Australia’s forgotten detention centre: the peculiar torture of Christmas Island’s asylum seekers locked up with hardened criminals


Michael Gordon

File:Flag of Australia.svg

Amir never had a birth certificate, or a passport, or anything else that provided proof of who he was until he was released from immigration detention and passed the test for a probationary driver’s licence in an outer eastern suburb of Melbourne.

“He’d never had a document in his life, so it was a very big moment,” says Pamela Curr, an advocate who has been visiting asylum seekers in Melbourne detention centres since their numbers began to spiral back in 1999.

Soon after receiving the licence, Amir (not his real name) made a mistake. He was caught running a red light, 10kph above the speed limit, without the licence in his pocket. As well as losing the licence, he was fined $1200 he did not have at Ringwood Magistrates Court.

Christmas Island detention centre.
Christmas Island detention centre. 

Had he been an Australian resident, this would have been the end of it. He would have been given time to pay the fine and a salutary lesson. But Amir, an Iranian house painter who arrived on a boat in 2010, quickly found himself back in detention.

First he was held in Melbourne, then in Darwin and, for the past 11 months, he has been on Christmas Island, having fallen foul of a character test that is applied at the discretion of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.

Slated for closure at the end of next year, Christmas Island hosts Australia’s forgotten detention centre, a huge grey maze of concrete and steel, security doors and cameras, ringed by a an imposing new wire fence since a mentally disturbed refugee, Fazel Chegeni, escaped and died last November.

Fewer than 30 asylum seekers are held there, but they are sprinkled among a detainee population of about 200 that includes those Dutton has accurately dubbed “some of the country’s most hardened criminals”.

Iranian Kurd Fazel Chegeni, who died on Christmas Island.
Iranian Kurd Fazel Chegeni, who died on Christmas Island. Photo: Refugee Action Coalition

While debate about Australia’s border protection regime has focused on the plight of those in limbo on Manus Island and Nauru, the situation of many of those on Christmas Island is more troubling in two respects: the asylum seekers are terrified of their fellow detainees and this is happening on Australian soil.

So says Curr, who travelled the 5000 kilometres from Melbourne to Christmas Island last month with Sister Brigid Arthur, who has run the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project in Melbourne since 2001. “What we witnessed was a group of men utterly without hope, almost all of them broken human beings,” she tells Fairfax Media.

Pamela Curr and Sister Brigid Arthur.
Pamela Curr and Sister Brigid Arthur. Photo: Eddie Jim

The difference between those on Christmas Island and those on Manus and Nauru is that they reside in a high-security prison where three or four asylum seekers are placed in 50-person compounds with criminals who, they say, boast about the crimes they committed on the mainland, including armed robbery and rape.

“Some were shaking and clearly unwell, others were cowed and scared,” says Curr. “But they all had the same request: ‘Please get me out of here!'”

The riot at Christmas Island after the death of Fazel Chegeni.
The riot at Christmas Island after the death of Fazel Chegeni. Photo: Peter Dutton’s Office

Next week the Prime Minister will attend the United Nations general assembly’s refugee summit in New York, which has been billed as “a historic opportunity” to come up with a blueprint for a better international response to the world’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

The next day, Malcolm Turnbull will attend President Barack Obama’s leaders’ meeting on refugees, when heads of government are expected to announce their plans to increase their refugee intakes, commit more funding to international agencies and increase the self-reliance of refugees.

Just what Australia will offer is still to be revealed, but Turnbull’s message will be emphatic: that strong border protection policies are essential if countries are to increase their humanitarian intakes and maintain public support for their programs.

“I’m not going to foreshadow what we’ll be saying there, but I think the Australian experience is one that a lot of other countries are very interested in,” the Prime Minister told Fairfax Media this week.

Problem is, there is a dark side to that experience and two key United Nations agencies, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Human Rights Council, have regularly drawn attention to it.

It was highlighted this week in two substantial reports urging the government to move from a policy with a singular focus on deterring boat arrivals. One, produced by Save the Children and UNICEF, revealed the cost of the policy had been $9.6 billion since 2013 – a figure higher than the UNHCR’s total global budget for programs this year.

The UNHCR’s regional representative, Thomas Albrecht, recently told a visiting delegation of Danish MPs that after 30 years of working with refugees he expected nothing could shock him, yet on Nauru he saw greater hopelessness than anywhere else.

The message from Curr and Sister Brigid after their Christmas Island visit is that the existence of the asylum seekers there is similarly defined by loneliness, despair and fear – and a denial of basic human rights.

Why did they go there? “We knew that people were being ferreted out there, that it’s a secret place where you can’t make contact with people easily,” Curr says. “We were concerned about what was being done to these people.”

The $7000 cost of the trip was split between the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, where Curr is the detention advocate, and the Brigidine Congregation, a Catholic order focusing on education that Sister Brigid, 81, joined more than half a century ago.

