Life in limbo

The first time we go there, I sit in the passenger seat and spread the map open on my lap. Liverpool Road is a crooked yellow line and I inch my finger along, following it.


Words both unfamiliar and weighed down with associations float on the grid. We move across maps and to the edge of them, and I turn the page over and my finger is still following that line west.

Here, the signs of everyday life change. Cars are parked on angles in front yards. A bucket of suds sits on the grass of one and a shirtless brown-skinned man, in bouncy white running shoes, sweats as he sops to radio booming from an open window. The blocks are bigger; women wear shimmering headscarfs; the three-wheel strollers, loaded with shopping, look chunkier, heavier and sit lower.

We stop for cigarettes at a service station on the corner: a couple of pouches of tobacco and packets of rolling papers, to share.

Writer Sunil Badami and sociologist Gabrielle Gwyther, among others, have detailed the ‘othering’ of Sydney’s populous western suburbs which are perceived, says Badami, as ‘some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale, blurring into a distant blank space … a no-man’s land of strange terrors and cultural desolation that evaporates into Emu Plains’. The western suburbs, insists Badami, are heterogeneous, dynamic and complex. Here, multiculturalism is made a meaningful fact of life.

Anthropologist Gillian Cowlishaw similarly captures the lives and passions of the western suburbs’ substantial Aboriginal population. But she simultaneously portrays the west as a rich city’s subordinated self, a place where marginal lives are lived out in the city’s margins. And on the Australian mainland and in Christmas Island, in remote locations, close to seven thousand people are held in indefinite immigration detention. Around 400 lives are suspended in limbo at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

Villawood is a semi-industrial suburb, and the detention centre comprises a higgledy-piggledy series of dilapidated buildings hemmed in by the razor wire, which is rimmed by sloping gum trees and grass.

In the muddy mess of a car park, other visitors are also arriving. They carry flimsy plastic bags full of takeaway containers. We bring mangoes for our friends, and the cigarettes.

My partner is a member of a small political organisation called the Cross Border Collective that tries to have one group member visit detainees – most of them Sri Lankan Tamils – on a weekly basis. I tag along sometimes, visiting once every six weeks or so.

‘How long did it take you to get here?’ a small group of detainees ask, once we are finally inside and our first nervous visit is underway. We live in the expensive, thoroughly gentrified, inner-west. ‘It’s not that far,’ I say. ‘Sydney … it’s the traffic you know … so it took us about an hour.’ I say it with a shrug, as if we all live in Sydney, along different points of this tangle of toll roads. But people nod unsure, some interested, some uneasy and I realise that ‘Sydney’, like ‘Australia’, must remain a bunch of concepts, fragments to be grabbed at randomly while the only totality is the experience of being locked up, first on Christmas Island and now here.

Villawood is for many people just a workplace. There are always Serco staff, employees of the multinational corporation that runs the centre, cheerily leaving for the day or heading out for a lunchbreak or idly chatting with their backs to the counter, where we stand with our forms ready.

We enter the names of four people each. The names are drawn from a list of those with whom the collective strives to maintain contact. We find ourselves torn, instinctively keen to visit people we find it easiest to see – detainees who are confident, eager to practise their English or just to talk for the pleasure of talking, those who have light in their faces. But there are others who don’t get visited as often, who struggle to say much more than hello, who seem exhausted, anxious and defeated. Saravanan1 belongs to the latter category. He is a grandfather, a fact another detainee supplies on his behalf. Saravanan nods, half smiles and looks at me briefly. His quick grin reveals a mouth full of silver and gaps. He goes back to looking at his feet. Fear hangs around everyone but some ward it off, pushing it back, while others are choking.

We submit our forms, present our ID, and are given a locker for our phones and wallets. We are tagged around our wrists, and written on with, as we tell our three-year-old son, ‘magic ink’. We put our mangoes and our bits and pieces on an X-ray machine and walk through an airport-style security booth. We are buzzed though a heavy set of doors and approach the gate.

We press a bell and wait while a guard, often the same one, with a friendly hairy face and heavy walk, lumbers over. He wears a huge, clanking set of keys around his belt like an archetypal jailer. He opens the padlock, checks the numbers on our wristbands and lets us in.

