Politicised, privatised and silenced by bureaucracy

By Antony Loewenstein | 12 Aug 13

In his new book, Profits of Doom, independent Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre and Christmas Island to investigate the reality of Australia’s, notoriously secretive, privatised detention facilities for asylum seekers. In this excerpt, Loewenstein is on Christmas Island (CI) but so far the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has denied him access to the detention facility on the island. But by chance, he witnesses for the first time the arrival of an overcrowded boat carrying asylum seekers towards the shore. 

By Antony Loewenstein

It’s another hot and humid day on CI and I still haven’t gained access to the detention facility. But I am about to talk to some of the detainees.

A few days earlier I met Joan Kelleher, a sister who works with the Christian aid organisation Australian Mercy, and a resident of CI since March 2010. She is also a daily visitor to the refugees in detention. Sister Joan is a true humanitarian. She’s opposed to mandatory detention and takes asylum seekers with fragile mental states on brief excursions to do activities such as cooking and swimming. She told me that she oscillates between despair and inspiration, but unfortunately feels more of the former. Then she recalled a Tamil man who has been inside the CI detention centre for 26 months—he has been granted refugee status but is waiting to receive security clearance. “I’m inspired by those who survive what this system throws at them”, she said. “And those who stay strong.”

Sister Joan then told me that she would be taking four Afghan Hazara refugees to the beach for a BBQ in a few days time, and suggested I come along.

I arrive to find the sister and the quartet of men wading barefoot in shallow water—one man dips his entire body underwater, fully clothed. It’s a beautiful day and the colour of the water alternates between green and blue. There are a few fishermen, and some boats on the horizon, but little else. The men are aged in their thirties and forties. They’re all married with children, their families still in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They’ve all been rejected for refugee status twice by DIAC and remain in limbo in Australia, claiming they would be injured or killed if they were sent home (bombings in early 2013 that targeted the Hazara people in Quetta, Pakistan, where all the men have family, indicate the continuing threat). They appear pleased to see me, a new person to talk with.

The men collect different-coloured rocks to send to their children. One man, Abdul, can speak English and tells me that he has been in detention for 22 months, in Darwin and on CI. He takes six different antidepressants daily. His left eye is bloodshot, and he shows me injuries on his body that he claims were inflicted by the Taliban. He smiles as we talk, but says he is sad because he is unsure what will happen to him, and that he’s never given any definite information on his case, including a time line for when it will be resolved, from DIAC or Serco.

I talk to all the men but with varying degrees of success because of language difficulties. They say they want to be allowed to live in community detention, a policy implemented by Labor in 2012 that permits asylum seekers to live freely, but with minimal welfare payments and no work rights. It’s better than being in a high-security prison, but it still leaves them in a state of limbo. We discuss marriage, and they find it amusing that I am thirty-seven but still unmarried, with no children. They talk about the difficult existence of a detainee—the monotony of daily life, the lack of excursions or visitors, the humid weather.

Sister Joan has brought some sausages, rolls, onions and soft drinks. The men share the cooking duties, using the BBQs on the foreshore. It’s a change from the daily tedium, they say, clearly enjoying this brief excursion. They show gratitude towards the sister.

From our lunch spot, I can see the island’s one-time governor’s residence, which overlooks the harbour of Flying Fish Cove. Near the house is a small memorial to the SIEV X tragedy, commemorating a boat that sank on its way from Sumatra to Christmas Island in 2001, killing 353 people. The names of the children who died are written on small rocks.

Britain handed CI to Australia in 1957. Forty years later, CI and the Cocos Islands started being managed as the Australian Indian Ocean Territories, under the auspices of an administrator who lives on CI. After my excursion with Sister Joan, I go to a spacious office near the pier where asylum seekers are brought ashore, to interview the current Australian Government administrator of CI and the Cocos Islands, Brian Lacy.

Lacy is a former industrial court judge from Melbourne who is serving a two-year appointment on CI. He’s affable, generally sympathetic to refugees and not an advocate of mandatory detention. But he does praise Serco for helping the CI community and being a good corporate citizen. He receives twice-weekly briefings from Canberra involving “intelligence” related to asylum seekers on CI, and says he’s pleased that the numbers of detainees are down (though the figure wildly oscillates depending on boat arrivals). He appears to have been blindsided by the riots in 2011, but says he is committed to being better informed about the situation inside the detention centre. However, he’s only visited the CI centre once, on a guided tour, when he first arrived on the island.

