[This is an edited text of the speech by RAC activist Nicole Mousley to the April 2 Broadmeadows rally.]
I’ve been visiting this detention centre twice a week for over four months and helping to organise a visiting program for members of the public to come and meet these young asylum seekers and refugees. Although I will never truly know what it is like to have the same experiences, I have gained a pretty good understanding of the issues these young people have faced in their home countries, the treacherous journey by boat and their daily life inside this prison.
These young refugees have fled war and persecution, and have then had to negotiate a long and dangerous journey to reach our shores to seek asylum. Despite what the government and commercial media would have you believe, that is not illegal. It is accepted under the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory, that people will flee persecution any way they can, and this sometimes means crossing borders of more than one country, without identity documents. It is also not a requirement of the Migration Act to lock up all irregular maritime arrivals. In doing this to children and unaccompanied minors, the Australian government is also not fulfilling its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In January, Australia appeared before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to face a periodic review, at which the Australian representatives told the barefaced lie that detention of children and unaccompanied minors is a policy of last resort. There are more than 1000 children and unaccompanied minors locked up in detention centres around the country. It’s a disgrace.
This so-called policy of last resort is destroying the mental health of these young people, and all asylum seekers and refugees. Whether they’re 7, 17 or 27, mandatory detention is unacceptable. It is crushing already vulnerable people who have committed no crime. There is currently no set maximum time an asylum seeker can spend in detention. Even criminals in prison have a parole or release date they can look forward to.
The trauma of war and persecution, witnessing and experiencing horrific events like rape, torture and the murder of loved ones, thinking they were going to die in the sea, not knowing the whereabouts or the welfare of surviving family members and friends is more than any normal person can handle. Our government takes these vulnerable people and re-traumatises them through indefinite detention.
They are made to recount events beginning from their very early childhood through to the present by the Australian Federal Police, case managers and lawyers, over and over again, being questioned in a way that assumes they are guilty or are fabricating their stories. Their wrists are X-rayed as a way of verifying their age. They are not given one dedicated lawyer to handle their case, but several, depending on who is working the day that their case is given brief attention. Many I have spoken to do not know their rights; they are afraid, confused and completely disempowered. There doesn’t seem to be any order in the process. Some of the guys in this centre have been in detention for more than 12 months but they have watched the odd asylum seeker come from Christmas Island and be released within a month.
The majority of young asylum seekers and refugees in this centre suffer from depression, and two-thirds to three-fourths are on anti-depressants. Some self-harm and have thoughts of suicide. Most are completely despondent, having lost all hope for their future.
Many aspects of their lives in detention torment them. I have heard many stories of cruel Serco staff taunting and teasing them. Recently three young guys jumped the fence in a desperate act to report their treatment to the local police. They misguidedly thought that the police would have to help them once they’d told them how they’re being treated. A few days later, another young refugee spent the day in a tree in a very poor mental state and a Serco officer taunted him to jump.
Many of these young people have told me that they no longer attend excursions because the way that they are treated by Serco staff outside the centre is humiliating and causes the local community to look at them in fear. To keep these young people locked up in this prison and treat them with such indignity and contempt is utterly cruel. Our government and the commercial media should be ashamed of the way they treat and portray asylum seekers and refugees.
The government has promised to have “most” children out of detention by June. Only a very small number have been released to community detention, and an equally insignificant number have been granted full refugee status and released altogether. Due to lengthy periods in detention, some of the guys have turned or are about to turn 18. A few have already been sent to Maribyrnong, a high security facility for adults. 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.
We need you to get involved in the refugee rights campaign, sign the petition, tell as many people as you can about this centre and the issues that face asylum seekers and refugees. Come and visit the young guys inside this centre, join the Refugee Action Collective and help us organise future actions. Visit our website for details. We can’t just sit by and let this inhumane, unjust, damaging system continue. How many more asylum seekers must die in detention before the government does what’s right?