I arrive through the entry of the military barracks in the brisk evening air. At the entrance, there are the familiar features of security, high-wired fencing, and a checkpoint building. During protests here, this entry is heavily guarded. This is the Broadmeadows detention centre otherwise known as Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA).
Inside the barracks is a detention centre that is eerie in the dark. To one side there are gloomy looking school-like portables, crammed into the space, and to other an ordinary looking reception building. The reception area appears typical enough. I fill out a long form, agree to a list of conditions, and present identification.
Serco—the shadowy multinational company that profits from the ballooning $2.5 billion worth of contracts for detention in Australia each year—branding repeats throughout the small room. I glance at Serco’s governing principles attached to the wall and see “entrepreneurial” juxtaposed with building “trust and respect”.
I cannot hide my disgust that this company makes millions locking refugees up in detention. Serco is one of many corporations that have a direct interest in maintaining their profitability through this regime. In the last three years, government money spent maintaining these borders and prisons has expanded about three and a half times to a projected $3.5 billion in 2013-14, up from $1 billion in 2010- 11—an increase announced around the same amount as the higher education cuts.
I am given green wristbands before entering the visitor’s room. Two doors separate the reception area from the visitors room, which I find surprisingly minimal given authorities deem these refugees ‘security risks’.
In April, 27 refugees went on hunger strike there for almost two weeks. They initially took the most desperate form, a dry hunger strike meaning they were not drinking any water.They were protesting their state, stuck in a legal loophole. Australian authorities have assessed the 52 as genuine refugees but ASIO has designated them ‘security risks’ in an opaque process beyond review.
They slept out in cold nights and rain, a remarkable feat of determination. Many were hospitalised and they eventually stopped their hunger strike after a visit from a government representative. Unfortunately, nothing came out of this visit.
I enter the large room, a familiar lobby type arrangement, with small kitchen facilities, chairs and tables. I notice the strange presence of vending machines, and now understand why money is banned from being brought in—to ensure the internal reward system is supreme.
The refugees are extremely friendly and greet us with open hands.
In contrast I am unsure of what I should do or say. Children run around, playing and causing a kerfuffle. Some children are very young. One young baby was born in Australian detention.
I have conversations. I ask questions, but try not to ask too much. One of the most striking things I learn about is the “points system”, where refugees are rewarded for good behaviour. The system’s rewards are minimal and have not kept up with inflation.
Despite only visiting for around an hour, I find it hard not to think about the unbearable monotony of the experience. People locked up indefinitely, in a prison, enduring the gruelling wait for your expected freedom from waiting.
The UN human rights committee condemned this indefinite detention of refugees as amounting to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in violation of International law, demanding their immediate release.
Many of the refugees are from places Australia has militarily invaded, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have been to multiple detention centres in Australia.
Mainstream media often portrays refugees as threatening because they are largely non-white. With massive social movements in Australia in the late 60s and 1970s the formal white Australia policy was gradually dismantled.
The basis for the current regime of mandatory detention was introduced from 1989-1992 by the ALP Hawke-Keating Government and is amongst the worst in the world. The alternative is allowing asylum seekers to live in the community while providing them adequate support (that does not exist currently), which according to the UNHCR costs about 90% less than mandatory detention. All of the border systems around the world have problems, but overwhelmingly other countries allow asylum seekers to live in the community compared to Australia.
Global crises spiked the number of new refugees worldwide in 2012 to the highest levels since the 90s. 23,000 people were displaced worldwide each day last year, close to the number of asylum seekers who have arrived since the ‘no advantage’ policy was introduced in August 2012. Under that cruel policy, no asylum seeker’s claims for refugee status has been processed.
The PNG ‘solution’ is one grounded in state terrorism. It’s about trying to come up with a regime that is more terrorising than what asylum seekers are fleeing. It’s about demonising the ‘Other’ and distracting people from a government that has made the biggest spending cutbacks in 42 years.
One person I meet has been locked up for almost 4 years. Known as Sasi, his story appeared in The Age in July with a damning article exposing the lack of evidence for his detention.
The review of his case admitted ASIO had lost evidence and otherwise relied on unsigned translations—these would be dismissed in a courtroom. Sasi is one of 52 refugees in detention who are in the legal black hole of indefinite detention.
In an open letter to Australians, Sasi describes his detention as “an endless road to freedom”. That’s one evocative way to describe the creepy despair in the air of the large modern visitor’s room.
What lingers beyond the authorised visiting space includes the ‘Psych ward’. The dispensing of drugs is a key in maintaining discipline in the detention centre as well as attempting to avoid suicides.
The centre here imprisons a couple hundred refugees. There are over 11,000 asylum seekers locked up in Australian detention centres, including around 2,000 children (related to the Government’s tightening of family reunions for refugees in Australia). There are also around the same number of asylum seekers released into the community living on bridging visa poverty, forced to survive on 89% of the pathetic dole payment, and denied the right to work.
MITA is known as the ‘nicest’ detention centre in Australia and I leave thinking these policies have to be destroyed. For that to happen those who are angry have to get active in a diverse social movement for a world beyond borders.
And what would this movement look like?
The movement was grounded in a diversity of tactics, in solidarity with resistance inside engaged in direct actions including stopping deportations, facilitating escapes from detention centres and travelling on a freedom flotilla to Nauru, but also just more face-face discussion about Australia’s history. It is a movement that we’ve seen glimpses of in the past few months and in more recent years.
Challenges to borders meant there was enough grassroots pressure on Howard that his backbench revolted when he tried to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone, which has since been achieved by the Gillard- Rudd government.
Recently, as part of the Beyond Borders Collective I was part of occupying the Melbourne headquarters of G4S, the multinational corporation profiting from the new internment camps in PNG. We held something of a party, with noisemakers, streamers, chants and instruments, as G4S head honchos rubbed information off their whiteboards.
Any movements faces real obstacles. Government support for racist policy towards non-white people is the norm in Australian history. It’s up to ordinary people to collectively tear down Australia’s racist barbed-wired borders. Resistance is already grinding the fences, from little holes, big holes grow.
Students have recently set up a food bank in Wholefoods for the only refugee run organisation RISE as an act of solidarity not charity for asylum seekers living in the community. The Monash Refugee Action Collective (MRAC) also regularly campaigns on campus for refugee rights. Outside of campus there is the central Refugee Action Collective (RAC) and the new Beyond Borders Collective. Otherwise, organise your own autonomous actions.