flirty playfulness with Caroline. There are 1000 men in detention here and only a few female guards. In 2013, the federal government brought refugee children and families to Curtin into a section called ‘Alternative Place of Detention’. In a further Orwellian move in May 2013, the Federal Parliament legislated to remove the Australian mainland from its migration zone, meaning that any asylum seekers arriving on the mainland could be sent to offshore facilities in Nauru or Papua New Guinea.
In July 2013, the policy under the new but old Prime Minister Kevin Rudd worsened. No asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia would ever be allowed to settle there, instead being transferred directly to Papua New Guinea and indefinite detention in terrible conditions. British multinational G4S, already running Manus Island detention centre with daily reports of rape and abuse, would be licking their lips at the prospect of Australian plans to massively expand detention facilities.
When we leave the compound, the refugees come as far as they can with us, down to the locked gate, before taking a dusty road to their cabins while we backtrack to the detention centre entrance. As we walk slowly with our Serco guard, who looks about thirty, I ask about his life. He says he has a child in Perth and misses home. He’s on the six-weeks-on, three-weeks-off shift, living in Derby. ‘It’s good money’, he says, and admits that ‘this job is alright’, but he avoids sharing his views about the refugees.
We pass a small oval around which a few bearded men in tracksuit tops and shorts are running. The weather is cooler than when we arrived, but it’s still humid. On another small field alongside our path, twenty or so men play soccer. Without the high fences, guards and the desert, the scene could be taking place anywhere in suburban Australia.
As we prepare to leave, the magic sunset hour arrives and the sun drapes its last blistering light over the detention centre.