The Guardian May 22, 2002


In the footsteps of the grave robbers

by Dave Mckay

One of the lowest forms of life in classical literature were grave 
robbers... opportunists who dug up the remains of dead people just so that 
they could plunder whatever wealth may have been buried with them.

Nazi Germany had a similar form of low-life, whose job it was to sort 
through the clothing, spectacles, and other personal belongings of Jewish 
concentration camp victims. Even the gold fillings in their teeth were dug 
out after the executions.

Every little bit of wealth was exploited, without a thought for the 
suffering of the people they were ripping off.

The Australian public has expressed horror and indignation at the callous 
indifference to the sufferings of others on the part of so-called "people 
smugglers".

These opportunists take advantage of desperate individuals fleeing for 
their lives, many of whom have lost family members to cruel political 
regimes, often just because they converted to Christianity or belonged to 
some other minority religious group.

In the tradition of the graverobbers, people smugglers weigh up how much 
each victim is worth, and then charge them the maximum that they can get, 
for a square foot of space on a leaky boat.

Deeply traumatised asylum seekers have run from the Taliban, Al Quaida, and 
other similar regimes, only to find themselves in further fear for their 
lives at the hand of the people smugglers.

And then along comes the Australian Government, sworn enemy of the people 
smugglers and sworn enemy of the Taliban and Al Quaida, and what do we 
offer those who have risked and virtually lost everything to find their 
freedom?

We offer them accommodation behind razor wire in places like Woomera, 
where, apart from guards and the families of guards, their nearest real 
neighbours may be hundreds of kilometres away. But we also offer them 
telephones.

With a telephone, they can contact relatives back in their home country. 
They can enquire about legal assistance.

Never mind that the average detainee gets less than one visitor a year 
because of the remoteness of the prison camp. A telephone can bring them 
communication with friendly Australians ... communication that can keep 
their hopes alive.

And this is where the tradition of the grave robbers has taken another 
shameful turn.

The Australian Government has, under the guise of national security, 
granted a private American company free rein to rob the prisoners of 
whatever wealth remains in their trust accounts simply by charging them 
whatever they like for the privilege of using the phones that have been 
especially installed in the Woomera detention centre... phones which will 
not accept Telstra, Optus, Vodaphone, or any other phonecard.

The phones have been especially constructed to use only one phonecard, and 
it is one of the rarest and most expensive cards in the entire world.

An agreement has been worked out with a tiny company that, up until now, 
had only owned a handful of telephones on a handful of trains (e.g. the 
Spirit of Tasmania), to supply special telephones to be used exclusively by 
prisoners in Woomera.

Pay-Tel Australia Ltd has a little office at unit 4/43 Railway Road, in 
Blackburn Victoria. But the company, in conjunction with Australian 
Correctional Management, has managed to squeeze hundreds of thousands (if 
not millions) of dollars out of people who are practically on death row, 
just by charging $1.25 a minute for the use of their phones... phones which 
have been specifically designed not to use any other form of phonecard.

A monopolistic and criminally overpriced telephone service which would be 
outlawed in any other Australian situation, has not only been allowed at 
Woomera, but it has received added protection from accountability.

This is done on the grounds that whatever the Australian Government, 
Department of Immigration, Australian Correctional Management, Pay-Tel 
Australia conspiracy wishes to charge their prisoners in Woomera for phone 
calls should be regarded as top secret classified information, which is 
vital to the national security.

Phone Pay-Tel, at (03) 9877 0222, and ask them how much it costs per minute 
to use their phone cards, and you will encounter fierce opposition.

If "Peggy" answers the phone, she will insist on knowing your name, first 
and last, (at the same time that she will refuse to give hers), what 
organisation you represent, why you are enquiring, how you expect to get a 
phone card to anyone at Woomera if you should happen to get one anyway 
(which she says is not available anywhere in the world outside of the 
canteen at Woomera itself).

Then she will tell you that the people who can tell you how many minutes 
you can talk for the $22 that they charge for their cards are all "out of 
the office".

If you should get through to Stuart, the "sales manager", who also lacks a 
surname, he will tell you that he's not prepared to talk about it, that the 
whole subject of their phone cards is a confidential one between himself 
and the Department of Immigration.

Call the head office of ACM (Australian Correctional Management) in Sydney, 
and they'll say that the people who know are not available too, that it's 
really a matter that is handled entirely by the people in Woomera, and that 
the people in Sydney are not kept informed about such things.

Phone the ACM number in Woomera (08) 8673-7007, and Jeff will most likely 
put you on hold while he checks with the canteen, only to tell you that the 
canteen people are not in today, and probably won't be in tomorrow either. 
Jeff also refuses to reveal a last name.

Jeff will insist that no officials in Woomera know how much it costs per 
minute to telephone either a local, STD, ISD, or mobile number from the 
detention centre, and so there is no point putting you through to anyone.

The information is known only to the people who work at the canteen, and 
they are unreachable.

Our enquiries have revealed that the lowest fee for a call from the Pay-Tel 
phone on the Spirit of Tasmania is $1.25 for one minute. This compares with 
prices ranging from 9 cents a minute for an international call to as much 
as 22 cents a minute for a call anywhere in Australia, using a normal phone 
card.

In other words, the mark-up inside of Woomera, for something which is vital 
to the well-being of people who have supposedly only been detained there 
temporarily for their own protection, is well over 500 percent, and 
possibly much more.

Until Pay-Tel, or someone above them chooses to tell us how much it costs 
to talk for a minute on one of their cards, the public can only imagine the 
worst.

This is surely grave robbing at its worst. People who have already been 
robbed of the lives of family members, robbed of their homes, robbed of 
many thousands of dollars to get here, robbed of their freedom, often for 
years at a time, and possibly robbed of their lives if forcibly returned to 
their home country, are being systematically fleeced by the conspiracy that 
exists at Woomera, in an effort to leave them totally penniless by the time 
they leave detention.

Shame on Phillip Ruddock! Shame on John Howard! And shame on the people of 
Australia, if we let them continue to act in such a way in our name.

* * *
On behalf of the Refugee Embassy, Woomera, S.A. 5720 Phone (02) 4954-2590 or 0407-238805

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