Australia’s complicity in detention centre violence

By Asher Hirsch

This article is a part of our September focus on Violence – you can access more content from this issue here

By Asher Hirsch

A refugee journey is often filled with violence. By definition, someone found to be a refugee has had to flee persecution – often some of the most horrid forms of torture, war, rape and death threats. However, the experiences of violence don’t end once a person reaches our supposedly safe shores. In fact, violence in the immigration process can sometimes be worse than the situations they are fleeing.

In the paragraphs below are some real examples of the horrific violence that occurs in Australian-run detention centres. I do not detail these incidences for the sake of being provocative, but rather in an attempt to educate the broader community of the horrors we, the Australian people, are complicit in. Billions of our taxes have gone directly towards creating these centres that systematically create an atmosphere of violence.

Much of this money goes to private security contractors Serco and G4S$1.86 billion and $80 million respectively. Many have questioned the increasing privatisation of detention centres, in which private contractors are more concerned with profits than humane treatment of detainees. Such contracts allow for untrained guards and no auditing requirements.

At the time of writing, there are currently 8,521 asylum seekers in detention centres around Australia, including 1,731 children. In addition, there are 545 asylum seekers in Nauru, with a new group of 14 adults and 12 children recently detained there. There are also around 800 people in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, including families and children, with transfers occurring regularly.

Asylum seekers – those waiting for refugee recognition – are held indetention centres around Australia, as well as new offshore facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea reopened under the Pacific Solution Mark II. In addition, new asylum seekers who arrive by boat will be detained in PNG and denied resettlement in Australia.

These people have committed no crime – under international law it is not illegal to seek asylum – yet they remain locked up indefinitely and subject to the “no-advantage” principle.

Heavy-handed responses by security guards are common in detention centres. A 400-page training manual by security company Serco details a range of restraint techniques to use against detainees, including “straight punches, palm heel strikes, side angle kicks, front thrust kicks and knee strikes” as well as “pressure point” restraints.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) has also approved the use of a body lock that “involves pushing a person’s head towards their knees while in a seated position, and is designed to subdue a struggling or protesting detainee.” Such a restraint is banned by police in Victoria and NSW and was responsible for the death of a 15 year old in a UK juvenile detention centre.

Security personnel have also been reported to use tranquilisers on detainees, against the DIAC’s claim that that sedatives are never used in detention.

Over the last months there have been a number of whistle-blowers coming forward with reports of abuse and violence in offshore detention centres.

Former G4S officer Rod St George recently revealed to SBS’s Dateline details of disturbing abuses against detainees in the Manus Island detention centre. St George describes an almost daily occurrence of rape and sexual abuse in the detention centre, while security guards, fully aware of the incidents either ignore them or cover them up. Such conditions are described by St George as worse than a dog kennel.

Another unnamed whistle-blower also describes incidences of gang rape and abuse, as well a heavy-handed response by G4S security where an Alpha Response Team with helmets, shields and body armour were called in to quell a protest against ineffective medical treatment.

In a recent riot in Nauru, protesters set fire to buildings in a desperate expression of frustration and anger about their current situation. As Mark Isaacs, former Recreations Manager for the Salvation Army in Nauru explains, frustration arose because of the indefinite and arbitrary detention subjected by the “no advantage policy”:

The men are being punished for apparently “jumping a queue”, or coming here by “illegal” means. And yet several months into their incarceration, people who arrived in Australian waters on the same boats, or after the men held in Nauru, were released into communities in Australia. The men in Nauru saw photos of friends by the Sydney Opera House while they were stuck in Nauru. The men were told by the Department of Immigration that they would be held in Nauru for at least five years. Not one man had left Nauru while I was there due to refugee processing. Only medical emergencies. There is no progress in Nauru. It is a time warp.

After the riot, he and a number of other Salvation Army workers published a press release detailing the incident and how it was an inevitable outcome of a cruel and degrading policy:

We call it the “Cycle of Violence”. A build up of tension and injustices over weeks which eventually erupts. It happened on several occasions while I worked there. You could feel the atmosphere grow more and more oppressive. The riots usually started over insignificant, trivial issues that were symbolic of greater frustrations. There were men who had been angry for a very long time, angry at their treatment. I think these men took the opportunity presented by the mass protest and used it to create a situation much worse than most of the men in the camp would ever have wanted.

