Names in this article have been changed
Over the past fifteen years, immigration detention centre workers have given a mere handful of interviews about their work. Those who have talked about life behind the fences tend to do so with the protection of voice distortion and pixilation. There is good reason for this: any government employee or contractor who leaks operational information about how we treat detained refugees is threatened with detention of their own – up to seven years in prison.
For almost three months, I worked as a guard at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in Western Australia. Six days every week, twelve hours every day, I was paid to help execute the national strategy to deter future asylum seekers by detaining those who have already made the voyage.
The epidemic of self-harming and mental-health illnesses among detainees has been well documented. It is the story of the day-to-day goings-on that remains largely untold – details of just how we systematically grind down hope and gratitude into despair, bitterness and mental infirmity. Given the threat of prison hanging over the heads of loose-lipped workers, this state of unknowing is unlikely to change any time soon.
So though I cannot tell you what we do and to whom it is done, I can tell you who we workers are and what we think. The experience of detention as seen through the eyes of workers can offer insights into what it is that compels Australians to hide people away in deserts and on phosphate islands.
Contrary to what many might expect, the people who work in these centres are an average assortment of Australians – no less good and no more bad than the sorts you would expect to find in any job in any Australian town. In fact, the detention centres are a microcosm of Australia: normal people executing a begrudging commitment to humanitarianism through the purgatory of detention.
Nobody finds themselves in a detention centre because they aspire to be there – not even the guards. After three months travelling through South America I am broke and in debt. I need a job that will last a few months, pay well, employ immediately and requires no expertise.
A ‘Client Service Officer’ is the misnomer by which the men and women working as guards at immigration detention centres are known. Evidently, asylum seekers are ‘clients’. Detention is the ‘service’. And I am a freshly minted ‘officer’.
Flying into Derby, the closest town to the Curtin facility, I can see the full extent of the RAAF base on which the centre sits. Our bird’s-eye view reveals a network of runways, access routes and hangers weaving a lattice through ferrous-red sands and evergreen bush. The heft of our northern greenhouse is like a physical blow as I exit the plane.
An hour later we pull up to the entrance of the detention centre. Like all first-timers, I can’t help but notice the big sign at the entrance: ‘Welcome to Curtin’.
Our induction begins, laid-back and informal. By the end, we still have no sense of our specific duties, nor any idea what we will actually be doing during our shifts, but we are given plenty of generic advice. Most of it hinges on how manipulative the ‘clients’ are: as inexperienced CSOs, we will be targeted. Sooner or later, we are told, they will get through our defences, catch us off guard, manipulate us and make us the fool.
God, it’s hot. Hot like you are on the surface of Venus. And humid. The misery of the climate somehow makes the transportable buildings seem even more disjointed and ugly. Throughout the compound there are basic gardens in progress, seas of green sprouting from the endless red powder that goes for dirt. Taken together, it is little wonder most detainees sleep the day away or simply hide in the air-conditioned interiors. The place is not particularly fearsome or intimidating, not exaggeratedly authoritarian or controlling, but it is depressing.
That afternoon, the bus to our own demountable accommodation is delayed by George, another new recruit. Has to stop and pick up a carton of beer at the bottlo. George is constantly joking about bashing people: bashing asylum seekers, bashing fellow officers, bashing anyone. And joking about raping people. And shooting them. And tasering them. Really, any imaginable form of violence dished out to just about anyone – but especially the asylum seekers, whom George sees as dangerous and violent criminals.
‘This is what you do, mate. You get a taser and give it to him. You tell him it’s a phone.’ George puts his imaginary taser up to his ear. ‘“Hello?” Zzzzzzzzt!’
Many of George’s ideas conflict with my own, but he has a real verve for life and his levity is, for the most part, refreshing. I just worry how his intermittently racist verbal diarrhoea will be received in a detention centre.
It’s a new day and Jeff, one of our managers, is speaking to me and another greenhorn.
‘You don’t want to have to pay taxes that go to those fellas, do you? You don’t want one of them living next door?’
I should keep my mouth shut, but can’t help myself. ‘Actually,’ I say, ‘I have no problem paying taxes that help refugees. And I have no problem with refugees living next door.’
Jeff is taken aback. The conversation ends with a look of disdain and contempt; he whispers into the ear of Gladys, another experienced officer. I surmise he has said something akin to the refrain I will hear countless times in the coming weeks: ‘Fucking bleeding heart! He’ll learn.’
