Evidence from the horse’s mouth; Australian immigration loves to punish most vulnerable

Late last year I visited Christmas Island and Curtin detention centre in the Kimberley to investigate the role of British multinational Serco in controlling and managing asylum seekers. The picture was grim; isolation and long spells inside maximum security prisons are how we treat refugees fleeing persecution.

This front page today in today’s Australian newspaper confirms that both Canberra and Serco are simply incapable of humanely handling the relatively small numbers of people arriving here on our shores. Punishment is all they know:

The Immigration Department and its contractor, Serco, are stepping up a system of reward, incentive and punishment as they seek ways to manage a fractious detainee population that has grown by more than 2300 since the collapse of Julia Gillard’s Malaysia Solution in August.

Detainees deemed low-risk are being allowed to leave the scorching heat of Curtin in Western Australia’s far north for the low-security and temperate detention centre near Hobart, while “troublesome” asylum-seekers on the mainland are increasingly being flown to Christmas Island to be locked down in cells and isolated from other detainees.

Remodelling at the Christmas Island’s main detention centre is increasing the number of high-security cells from seven to more than 50. The Immigration Department is converting twin accommodation blocks, known as White 1 and 2, into a fully caged compound for detainees charged with offences or considered violent or likely to harm themselves.

The block has a capacity of 236 but The Australian has been told it will hold far fewer in its role as a behaviour management unit. The centre’s Red Block remains the most punitive of any compound in the immigration detention network, with seven cells monitored 24-hours a day by closed circuit TV.

Last night, an Immigration Department spokeswoman acknowledged the changes at Christmas Island were intended to manage poor behaviour.

“The immigration detention network needs to provide a range of accommodation options for detainee clients, from very secure to a more relaxed and open-planned environment,” the spokeswoman said.

“Some of the accommodation at Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre has been changed to provide a more secure and supportive environment for detainee clients whose behaviour has deteriorated to such a point where it threatens the safety of others and themselves.”

The detainee population at Curtin, the nation’s largest detention centre, has been scaled back by more than 200 to less than 1000 amid concerns that extreme heat and crowding could increase the chances of a repeat of the hunger strikes and protests of early last year.

Serco, the company managing Australia’s immigration detention centres, has introduced community activities and volunteer work for detainees to try to keep Curtin calm.

Low-risk detainees are now regularly taken on excursions to the town of Derby, 50km from the centre. Since June, they have played cricket against Derby residents at the town’s sports oval, put on an art exhibition at a local cafe, landscaped the town’s retirement village and taught sewing to Aborigines at the local women’s centre. A soccer/cricket pitch for detainees is almost complete at Curtin.

Derby has experienced highs of up to 42.8C in the past fortnight, while Hobart’s temperature has peaked at 25.5C.

Curtin detainee Amir Rafiee told The Australian excursions and games did nothing to ease his angst after 11 months in detention.

“We are not children in here, you know someone you just give candy and make us quiet and happy,” he said.

“When you are locked up with no answers, your problems do not go away when you get taken on a bus ride or to the swimming pool.”

The introduction of bridging visas in November gave many detainees hope they would be allowed to live in the community while their claims were being assessed, Mr Rafiee said. But instead there was stress for those left behind each time someone left the centre on a bridging visa.

So far, 107 people have been let out of detention on bridging visas, many from Curtin.