There are also claims that asylum seekers were violently beaten by up to 1000 local Nauruan men carrying machetes and steel pipes, as the Nauruan police called in locals for assistance during the riot.  However, none of these local men have been charged, while 130 asylum seekers are currently charged with rioting and unlawful assembly. Mark also notes incidents of alleged inhumane treatment whilst in Nauru prisons:

There were allegations of mistreatment whilst in prison. Not being offered food. Physical violence. Awful conditions.

Mark also recalls many incidents of self-harm on Nauru:

I witnessed numerous situations of self-harm. Cigarette burns on limbs and torsos. Wrist cutting. Lip-sewing using blunt paper clips. Using razors to cut scalps open. Bashing heads against walls. Bashing computers against heads. Hangings.

This is backed up by horrific incident reports by security contractors in Nauru detailing incidents such as one person slitting their wrists while crying out “freedom“.

Self-harm is often the last form of protest left to those who have been deprived of everything else.

Self-harm and suicide attempts are very common in detention centres, and a recent inquiry by the Commonwealth and Immigration Ombudsman shows a clear relationship between long-term detention and self harm, with incidents of self-harm peaking in 2011 before the introduction of community detention programs.

Self-harm is often the last form of protest left to those who have been deprived of everything else.

A new project called Detention Logs has collated a massive number of incidents in detention centres through freedom of information requests.

The data shows that between October 2009 and May 2011, there have been 7,632 incidents in detention centres across Australia. According to the Guardian, “These included 921 incidents of self-harm (both threatened and actual), 850 incidents of voluntary starvation (both for less than and more than 24 hours) and 877 serious accidents and injuries.”

The Guardian and The Global Mail have collated this data into very useful graphs and incident reports. Together they give an alarming insight into self-harm, violence and abuse in detention centres. Horrific incidences include detainees ingesting washing powder, voluntary starvation, overdosing on pain medication, hanging attempts by microphone cords and sheets, people jumping off balconies and the use of medical restraints by staff.

The Global Mail allows the community to adopt an incident by requesting further information from the Department through freedom of information requests. However, the Department has recently been denying such requests made by the public.

Despite a pledge by the Government that no children will be held in detention, there are currently 1731 in detention around Australia.

There are also alarming figures of self-harm and suicide attempts by children. An extensive inquiry in 2004 by the Australian Human Right Commission details numerous cases of self-harm among children in detention centres.

One particular case of many involves a 14-year-old boy detained in the notorious Woomera detention centre. After a number of suicide attempts and self-harm, the boy said to the officers “you either kill me, I kill myself, or give me a VISA”. However, the boy remained in detention for another year and a half, while incidences of self-harm and suicide attempts continued. Unfortunately, things have not changed since 2004, and despite a pledge by the Government that no children will be held in detention, there are currently 1731 in detention around Australia.

The situation in detention centres is so damaging to mental health that a group of Australian psychiatrists has identified a new mental illness known as “asylum seeker syndrome“. Numerous reports and studies have proved over and over that prolonged detention causes irreversible mental health issues.

There are also rumours, whether true or not, that those who follow through in self-harm get better treatment, such as their case being assessed earlier or even being released into community detention. When there is no explanation or timeline given for delays in the refugee status process, even the whisper of such rumours may create an incentive to self-harm. Such a culture of self-harm in detention centres shows the Australian Government’s complicity through their failure to offer and implement alternative solutions to detention.

Violence against asylum seekers and refugees isn’t only restricted to far away places outside of the public eye. Violence also occurs against those who are released into the community on “community detention” programs. At least 20 violent attacks have been committed by members of the public against asylum seekers in the community this year, including a pram set on fire, men bashed with iron poles and incidents of stabbings.

Such violence against asylum seekers compels us to ask: are the Australian people complicit in these acts? Whether it is through our taxes paying for abusive guards and inhumane conditions, our cruel and degrading policies, or whether it is through our culture of racism and vilification that is too often left unchecked, we are involved in these acts of violence.

We should take a step back and have a look at what we are doing to asylum seekers and refugees in this country. If we reserve the cruellest treatment for some of the world’s most vulnerable people who are under our care, then what does that say about us?

Asher Hirsch has recently completed a Masters of Human Rights Law. He works with young refugees and asylum seekers at the Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY). Any views and opinions reflected in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily that of any associated organisations including CMY.