I’m with Glen, an experienced though still young officer who is genial and helpful. He even offers to loan me his DVD player, and this is after knowing me for all of six hours. Glen and I are chatting about this and that. Then we get onto the topic of Americans. He tells me how he was once waiting with his family in a restaurant queue when an American family sauntered to the front of the line.
‘I fucking hate queue jumpers,’ I declare.
I’m instantly aware of my tactless choice of phrasing. A detainee is walking past; I expect trouble. Yet though his head perks a little, he keeps on moving. I soon realise that much more and much worse is frequently said in earshot.
To pass the time Glen regales me with some classic lines from the African-American comedian Chris Rock: ‘Ain’t nobody who hates the black man – but everybody hates a nigger.’
I cringe a little as I hear him say ‘nigger’. In the right context racial epithets can be illuminating, not to mention hilarious, but I think some sense of company and circumstance is essential – and we’re in a detention centre with hundreds of Sri Lankans, Afghans, Iranians and Palestinians. It is to my horror – and, if being honest, to my amusement – that I discover Glen has memorised Rock’s entire monologue.
‘There’s black people, and then there’s niggers. The niggers have got to go. You know the worst thing about niggers? A nigger will brag about some shit a normal man just does. A nigger will say some shit like “I take care of my kids.” You’re supposed to, you dumb mother-fucker!’
Glen goes on to clarify that the black-man-cum-nigger dichotomy is the same as our Aboriginal-cum-coon dichotomy. According to Glen, the Indigenous people around Derby are, unequivocally, ‘coons’: drunk, violent, wayward. One must avoid them at all costs, he advises.
Glen provides a story to illustrate the point: ‘The other week I was on day shift, but couldn’t sleep that night because the indig [Glen’s blanket term for blackfellas] were having a party in the neighbourhood. About 11 pm one of ’em started bashing his missus. The sound was fucking terrible, and it went on for ages. Then there was a bit of a commotion, and after that it was all over. Silence.’
And that’s his story. The thought of a man beating his wife brings a knot to my gut.
‘Yeah mate, if you just keep to yourself and avoid the indig, you’ll be right.’
It would be easy to say Glen is just some dumb, white-trash arsehole, but he’s not. He’s charming, polite and intelligent.
Later, we’re milling about, passing time, when two managers enter the office.
‘How’s it going?’ asks Hoff, another CSO.
‘No worries tonight, mate,’ responds Bob, our senior officer. ‘One of the fellas was complaining about the food in the mess, but that’s about it.’
‘I say: if you don’t like the food, go back to where you came from,’ says Amy, one of the managers.
‘They should try what we get,’ adds Hoff, referring to the fact staff meals are appalling.
‘And they bloody well get it for free!’
‘Yeah, they’ll get a rude shock when they get out in the real world and have to start paying for stuff.’
‘They’ll be in Woolies,’ says Bob, ‘and be pulling stuff off the shelves – “I’ll have this and that and that.” Then they’ll get to the checkout and be asked to pay. “Pay? Oh, DIAC [Department of Immigration and Citizenship] will pay for it!” No, it’s bullshit!’
Bob and the others are criticising asylum seekers as ‘freeloaders’ and ‘bludgers’ and ‘ungrateful pricks’, as if they have the option of being out there earning an honest wage. They seem to fundamentally misunderstand mandatory detention.
I have a day off before changing to night shift, so I figure on doing some shopping. I head to the nearest supermarket where I buy cheese, tinned food, ham, salami and some dips. It’s depressing. On the way out I walk past two Indigenous people on a stoop. I’m relieved when they don’t bash me with a star picket, then wonder why I too am such a racist fuck.
I wander over to the bus stop at 5 pm, joining the group waiting for the bus to Curtin. No-one I know. Like usual, the people turn out to be chatty and quick with a joke, whatever that joke might be.
Talk turns to gossip.
‘How about Janet, eh? She’s got no problems with the Iranians. She really likes ’em.’
‘Likes ’em,’ the worker repeats, in case his meaning isn’t obvious. Apparently it isn’t. He makes himself sledgehammer clear: ‘Spends hours with ’em at a time. Hours. Just disappears into their rooms.’
‘Eeew!’ cries a woman. ‘That’s disgusting.’
Another officer chimes in: ‘Yeah, she loves her Arab boys alright. She took a holiday in Iraq. She’s obsessed with ’em.’
