Abuse at refugee centre

Thirty activists from the Perth-based Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) visited the remote mining town of Leonora in late January to protest against the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and to provide solidarity to those detained there.

The centre is run by the giant multinational corporation Serco, which specialises in providing just about any service that has been privatised by governments - from railways, military operations and prisons to leisure centres, web sites and payroll services. The Guardian has called Serco “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of”. It employs more then 48,000 people worldwide.

The trip took place on January 21-23, only days before 350 men, mostly Hazara, took part in a hunger strike at the Curtin detention centre. These Hazara are from Afghanistan, where they face persecution from the Taliban because of their ethnicity and religion. Many have also been displaced by the US occupation of their country. They are being told that war-torn Afghanistan is safe to return to. The Australian government has signed a deal with the puppet government there to return hundreds of refugees. This is what sparked the protest, which initially involved the entire camp.

A message from the detainees at Curtin stated: “Last week only three people got a decision [on their requests for asylum], all of them ‘No’… Now the Australian government is sending us back to that country. It is like signing an agreement with our enemy. Is that humanity? We want freedom or death, protection not detention.”

Two men tried to kill themselves during the protest. Some of the detainees were hospitalised after becoming unconscious. The hunger strike ended when the government agreed to send officials to talk to the refugees. A spokesperson for Serco told the detainees that their actions would not help their asylum claims.

This added fervour to the protest at Leonora, where Serco displayed the same intimidating attitude. Detainees met some of the RRAN activists, despite being told by guards it would hinder their visa process. Guards were present during the visits, but the activists were still able to smuggle out letters written by the detainees. One described in broken English the breakdown of mental health inside the centre and how painful it was to be held there. The letter stated that detainees who have been held for more than 10 months are now facing deportation to Afghanistan. It concluded pleading for help. The activists also received other letters written in Farsi that have yet to be fully translated. Among other things, the letters complain that basic medical attention is not being provided.

The RRAN visited the centre in August and were informed that several staff and medical workers had complained to the Serco manager about the behaviour of a particular guard towards detainees and fellow staff. The RRAN witnessed guards yelling at refugees, denying toys to children and intimidating detainees, who revealed that bullying, aggression and intimidation by the guards were systemic. The threat of not being able to obtain a visa constantly hangs over the heads of refugees and is re-enforced by the bullying of the guards.

The previous immigration minister, Chris Evans, was made aware of the situation in the detention centre, but refused to take any action. The allegations against the guard in question include bullying, yelling at parents in front of their children, mocking mentally ill or suicidal detainees by calling them “nutters”, commenting on the breast size of female detainees, sexually harassing a female colleague, mocking detainees and dishing out arbitrary punishments. There have been many instances of self-harm in the detention centre, even from children.

The RRAN has called for a full investigation of the allegations against this employee, suspension of his pay and his immediate removal from vulnerable detainees in this remote centre. It has also demanded a public explanation of how complaints by professional medical and mental health workers regarding the guard’s behaviour could be ignored.

Leonora detention centre holds many torture and trauma survivors, often with shrapnel still embedded in their bodies. A woman in one of the letters received told a harrowing story of her husband being killed by the Iranian government. She was forced to flee Iran, leaving her four children behind - only now to face indefinite detention in Australia. In the letter, she stated she was in extreme emotional and psychological pain.

Another trip by RRAN activists, this time to the Curtin detention centre, is planned for April. If you are interested in participating, please contact RRAN on 0417 904 329 for more information.