[ 19. Mar 2011 ]

Detention Uprising

R.I.S.E - Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees

Ramesh Fernandez a former immigration detainee gives his view of the Detention Centre protests via the R.I.S.E. website.


On Thursday 11 March 2011, after waiting many months for a decision regarding their visas, several asylum seekers received rejection letters from DIAC. In the early hours of the next day, between 50 and 150 asylum seekers broke through iron gates and escaped the Christmas Island detention centre. Though the SERCO guards immediately tried to catch the escaped detainees, they were largely unsuccessful.

I learnt of the escape at 1am on Friday morning. Initially I was very worried and terrified because, having been a detainee at Christmas Island myself, I knew there was no place to hide on the Island, nor any ways to escape the Island, since it is in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Christmas Island, north of mainland Australia, is surrounded by deep water. I also became very wary of how Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott will portray the escape. I was angry at the idea of them giving media interviews in which they politicise, for their own benefit, a topic which should only be dealt with humanely. I was dismayed by the reluctance of the Australian media to cover our police using force, rubber bullets, and bean bags on asylum seekers.

I recall the events of one early morning in 2003, while I was detained at the Baxter Detention Centre. Around 7 am, I was dragged out of my room and handcuffed, and kept outside for several hours. When the guards took me, I was naked, but they didn't bother to help me, or let me, put my clothes on. The whole event was filmed by GSL guards, even the part of me redressing. There were many occasions where guards used capsicum spray on us and where detainees were denied proper medical care. I remember times we were fed expired food, and sometimes not even given enough water. Because of these experiences I endured in detention, I understand why people would protest or try to escape from those hellholes. This awful treatment meted out to detainees still continues.

The current state of Australia's detention centres is appalling. They are overcrowded, sanitary conditions are poor, and some SERCO guards are very rough with the detainees. Furthermore, given the long wait that asylum seekers have to wait for their refugee status determinations and security clearances, the detention centre "vibe" is one of great angst, frustration, depression, and fear.

The escape of detainees has to be viewed with consideration of these problems. However, instead of addressing the underlying and important concerns, the Gillard government sends troops to Christmas Island to forcibly put an end to asylum seeker resistance: to stifle protest and return the asylum seekers back to the detention centre from which they escaped. And while Australia's troops use tear gas and bean bag guns on asylum seekers, the Gillard government continues to ignore the massive human crisis occurring within the detention centres and, in doing so, fails to implement policy that will effectively resolve these issues.

Rather than using coercive power to silence detainee dissent, the Gillard government should address the legitimate concerns raised by detainees during their acts of protest and resistance. For example, one concern that has been raised by detainees multiple times is the amount of time that ASIO takes to determine security assessments and also ASIO's lack of transparency in making these assessments. After being granted refugee status by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), many refugees have to wait for over a year ASIO to complete their security assessments.

After waiting for many months behind barbed wire, the negative decisions (from DIAC and/or ASIO) are terrible responses for those dying for freedom. Many of these asylum seekers have immediate family members relaying on them to reach a safe environment. And while these family members wait, they are threatened, tortured, kept in refugee camps, sometimes even murdered. While rhetoric about children in detention within Australia is given media attention, the fact that many asylum seekers have young children in other countries waiting for freedom as well is ignored.

Asylum seekers inside Australia's detention centres are oppressed. The vast majority of those in detention arrived in Australia by boat. People only flee their homes and take the dangerous sea journey to Australia to escape horrific situations. It is a desperate measure caused by desperate situations. For the crime of fleeing persecution, they have to spend years of their lives behind bars and in solitary confinement. The fundamental rights of refugees, defined through the UN Refugee Convention are not respected inside detention centres. In this context, I am not surprised that asylum seekers are trying to escape. It is understandable, given the conditions within detention centres, how long cases take to be decided, and the amount of negative decisions.

Under the United Nations Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, we have a responsibility towards those who seek protection on our shores, irrespective of how they arrive or what papers they arrive with. And while the Australian government has shirked off the responsibilities of running detention centres onto private companies, they still have the responsibility to ensure that asylum seekers are treated humanely. Detention centres are not humane. They are often squalid and exacerbate mental trauma. Australia also needs to implement a fairer visa processing system - one where people are not kept in limbo for years and one which will not return people to danger.

Source: RISE Exclusive Media, 19, Mar 2011, ::