Others who visit regularly have warned us that if a single letter is out of place guards will refuse the visit. Tamil names are long, with first names and family names each containing between ten and twenty characters. I’ve never been refused entry. Instead, I find guards like to demonstrate their familiarity with detainees (for we are often unable to even pronounce the names of the ‘friends’ on our list). Guards will say, ‘Oh, you mean so and so …’ and then correct spelling mistakes with a flourish, rolling multisyllabic names off their tongues with satisfaction. Others barely conceal their contempt for those on the inside and for their visitors. One guard makes a great show of disgust one Sunday when we arrive with a fish curry in a metal pot that has to be transferred to plastic containers before we can take it inside.

Another has come to unsettle me. He is Vietnamese–Australian with a broader-than-broad Aussie accent. His mood is always buoyant as he talks loudly and enthusiastically about his new phone plan or his roster for the week. I can’t help but feel that he overplays the part of a happily assimilated refugee staffing the front desk of a detention facility.

Management of Australia’s detention centres was outsourced to the Serco Group in early 2009. Serco is a British-based company that runs two Australian jails, is the largest operator of private prisons in the UK and has a major interest in the global nuclear industry. Serco propaganda adorns both the reception and inside visiting areas. ‘SERCO. Bringing Service to Life’ runs across a poster series repeated throughout Villawood. In one poster a Chinese man and woman in hard hats unfurl plans, with a bridge in the distance. SERCO. Bringing modernity to Asia. In another a uniformed, tattooed tough guy makes a friendly move on the basketball court against a tattooed Aboriginal woman. SERCO. Bringing fun and games to prisoners. There’s a photo of The Ghan, snaking its way through dramatic desert scenery: Serco owns Great Southern Rail. Another poster features a close-up of a black hand working on a dot painting: the dots are big and neat and perfect, the concentric circles belong to tourist art. I have no idea what this is about. Even in a world awash with meaningless riders, slogans and claims, Serco’s efforts to ‘bring service to life’ seem especially absurd.

The main visitors’ area contains white benches and bright couches, microwaves, Styrofoam cups, tea bags and instant coffee. Detainees who have heard their names called out (and sometimes people don’t hear the loudspeaker) arrive through a frosted door, reporting as a number to a seated guard. Huge TVs blaze blue and lurid, dominating this clean, clinical, mostly empty space.

We prefer to sit outside, on picnic tables under trees, or in a shaded shelter.

While the visitors’ area is new and refurbished, a recent Australian Human Rights Commission report criticised the living conditions of Villawood detainees. The commission found conditions worst in the Blaxland (Stage One) high-security compound where detainees share crowded dormitory bedrooms. In the Fowler (Stage Three) compound – which houses people who have arrived by boat, and where most people we know are held – people share small bedrooms with two or three others, have no lockable space for personal belongings and little privacy.

I find visiting hard. I’m not a chatty person. Words seem to clatter about, falling down in the air that sits between us onto the hot, fake grass. There are lots of pauses, smiles and mismatched answers.

‘It’s hot today,’ I might attempt.

‘Yes, good. Thank you,’ comes the reply.

I tend to ask about families and these conversations work much better. ‘I have a two-year-old. Very cheeky! She is four now.’

In the commission’s report, one detainee described his life as being ‘at zero point’. Instead of talking about things at that place, our conversations tend to travel back in time and place, to Sri Lanka, or into an imagined future in Australia. We make promises to take people fishing, and to the beach.

It always seems hot. It gets hotter as we head out there, the sea to our backs, the salt and stiffness evaporating out of the air until it’s just petrol fumes, bricks, soft road edges and the sun beating down. At Villawood the ground bakes and it’s hard to breathe.

Bringing my kids makes visiting easier. In fact, it’s why I go, because it’s evident that seeing children is an immensely gratifying experience for the detainees we have befriended. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is simple, and sometimes painfully clear: the human contact. The second, I think, is because of an opportunity that the kids afford: that is, the chance to look after another person.

Ned, our three-year-old, is overwhelmed when we first arrive. He takes a step back as Parashuraman comes towards him. Ned clutches at my legs, backing into me and shaking his head as Parashuraman stretches out his arms, wanting Ned to run to him. Parashuraman has long silky locks and a pot belly. Before the last days of the Sri Lankan civil war engulfed everything, he ran a busy shop that fixed electrical goods – the kind that are never fixed in Australia anymore, we tell him, just replaced. He misses his family terribly, ruing his wife’s poverty and dependence on his brother. Although he has been accepted as a refugee, he has been waiting on an ASIO security clearance since July 2010.

