What Australia is doing to refugees in the middle of the steamy desert

My following investigation appeared in Crikey this week:

The drive from Broome in Western Australia to Derby, the town closest to the remote Curtin detention centre in the Kimberley, is two-and-a-half hours through endless, surprisingly green desert. Mobile phone reception soon dies after the journey begins and from there you see few people or cars for as far as the eye can see.

The roadhouse at Willare, a red, dusty stop close to Derby, has a BBQ, swimming pool and little else. There is overpriced water and food sitting in a bain-marie that looks like it has survived the apocalypse. This is where many Serco staff stay while working at the Curtin detention centre around an hour away”‰—”‰but there is little for them to do except drink and sleep between 12-hour shifts.

Derby has a population of around 3000 people. It is a depressing place, with temperatures close to 35 degrees and Aboriginal men and women catatonic and drunk at all hours of the day lying in parks. There is an indigenous suicide every fortnight in the town. I spent time with an Aboriginal man, living in an abandoned and dirty house on the outskirts of Derby, who told me through alcohol breath that he wasn’t aware refugees were imprisoned down the road but “I don’t like that they’re locked up”.

I recently stayed in the town for four days to visit detainees in Curtin and investigate the role of Serco and the Immigration Department in maintaining mandatory detention. Very few people visit Curtin due to its isolation so the detainees were pleased to see a friendly face and hear news from the outside world.

The federal government’s latest softening of long-term detention should alleviate some of this suffering though the relationship between DIAC and Serco will continue.

Curtin is situated inside an Australian Airforce Base, around 30 minutes drive from Derby, and can only be accessed by prior arrangement with Serco. Each day that I visited the heat reached 40 degrees and the humidity caused everybody to scurry under fans or air-conditioners. The former African refugee who manned the checkpoint into the centre”‰—”‰he worked for MSS, sub-contracted by Serco, and wore khaki shorts, shirt and felt khaki hat”‰—”‰checked our IDs, used a walkie-talkie to call his Serco superiors inside and soon waved us through.

Around 900 men are currently housed at Curtin and there are signs of the mental trauma many doctors and former detainees warned would occur if the Labor government re-opened under Serco management (as interviewees predicted to me in Crikey in May last year).

A recent report about Curtin released by Curtin University… human rights academics Caroline Fleay and Linda Briskman, The Hidden Men, details countless examples of asylum seeker suffering mental trauma due to mandatory detention, contractor IHMS not providing adequate medical care and CCTV cameras recording counselling sessions, violating asylum seeker privacy.

The overwhelming sense of futility and bureaucratic ineptitude permeates Curtin. The Serco contract with the Australian government”‰—”‰recently revealed with colleague Paul Farrell in New Matilda”‰ —”‰explained the lack of training required by Serco staff. The profit motive of Serco ensures that the barest minimum of training is given to prospective workers. The company was fined nearly $15 million this month for failing to properly care for asylum seekers.

I saw evidence of this constantly during my time in Curtin. I had requested to visit, with plenty of notice, a number of detainees from a range of countries, including Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Many have received refugee status by the Australian government but are waiting indefinitely for security clearance from ASIO (a process without transparency or appeal).

One afternoon a Serco employee advised me that it would be possible to see more requested asylum seekers the next day but by morning, speaking to a different Serco staff, I was informed that it was impossible due to “security” reasons. “You should have given us more warning and it could have been arranged,” the manager said. Such stories are legendary, especially in remote centres, and often DIAC and Serco seemingly aim to refuse visitor requests to deliberately upset the isolated detainees. Such refusals, in such a remote location that sees barely any new or familiar faces, are against Serco and DIAC rules.

Curtin is a wind-swept centre with electrified fences and red dirt that seeps into your eyes, ears and shoes. Expansion plans appear imminent, with empty spaces for more compounds on the way. During the heat of the day, it’s virtually impossible to see anybody outside but by late afternoon, as the sun is setting and a cooler breeze hits the dirt, men start playing football and running around a make-shift, dirt mini-oval.

I was told throughout my visit that Serco staff were too busy to find other requested detainees in the various compounds and yet I saw Serco employees sitting around strumming a guitar and sitting in a large air-conditioned mess room, watching quietly with the asylum seekers while I spoke to them for hours daily.

Occasional excursions outside the centre take the asylum seekers to Derby but one Tamil told me that he found it grimly amusing that a proposed location was the Derby jail, hardly an appropriate place for people who are already in jail.

Most of the Serco staff are fly in, fly out”‰—”‰though as one local told me, “fit in or f-ck pff”, such is the feeling towards those who contribute little to the community and force prices up”‰—”‰and the attitude to asylum seekers is very mixed. One man, Brian, said that he had worked in Curtin during the Howard years, lived in Perth and now came to Curtin for short stints of well-paid work. As he walked me to a compound on the far side of the centre to see the asylum seekers, dubbed the “Sandpit”, he told me that: “We treat them better than many people on the outside. We feed them and give them lawyers. It’s us, the staff, who have it tough, having to sometimes be abused and assaulted by the ”˜clients’.” This attitude was pervasive inside Curtin.

I spent time with two Tamil asylum seekers, both in their 20s, both proficient in English and both remarkably aware of Australian culture and history. When they arrived on Christmas Island, volunteers taught them about the White Australia policy, Ned Kelly, multiculturalism, Australia Day, the Stolen Generations and the Kevin Rudd apology to indigenous people. One had even seen and loved the Rolf De Heer film set in Arnhem Land, 10 Canoes, while still in Colombo.

Both men told me that every day somebody inside detention tried to self-harm or kill themselves and the mental state of many friends was troubling. They were given no time-line for final decisions on security clearances though in the last few days had both just received bridging visas.

Boredom was an enemy that was fought by going to the gym, downloading movies from the internet or calling home, though this was one of the major factors, one Tamil said, for men to break down because families simply couldn’t understand why their sons and husbands seeking asylum were locked up for endless months.

*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist currently working on a book about disaster capitalism

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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