They were given permission to visit 14 men, some known to them from their detention experience in Melbourne, and others who asked to see them when they became aware of the visit. By the end of their eight-day stay, they had interviewed 25.

“It was like a fruit salad of the detention population,” recalls Curr. “Some who came by plane; most by boat; some who have had their refugee claims rejected, but can’t be returned to their country; some midway through having their claims assessed; at least two who are stateless.”

Each morning they would arrive at the centre, pass through a security system that involved seven sets of doors, and interview the asylum seekers who were escorted individually to the reception area in one-hour blocks. They could not record interviews or take in their own notebook and had to rely on single sheets of paper to take notes.

They make for an odd couple: Curr, tall, fiesty and occasionally combative; Sister Brigid, diminutive and softly spoken, but every bit as passionate.

“Each afternoon, we drove home shattered,” says Curr, 67. “It’s hard to stare into the face of misery and be so powerless to do anything about it.”

One asylum seeker told them he had not had a visitor in two years. Another said he was too frightened to leave his room. One who left the biggest impression carried the scars of torture and presented as “a totally beaten, helpless human being”.

What emerged was a snapshot of a Kafkaesque world where rules change frequently and govern every aspect of life; transgressions are dealt with harshly; and the asylum seekers live in fear of those detainees who are hardened criminals and of some of the guards, who work 12-hour shifts, six days a week that would test the patience of any human being.

“Most of them described constant fear of being attacked by the ‘501s’ (Australian residents without citizenship whose visas are cancelled by the minister after being charged or convicted of serious offences or linked to outlaw motorcycle gangs),” says Curr.

“They said the 501s call them ‘boaties’ and blamed them for their transfer to Christmas island because the detention centre was originally built only for asylum seekers.”

Like the 501s, the guards are a mixed bag. “Some Serco officers will give you a hug if they are in a good mood,” one of the asylum seekers reported. “And if they are in a bad mood … Oh my God!”

Dutton said this week that he had cancelled more visas on character grounds than any previous minister, including 24 for murder and 63 for rape – “and the community is a safer place as a result”.

But Curr and Sister Brigid said the detainees they interviewed had been charged with minor offences or had not been charged with any offence at all and had no inkling why they were forcibly transferred to the island.

Refugee Legal’s David Manne tells the story of an Iraqi who worked as an interpreter for Australian soldiers after the US-led invasion.

“He was in Sydney when he was charged with using offensive language, resisting arrest and driving without a licence. The two serious charges were dropped and no conviction was recorded on the driving offence, but his bridging visa was cancelled and he was sent to Christmas Island.

“Here was someone who had suffered trauma and torture and had a strong claim for refugee protection, but he gave up and went back to danger [to Iraq] before being able to receive legal assistance.”

Sarah Dale, senior solicitor at the Sydney-based Refugee Advice & Casework Service who has been to Christmas Island several times, says one of the biggest hurdles for lawyers is being unable to call their clients directly and to have to make appointments and share documentation with the security provider and the immigration department.

“That denies clients confidentiality, which is a fundamental legal right.”

Being in detention also means many of those who have been charged with offences, some serious, some minor, either miss court hearings or appear by video link, denying them the opportunity to fully engage with the process.

“We are aware of many people whose cases were dismissed and they were still detained for many, many months or even years,” says Dale.

Manne goes further. “The real risk is serious miscarriages of justice, which result in people being left in legal limbo and indefinite incarceration. None of us is safe when fundamental liberties are denied.”

Then there is the sheer remoteness of the island and cost of getting there, which means detainees are separated from family, friends and others capable of providing support. A report from the Commonwealth Ombudsman late last year highlighted the case of a man with a history of trauma and torture who had spent more than 900 days in detention.

A visiting psychologist had reported eight months earlier that the man was suffering chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression to the extent that he had lost all hope and had suicidal thoughts.

Reminding the government of its duty of care to immigration detainees and the serious risk to mental and physical health posed by prolonged and indefinite detention, the ombudsman recommended the man be transferred to the mainland and released from detention or transferred to a facility near his family. At the time of going to press Fairfax Media is still waiting for an update on the man’s fate.

Curr and Sister Brigid says they were able to identify several men who had fallen through the cracks and needed legal representation, including Amir. But they left the island feeling ashamed.

“We leave with a feeling almost of being new accomplices in a horrendous misappropriation of justice,” Sister Brigid wrote. “We are also deserting these men.”

Amir, meanwhile, has his own way of measuring his time in Australia’s detention network. “Five prime minister come and go,” he told his visitors. “Amir is still here.”

Source : The Canberra Times

Deixe um comentário

Preencha os seus dados abaixo ou clique em um ícone para log in:

Logo do

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Sair /  Alterar )

Foto do Facebook

Você está comentando utilizando sua conta Facebook. Sair /  Alterar )

Conectando a %s

Este site utiliza o Akismet para reduzir spam. Saiba como seus dados em comentários são processados.