When Ned shies away from him, Parashuraman produces lollies and chocolates and sweet biscuits out of his pockets and laughs uproariously at the instant transformation. Ned approaches, gives some cuddles, answers some questions while staring at his pink sandals, stuffs his face, and then heads to the playground. Generally one or two of our friends will persevere with Ned, accompanying him to the playground; they kick the ball we have brought with us, he soon warms up and they have a friendly enough time.

But it’s the baby they adore.

‘Billy! Billy! Billy!’ sings our friend Maadeeswaran in a high-pitched voice, as soon as he sights us, clapping his hands together before lifting the baby straight out of my arms. He is slight and in his early 20s, younger than the other men we visit. He has beautiful eyes and two pierced ears in which he wears tiny gold earrings shaped like flowers. While many of our friends are in the same position as Parashuraman, awaiting their ASIO clearance, Maadeeswaran is still worrying about his application and the interviews that lie ahead.

Billy first visited Villawood when he was six weeks old. He’s now eight months. He is passed endlessly from one pair of arms to the other. They cuddle him and take his curled fingers into the tips of their own, stroking and straightening them; they smile and gurgle and he grins his gummy grin and they jiggle him; they adjust his singlet and pull his socks up and touch his soft, soft velveteen baby skin. He looks translucent in their brown hands.

When Ned comes back over, bored with the playground, and clambers up to the table where we sit, I notice people hovering, just in case he slips, eager to help him up or fetch him cups of water or retrieve his hat and sandals.

Detainees wait and wait and wait. The commission reported a ‘palpable sense of frustration and incomprehension’. In late 2010, Villawood was the scene of three suicides in four months. Villawood detainees are known to have self-harmed, voluntarily starved themselves and ingested detergent and chemicals. In June 2011, New Matilda editor Marni Cordell visited Villawood after refugee advocates contacted her with reports of an increasingly desperate mood inside. Cordell described ‘asylum seekers being beaten and threatened by groups of fellow detainees, and of complicity by some centre staff, too’.

Over Easter, three men staged a lengthy rooftop protest in the wake of a protest involving up to 100 detainees and extensive property damage to the complex. The Cross Border Collective also staged a rooftop occupation – of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s office in Fairfield, in Sydney’s west. They hung a banner stating, ‘We would too.’

Meanwhile, the waiting, especially for those now awaiting only a security clearance, drags on. Our friends sit on Facebook as they wait. We bring them mangoes and cigarettes; another regular visitor, whose visit coincided with ours last time, brought mood rings.

Detainees are forced into a position of dependence – their futures dependent on the outcomes of their claim and their security assessment, dependent on Serco for their basic needs, dependent on others’ kindness for a little bit more. Philip Adams, a prominent liberal refugee sympathiser, recently referred to refugees as a ‘pitiful, tragic handful’, having no sense, I believe, of how dehumanising this kind of expression of sympathy is.

When I visit with the kids what I see is that detainees are anxious to take care, for just a moment, of another human being.

I am told, repeatedly, that it’s time to cut Billy’s tiny fingernails, that he will scratch himself soon. People stand behind one another to shade his face as he looks over a shoulder. They scoop him up and confiscate him if he is being held awkwardly. I am chided for forgetting his hat.

I do not wish to emphasise that parenting is a great universal. That’s not what I’m getting at. ‘Two boys,’ says a man whom I have only met once. ‘Do you need to pay a dowry when they marry?’ Being a mum and being a dad, clearly, mean different things to different people in different times and places. For the people we visit in Villawood it’s some treasured photos and constant worry. (‘I have a two-year-old. She is four now.’)

How do I explain all this to Ned? So far he has never asked any difficult questions, and is too young to notice that the ball he is kicking goes – clang! – into a high fence, and that beyond that fence lies another fence, that one electrified.

To leave we exit through the padlocked gate. We are buzzed into a dark room where our magic ink marking glows white on the undersides of our wrists and our tags are destroyed.
The day after our first visit it hit me. Walking along the train line, from home to King Street, I suddenly feel so … free. It’s naff but I did, I felt free to move.

I was walking, pushing the heavy pram with all my weight and effort, up a steep hill. Beneath me the trains were rushing, passing each other, straight through the tunnel and then charging into the city or curving around on a long arc, heading west.

1     Pseudonyms have been used throughout this article.

Eve Vincent

Eve Vincent is a Lecturer in the Anthropology Department at Macquarie University.

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