Just next door: on refugees and the worsening conditions in onshore detention centres

The month of April held both devastation and a glimmer of hope regarding Australia’s brutal, hardline immigration policy. The announcement of the closure of Manus Island detention centre was overshadowed by the horrific death of a refugee called Omid, who set himself alight in Australia’s care, and the attempted suicide of five refugees on Nauru.

Onshore, changes to conditions at Melbourne’s Immigration Transit Accommodation that echo those offshore have slipped quietly under the rug.

Under the strict guidance of Australian Border Force, occupants of MITA – more commonly known as Broadmeadows Detention Centre – have been segregated. Single men, single women and families, and ASIO detainees have all been placed in separate, locked compounds and are unable to socialise or move freely through the facility.

Single men are bearing the brunt of the changes, and have been moved to a newly built high-security compound known as Bass.

Amir* is one of the single men now in Bass, and he says the mood of occupants has plummeted.

‘We feel that we are prisoners, and that we are being treated worse than animals,’ he says.

A notice issued to the men by Border Force states: ‘A new operating model will be implemented with the main change being, the separation and controlled movement of different detainee groups.’

Prior to the changes, Broadmeadows occupants socialised openly. Many were transferred from Manus and Nauru detention centres together, and some travelled to Australia on the same boats.

Amir says that the separation of friendship groups has been the most painful blow.

‘Every compound has been effectively locked down and no one is able to talk to each other,’ says Amir. ‘Before, we were able to freely roam between all compounds and make new friends. Now, most people are upset and depressed.’

The Bass compound is surrounded by a high-security mesh fence, and the perimeter is dotted with security cameras. The men, who previously had their own rooms, now sleep two to a room. The bunk beds provided are so tight that many men are unable to sit up on the lower beds.

All occupants must now be escorted by guards to the canteen, to medical appointments, to the visiting area, and to all other areas outside their immediate compound.

According to the notice issued by Border Force, they must carry an ID card ‘at all times’.

To visit friends in other compounds, occupants must fill out a written application and wait for an approval or rejection from staff. No timeline has been given regarding the approval process.

According to Amir, any new person admitted to the centre will now be automatically ‘put on a high-risk rating’. High-risk occupants are handcuffed when they leave the compound for appointments, and marched through with a guard on either side of their person.

Amir says that the men at Broadmeadows are too scared to protest the new conditions, which he believes may be a ‘breach of human rights’. The men are fearful that if they do protest, they will be moved to Maribyrnong Detention Centre – dubbed a ‘military camp’ by Fairfax reports earlier this year.

The changes at Broadmeadows have been in the pipeline for some time.

Refugee advocate Pamela Curr says that since Border Force took over management of the facility in mid-2015, occupants have been bombarded with ‘unreasonable’ new rules.

Security management is at the forefront of Border Force’s administration, leading to claims by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre that the outfit is creating ‘a high security prison.’

Prior to Border Force’s arrival, only men were pat-searched when leaving the facility for appointments. Now, women are also pat-searched by guards, and security wands have been introduced. Amir says that during the recent transfer from their previous compound to Bass, they were ‘pat-searched to a very uncomfortable level.’

A program to take occupants out of the facility on recreational excursions run by advocates and nuns was scrapped soon after Border Force’s takeover, despite public outcry. Random room searches became a reality in 2015, and are increasing in regularity according to Amir.

Recreational materials are often confiscated, and sewing machines and knitting needles have been taken from a number of women.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of increased, high-level security changes since Border Force’s arrival is the Bass compound, which the Department of Immigration and Border Protection began building last year.

Amir and the men within Bass can’t understand why the changes have been implemented.

‘What have we done to get such punishments?’ he asks.

Pamela believes that Border Force is ‘locked into a mindset of deterrence.’

‘We used to say that they can never make conditions in Australia worse than the conditions from which people have fled – but we have to revise that. The aim is to break their spirit.’

Along with other advocates, Pamela believes that the aim of Border Force – and in turn, the Australian government – is to deter new refugees and asylum seekers from attempting to come to Australia, and to make life difficult for those who have already made the journey.

‘What has our country come to?’ she asks.

Overland contacted the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Serco, and several Serco employees for comment. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection chose not to comment, and no other responses were received.

Image: Michael Coghlan/Flickr

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Chloe Papas

Chloe Papas is a writer and journalist based in Victoria. You can find her on Twitter @chloepapas.

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  1. What you have described is exactly what they did on Nauru about a year ago. The women and especially the young teenage girls were singled out for suggestive touching, and the wand being thrust between the legs, and found it terribly distressing. For good measure the toilet doors were removed and guards stood watching. There is no doubt that this whole brutal system is designed to break the spirit of these already traumatised people. Changing the arrangements of the compounds, including the written instructions, is identical to what they did on Manus. The only difference I can think of in Broadmeadows is that it is unlikely a detainee will have their head split open by a machete.

  2. It is as if a demon-spirit, slumbering since convict times, has maliciously risen to occupy the bodies of compliant security contractors. It is cultural relapse returning for reckoning, testing the indulgence of contempt and cruelty, sanctioned by state and mass dimness. These grow to be dark times as much as Macquarie Harbour became a nightmarish embodiment of heartlessness. May we stand against this, where ever possible.

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