‘That’s fucked up, man.’
‘I can’t understand how anyone would go near ’em.’
A squat, middle-aged woman with a quick smile finally perks up. ‘They’re not all bad. A lot of them are good people.’
It’s such an obvious statement, but it also happens to be anathema at this Derby bus stop, in the context of this Derby conversation.
‘Mary,’ begins a loud but otherwise amiable man, ‘they are not your friends. Remember that: they are not your friends.’
It is one of the ingrained principles of being a detention worker: show empathy not sympathy; be friendly not friends.
‘Yeah, I know that. But –’
‘Mary,’ he says again, adopting the most condescending tone he can muster. ‘They. Are. Not. Your. Friends.’
‘I know …’ Mary begins, her words trailing off.
George arrives at work a few hours late. Lay down on the bed, he tells me, and then just nodded off. It happens.
He takes an interest in the tools I’ve been issued.
‘What?’ he begins, playing the joker. ‘Use it for breaking heads? Smack them right in the back of the noggin. Turn your back, pretend you’ve seen nothing. What’s that? Bleeding from the head? Where? Some bastard …’
But then, in his very next breath, he becomes serious.
‘You get to talking to them and they’re good blokes, eh? Yeah, I’ve enjoyed mixin’ with ’em. Bloody good job, innit?’
A little later, Diane is telling us about a former protest during which detainees self-harmed. George can’t help but chime in: ‘I’d come in with a machete, mate. Schwt! Schwt! You wanna slash up? There ya go. Fuckin’ get the machete into ’em. Cut some limbs off. Just doin’ what they wanted.’
A detainee looking for noodles has wandered over from his compound to the office where we are stationed. Like most of the detainees at Curtin, he is only able to speak a few words of English. In fact, he doesn’t even ask for noodles: he asks for ‘Maggi.’
First time I heard this, I hadn’t the faintest idea what the detainee was on about. Then someone explained that he wanted noodles – as in Maggi noodles, even though the Maggi noodles were replaced with some cheaper brand years ago.
I think of the detainees heading out into the community, asking a supermarket worker for Maggi. Cringeworthy. So I begin a habit of countering ‘Maggi’ with ‘noodles’.
‘The word is noodles. Noo-dles.’
‘Yes,’ I say, handing over the ration. ‘Noodles.’
It is a lone crusade. Dozens of times every day and night, detainees come to the office window. If their English is limited, the automatic – and normally correct – assumption of officers is that they have come for noodles.
Detainee, nodding: ‘Maggi.’
‘One Maggi or two Maggi?’
It’s a little thing, but there are a lot of little things.
Most CSOs don’t use detainees’ names. Most CSOs assume detainees are gaming the system, whatever their request. Most CSOs perceive any apparent mental distress among detainees as their ‘acting up’ or ‘trying it on’ or ‘looking for attention.’ Most CSOs diminish any display of emotion as the equivalent of a youngster throwing a tantrum: ‘He just wants an audience’ or ‘He’s just being a big crybaby.’ Many CSOs deride the detainees’ speaking of Farsi, Pashto or any other language as ‘jibber-jabber’.
And then there is the phrase I hate more than any. When a detainee self-harms by cutting, he or she is said to have ‘slashed up’. It is a derisive term for such a serious action, whether the harm is physical or points to far graver emotional trauma.
In one room reserved for ‘clients’ with mental-health issues I find a whiteboard covered with platitudes:
Pain is inevitable – misery is a choice.
Peace of mind comes from accepting life as it is, not how you want it to be.
We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.
Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift to be used wisely.
Happiness is not a destination; it is how we travel to get there.
Winners never quit. Quitters never win.
I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man with no feet.
The coup de grâce of all this dross that diminishes, wholesale, the reality of the detainees’ situation and their individual experiences of suffering is delivered in diagram form: two cups coloured midway, with ‘half empty’ written beneath the first and ‘half full’ beneath the second.
Let’s imagine this for a second: you’re in a desert, behind a guarded fence, and two years of your life have disappeared. It seems you’re not actually in Australia, and Australia doesn’t want you anyway. You are being pressured to return to a land where you are at risk of persecution. If you’re Iranian, this is perversely ironic, because you are effectively stateless, given Iran disowns any citizens who flee as refugees. If Sri Lankan, you are branded a terrorist. And then some tosser who is paid $3000 every week for looking after you – but nevertheless resents you because you create work for him – essentially says: ‘Misery is a choice. Do you choose to see your cup as half full or half empty?’
