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Issue #1563      5 September 2012

Protest at Northam Immigration Detention Centre

On Sunday August 26, 2012, the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) held its Convergence at the recently completed Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre situated on the outskirts of Northam, about 100 kilometres east of Perth. It was attended by over 180 people, most who came by bus from Perth but also some people from Northam itself.

The protest outside of Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre.

Australians in recent times have become accustomed to the institutions where refugees are kept being called “detention centres”. However, the detention centres today look and feel more like prisons and in the case of Yongah Hill it looks much like the medium security Acacia Prison at nearby Wooroloo – ironically also run by the English security corporation SERCO.

The timing of the convergence was perfect as it happened within days of the federal Labor government and the Coalition joining forces to legislate for the indefinite, mandatory detention of people seeking refuge on our shores – mostly in ill-equipped boats. Since the days when the Coalition government of John Howard started to detain refugees, mainly offshore, thousands of refugees have experienced the dehumanising and traumatic practice of being locked up for the “crime” of fleeing war and persecution in their homelands.

There were a large number of state police on hand, a few Federal Police as well as SERCO’s own security staff to make sure the demonstration did not transgress specified terms and conditions. These were handed out on small flyers as people passed through the security gate to the car park of the detention centre. No one present could have missed the severe character of the centre’s security arrangements including the twin high wire fencing, security cameras and isolation of the location.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam addressed the protest. He asked, “What must it be like to be locked up in one of these institutions?” Ludlam also noted that, “Many of us would be related to people who had fled war and persecution”, especially from conflicts following World War 2. Senator Ludlam concluded, “Only the Greens and a few of the independents will stand up for refugees and resist the policy of mandatory detention … which had become warped and degraded.” The protest had also brought many new faces, a fact not lost on Senator Ludlam who humorously noted, had joined the usual ratbags who thankfully organise and attend these protests.

The next speaker was Colin Penter of SERCO Watch who for the last few years has been monitoring and reporting on the insidious build up and reliance of state and federal governments on SERCO to run detention facilities.

He noted that in an era of increased government austerity, “The federal government can still come up with the $1.25 -1.5 billion required to run these gulags.”

But as Penter asked, are the taxpayers of Australia receiving value for money. The profits SERCO made are often expatriated to Britain. SERCO is also hoping to wring more money from governments by offering privatised police, security and intelligence services. It is a lucrative contract which SERCO has for these detention centres as evidenced by the 40 percent mark-up which the corporation makes on the provision of services for the contract.

Penter also spoke about the hype concerning the perceived benefit to a rural community such as Northam by employing local people. The truth is that people who work there for SERCO become psychologically scarred as they are often ill-trained and ill-prepared for what they would see and hear in the private detention centres.

Colin Penter also reflected, “How appalling it was to have a private corporation inflicting misery on refugees ... when most of these people who have been kept in detention centres end up in the community, thereby relegating most of the detention centre experience as a waste of money and life.”

The trauma experienced by detainees in SERCO detention institutions is backed up by research reported in the Journal of the Australian Institute of Criminology which reported an almost threefold incidence of deaths in SERCO-run prisons – 4.5 deaths per thousand compared to the national average of 1.3 percent deaths.

The next speaker was Jacob Kazal a stateless refugee from Kuwait – of which a separate report could easily be written on the plight of these people many who have lived in Kuwait their whole lives and are not able to have a Kuwaiti birth certificate and sometimes even a death certificate to enable them to access the services of the Kuwaiti state.

Kazal found himself locked up for more than a year including in the notorious detention facility at Christmas Island “when he hadn’t done anything wrong ... only to escape from the horrors of war and repression.” He found it difficult to sleep as people were often being moved from one institution to another at odd hours and almost every day there are reports of self-harm – including three suicides of people he knew in the 12 months he had been at Christmas Island.

Of racism in detention centres he said that often the guards were racist and that one of the first English words he learnt was “racist”. He said that when he had seen and heard protests like the one we were having here at Yongah Hill, on their behalf, it gave them hope and inspiration.

The protest later moved from the car park to a hill overlooking the detention centre where RRAN organisers assured the protesters that the detainees could see and hear what was happening on their behalf from the back of the compound where most of them were kept.

More likely officials that run the detention centre wanted to make sure that the almost capacity number of 600 refugees would be out of sight and the protest would not be able to be seen by the refugees.

However, refugees, the detention centres and what happens in them can no longer be ignored or hidden from the Australian public. The organisers have vowed to return again and again until the detention centre is closed and all the refugees are allowed to live within the community while their cases are being decided and beyond.  

Next article – Call to end the detention of society’s most vulnerable

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