Lacy’s role isn’t overly political and he constantly stresses that his aim is to bring benefits to CI and the Cocos Islands. He is concerned about the effects of the detention centre on CI, including the disparity in pay between local and temporary workers, and the impact of a high-security prison on a small island. He has asked Canberra for more resources to support the place, particularly more consultation and expanded facilities. It’s unclear how successful this will be—it is a common complaint from locals that the federal government is more interested in funding infrastructure that houses new boat arrivals rather than supports residents.

Lacy tells me he’s hired “consultants” to find ways to promote CI as a tourist destination, as it’s now primarily known as a detention island, in Australia and internationally. His job is unenviable.

Sadly, the refugees are about to be politicised, privatised and silenced by bureaucracy.

I’m walking back to my hotel when something out at sea attracts my attention, and I stop at the exact spot from which CI residents watched helplessly in December 2010 as refugees drowned in heavy seas. I can see a visibly overcrowded boat on the horizon, and it’s heading towards shore. Two large Australian ships and a few smaller vessels shadow the boat. A few people gather, filming and photographing the boat. Those around me, a mix of tourists and locals, are largely unsympathetic towards the incoming refugees. One says, “I bet they’ll find wads of cash in their pockets”. Two older couples say they are sick of so many boats arriving in Australia.

This is a regular occurrence on CI but it’s the first time I’ve seen it. It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for people who have sailed across dangerous waters to get to someplace safe.

I go down to the jetty, where several dozen DIAC, Serco, police and Customs officials, as well as interpreters and ambulance staff, await the arrival of the refugees. A number of CI residents and tourists are there too, and are mostly middle-aged or older. The ones I talk to all express opposition to refugees. They are “illegals” who might come and “take over”, like “what’s happening in parts of Europe”. One person says, “They should be pushed back to Indonesia, where they will be safe. Why are they coming to Australia? What if terrorists are on the boats? We have poverty here and people living in bad conditions on CI, but they come and are treated better than Australians”. I mention Serco and ask whether anyone cares that a private company is making money from greater numbers of refugee arrivals. One older man says he feels uncomfortable about it, while a tourist isn’t aware of the fact.

The refugee boat stops around 200 metres from the shore and a speedboat races out to meet it. After a short while, around fourteen refugees wearing life jackets are brought to the jetty, then more are brought ashore. I see a woman in a wheelchair (I’m later told she is pregnant), an exceptionally tall man, a young girl, a woman wearing a hijab, and a teenage boy. They are Middle Eastern in appearance. They’re frisked and their bags are collected.

Watching this piece of theatre, I’m moved. I don’t know the refugees or their stories, whether they are genuine or not, but after hearing little but demonisation of them for years, the first contact between asylum seekers and the government strikes me as a deeply human exchange. Sadly, the refugees are about to be politicised, privatised and silenced by bureaucracy.

The process on the jetty looks orderly and the various officials treat the asylum seekers with respect. I hear one woman near me say, “See how they always come with men and boys first, and then bring their families later?” As I walk back to my car, I start talking to a local Chinese man who is watching the proceedings. “They people, all bad Muslims”, he tells me. I ask him how he knows they are Muslims. “I’ve heard they are, and they’re not like the others.”

Arriving back at my hotel, I see an Australian ship alongside the refugee boat. The latter is to be set on fire and destroyed. I’ve been told the oil from such fires often floats to shore, damaging the coastline.

I search online for an official government statement about the latest CI boat arrival. Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor sent out a press release around the time the boat was sighted, referring to a “suspected irregular entry vessel” with around 116 people onboard. The release stated that the “border protection command” had taken the refugees to land and begun processing them. But the statement is wrong. The refugees were still being brought to shore when it was issued, as I had seen with my own eyes. The press release is a template—the writer only needs to change the number of sighted asylum seekers. It’s as predictable as kabuki theatre.

Profits of Doom is available at Melbourne University Press.