Half empty, I should think.
I’m cooking some meat and eggs after my shift. George wanders over. He’s shirtless and carrying a handful of chook.
‘So, how’s it been at work, mate?’
‘I left me rain jacket in the office the other day. Go back the next night and somebody’s nicked it. I reckon you can trust the refugees more.’
‘They’re just like normal people, aren’t they? Some good, some bad.’
‘That’s right. But mate, I understand it now. They’re not illegal immigrants. They’re just trying to find a better life for their family, mate. I fuckin’ love talking to ’em. They show me respect, I show them respect. Nah, they’re good blokes. If I was in their situation – the government trying to kill me and my family or something – I’d do the exact same thing, mate. I’d get on a fuckin’ raft if I had to. They just wanna come here, get a job and get their family to safety.’
‘DIAC – I heard that stands for Do I Actually Care, eh? One of ’em is in there for two fucking years, then he sees another bloke come and go with a visa in a month. Ah, it’s bullshit. Six months, I reckon. Maybe one year – max. You get ’em out there; they just wanna work. It used to be the Aussie battler, now it’s the Aussie bludger. These blokes put us to shame.’
‘If it was up to me, George, I’d make you a DIAC case manager.’
‘Yeah, no worries mate. Wouldn’t be any negatives from me. Everyone would get a visa. They say you got to have empathy, can’t have no sympathy. And you’re not meant to make friends with ‘em. But I reckon if I got into a scrap, some of them fellas would actually help me out. Eh? Ah, it’s bullshit, mate.’
Behind all the learned prejudice there is something deeply honest, fair and compassionate about George.
A story one of the managers recounted has stuck with me because it captures perfectly the difference between George and many of the others who work here.
The manager told me how he and a few others were at a pub in town. Luka, a man disliked at the centre for his oddball personality, ran over.
‘Hey,’ Luka pleaded, ‘those guys are beating up my friend!’
‘And?’ replied the manager.
‘Aren’t you going to help?’
With that, the manager and other off-duty officers sat back and watched Luka’s friend get clubbed over the back with a bar stool. They were, as the manager put it, ‘enjoying the show’.
If I put George into that scenario, such a response is inconceivable. He’s prejudiced but decent. I just wish the same was true of more workers – of more of us.
Perversely, the dysfunction of Curtin is writ largest not in the treatment of detainees, but in staff relations.
‘I’ve almost had three punch-ups here,’ Ken tells me.
‘With clients or staff?’ I ask
‘With staff, mate. The clients are no problem. I was about two inches from this guy’s face. I’m one of those guys who seems very calm. I take it and take it, but when I go off … That guy hasn’t said a word to me since.’
Wayne: ‘I’ve been here longer than all these cunts who come up as CSOs and get promoted to management before me. It’s bullshit! You want to know why these cunts pass me over? Racism.’
Ken: ‘Mate, I can see you’re one of the smart ones. Let’s be honest, the people they get up here are fucking naffs. They’re uneducated bogans. Anyone with a scrap of intelligence is considered a threat. The management in this place is a joke. There’s no chance I could ever go anywhere, because they know I’m not a dumb fuck who will toe the line.’
Ellie: ‘This job fucks people up. The longer you work here, the worse you get. I try with every ounce of effort not to be like them. It’s the last thing I want. But I can go off just at anything. At nothing. If you start off a bit of a cunt when you arrive, you’re a major cunt by the time you leave.’
What I hadn’t expected when I signed on was that the contempt directed towards detainees would pale in light of the contempt shared between co-workers. And yet it is the same impulse – to find difference and reject it – that animates both our rejection of asylum seekers and our rejection of each other, only played out in different contexts. What’s more, the apparent benefit is the same: hating a group of ‘others’ brings us closer together as a nation, while hating each other brings us closer together in our select social cliques.
The ignorance and anger festers among both detainees and workers, consuming even those of us who promised ourselves at the beginning: ‘Not me.’
It’s a hot, fetid, shitty Curtin evening. Berryl – a miserly, ignorant foreigner happy to sound off about foreigners in Australia – is one of the most unpleasant humans I have ever encountered. I’ve held my tongue, but tonight the words just tumble out – and it feels good. Very good.
‘You are an ignorant fucking bitch.’
It’s time to leave.