Teenage refugees driven to desperation

More than 140 unaccompanied minors from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are currently crowded into a centre originally built to house 40-50 asylum seekers, the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre (MITA), located in the suburb of Broadmeadows.

Thanks to the addition of another compound consisting of demountables (the same style of “temporary” accommodation found on Christmas Island), the government has been able to squeeze in another 100 young male detainees. Rooms in the original brick building measure 4.3m x 3m and are shared by four asylum seekers or refugees. Rooms in the back compound measure 3.10m x 2.25m and are shared by two people. The demountables have small windows quite high up, so there is no view for anyone inhabiting these containers.

The style of accommodation in the back compound and the name of the centre itself suggest that the young refugees’ stay here will be temporary, but in fact it is quite the opposite. Many of them have been in this centre for over four months, and several have spent a total of 12 months in up to three different detention centres around the country. After such lengthy periods in detention, suffering traumatic events back home and the treacherous journey by sea, worrying about the welfare of their families and faced with great uncertainty as to whether they will be released or face deportation, the mental health of many of these teenagers has deteriorated.

Seeking help

On March 15, three young Hazaras climbed the fence and made their way to the Broadmeadows police station. The commercial media reported that they had escaped but later turned themselves in to police. When I visited the centre the following night, one of these young refugees explained that they were so desperate for help that they decided to go to the police to report what was happening to them in detention, mistakenly thinking the police would help them and they would not have to return to indefinite detention.

This young man also recounted a recent situation in which he broke down and cried when speaking to his case manager; later a Serco staff member teased him about crying in front of his friends. The stories of humiliation are many. A number of young refugees no longer go on excursions or participate in activities outside the centre because they find their treatment by the Serco guards in public to be belittling and embarrassing, also causing members of the public to stare and look afraid that these youths might be dangerous.

A few days later, another incident occurred at the centre, involving an Iraqi who was recognised as a genuine refugee three months ago and who has been waiting for his security clearance to come through from ASIO (not an uncommon waiting period for security clearances). The previous week his case manager had called him to discuss where he would like to be settled when released and whether he had any family or friends he could stay with. But then, a few days later, he was told that the Department of Immigration was withdrawing his refugee status.

This young refugee was distraught and confused, and his mental state deteriorated rapidly; his friends advised me that he wanted to end his life. Two days after he’d been told this news, he climbed a tree and stayed there for most of the day . This was clearly a cry for help, but the commercial media reported the incident as yet another protest by a misbehaving refugee. When I spoke to him two days after the incident, he confirmed that during that day Serco staff taunted him. When he eventually came down from the tree, no one offered him any assistance and he was allowed to go back to his room unsupervised. Given the suicide of a young man in the Scherger detention centre in north Queensland the night before, one would think that Serco staff would be extremely cautious to monitor anyone who appeared to be in a distressed mental state. Instead, these incidents show that the misconduct of Serco staff is worsening the already fragile mental state of these young people.

Tangled in bureaucracy

When asked if he had received a negative security assessment from ASIO, the young refugee was not sure. He said that he had contacted his lawyer as soon as he was told that he was no longer recognised as a refugee, only to be told that the lawyer was no longer representing him. On contacting this lawyer, I was informed that the law firm, not individual lawyers, is contracted to assist asylum seekers, so different lawyers will see the same detainee, depending on who is working on the day that a case is given attention. There seems to be no continuity or order in the process, and it is really confusing for young refugees.

Because case managers and lawyers are constantly changing, the detainees are forced to retell their stories and start the process all over again. During interviews they are expected to recount every detail of their life from the beginning as a small child and are asked the same questions over and over again, rephrased in order to catch them in a lie. They are treated as if guilty of some crime. It is no wonder they resort to desperate acts when treated with such indignity and contempt.

Any acting out by detainees is punished as troublemaking when it is actually a sign of frustration, depression and anger at their unjust, inhumane treatment. Mental illness is not properly recognised. Many detainees, after several months in detention, are put on anti-depressants. Many have broken hands from punching walls and windows or cuts on their arms from self harm, and many have regular thoughts of suicide. One young asylum seeker, having been in detention for a year, became frustrated and angry during a meeting with his case manager and smashed a couple of windows with a chair. His psychologist later told him that he should apologise to his case manager. He has since been told that he will not be considered for community detention because he has broken the rules.

Government evasions

The Gillard government has promised that “most” children will be out of detention by June. Some of the young refugees in detention have recently turned, or are on the verge of turning, 18, and there is a real concern that they will be moved to adult, maximum security facilities. This has already happened in recent weeks, two young refugees being transferred just weeks after their 18th birthdays from MITA to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre.

Young refugees turning 18 allows the government to evade the responsibility to have them out of detention by June because they are no longer considered minors. In the four months I have been visiting MITA I have seen only around 15 unaccompanied minors go into community detention and a similarly insignificant number being granted refugee status and transferred to various states to live in share houses. The government has just three months to do the same for 140 other young refugees in MITA and more than 1000 others in detention centres around the country. I fail to see how it will keep its promise.