SCMP Wednesday, December 27, 2000
Australia's concentration camp
The detention centres are isolated, difficult to reach, surrounded by fences and razor wire and patrolled by guards. Inside, there is anger and misery, even the occasional riot among puzzled and traumatised asylum seekers who endured long and dangerous boat journeys in the hope of a better life. Outside, there are critics who say the centres are little better than concentration camps. But there are also those who believe the detainees should not have come to Australia, that their fate is of their own making.
Sounds similar to Hong Kong at the height of the Vietnamese boat-people crisis, when refugee-support groups attacked the detention of boat people and the conditions in which they were held, yet polls showed local people had limited sympathy for them.
But this is not Hong Kong. These camps are in Australia, mostly in isolated locations, even in the heart of the desert. They are run by Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), a local subsidiary of Wackenhut Corp, a United States-based prison-management company founded by a former agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is a for-profit company that runs prisons and Australia's six Immigration Department centres.
Wackenhut lost its contract for one American prison and had 12 employees charged with rape and sexual assault at another. At the camp in Woomera, South Australia, in August, ACM staff used water cannon, tear gas and batons in an effort to quell a riot.
For most Australians the centres, which now house almost 1,800 people, have been out of sight and out of mind. They were places where those who arrived in Australia illegally seeking refugee status were locked up to await the result of their applications - for months, perhaps even years. But last year, a huge influx of asylum seekers, most fleeing the Taleban regime in Afghanistan or the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, began arriving on the Australian coast. With Australia one of the few Western nations to use mandatory detention, numbers in the camps swelled to more than 3,500.
To cope with the influx, the Woomera detention centre, a former defence barracks on a treeless plain in one of the remotest parts of Australia, was opened in November last year. In April, numbers at Woomera reached 1,434, but the freeing of many asylum seekers on three-year temporary-protection visas - a controversial move condemned by humanitarian groups because the visas do not entitle holders to benefits available to other refugees and do not allow them to sponsor their families - leaves 240 men and 35 women there. They are each assigned a number, which they wear and by which they are known.
In June, about 300 detainees broke out and marched to Woomera town, where they staged a peaceful protest over the length of their detention and conditions. A A$1.72 million (about HK$7.46 million) security fence was installed. In August, their protests turned violent, when about 80 detainees set fire to buildings and injured some security staff. "It's worse than an Iraqi jail," Majid, a former detainee who kissed the ground when he, his wife and three children landed off the Western Australian coast last year, told journalists.
Fast forward to mid-December. Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was "disappointed". More than 160 would-be asylum seekers had apparently died when their boats sank off the Australian coast and there were suggestions he did not care. It was a terrible loss, he said, and it was disappointing that anyone would suggest he would not be compassionate.
To even hint that someone might not care about such a tragedy, that he might see it as 160 fewer people to cram into Australia's detention centres, is not to be done lightly. How could it be that such suggestions were being made about one of Australia's senior ministers? Could it be, perhaps, because Mr Ruddock oversees a system of desert detention behind barbed wire that aims to deter those suffering persecution elsewhere from trying to seek asylum in Australia?
Could it be that in recent weeks his reaction to allegations of serious problems - rape, child abuse, handcuffing of children, forced feeding of hunger strikers - within that detention system has been such that it has led to calls for his resignation?
Could it be because he wants the New Zealand Government to change its migrant-selection criteria so those entering Australia by the "back-door" method of gaining entry to New Zealand first and then crossing the Tasman Sea are more likely to be those Australia deems suitable?
Could it be because just two months after a New Zealand government amnesty for overstayers - most of them Pacific Islanders, who would then have free entry to Australia - Canberra is planning a crackdown on New Zealanders' welfare entitlements?
Under Mr Ruddock's administration, there has been a major shift in the emphasis of Australia's immigration policy. The small increase in numbers this year was the first since the Liberal-National Government took office in 1996, and although those with desirable skills are eligible, family reunions are strictly limited.
This "only-those-we-want" emphasis is reflected in all aspects of immigration policy. But nowhere is the Government's attitude more evident than in its treatment of those who arrive illegally. Their immediate detention in arduous conditions is seen as a deliberate attempt to discourage further such arrivals.
As in Hong Kong, human-rights lawyers have accused the Government of breaching international agreements on treatment of refugees - in particular, Article 10 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which specifies treatment with humanity and respect for a person's inherent dignity.
In a recent hard-hitting column, commentator Robert Manne accused the Government of breaching several of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' guidelines including detention only during initial assessment, independent review of continuing detention, making every effort to spare children detention, and never using detention as a weapon to deter future refugees.
Even former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser has condemned the centre, describing it as a "hellhole" and calling for its immediate closure and the transfer of the refugees to a humane facility. "I can't imagine a worse place to send people who are fleeing persecution," he said.
A UN committee, repeatedly thwarted by the Government in its efforts to visit Australia to inspect its system of mandatory detention, has finally abandoned the attempt. And Mary Crock, a lawyer who visited the camps to prepare a report for the Human Rights Commission, has had her report cut since she submitted it in August, and has been warned she would face jail if she revealed its contents. The refugees had been demonised and represented as queue jumpers, the tent camps turned into full concentration camps, she said.
Meanwhile, the Independent Council for Refugee Advocacy has warned that with almost 250 children in the camps, the council and other concerned groups may sue the Government for abusing children.
On December 18, a report was leaked to the media in which the Commonwealth Ombudsman reportedly said immigration detainees should not be held in jails. And Mr Ruddock, under pressure over treatment of the detainees, announced he was considering allowing women and children to live in nearby towns, although male family members would remain in the camps. His announcement came as ACM refused Amnesty International protesters permission to give Christmas toys to the children in a Melbourne detention centre.
The current anger about Australia's detention centres began to reach boiling point in mid-November, when it was alleged that a 13-year-old detainee had been sexually abused by his father and that clinic nurses had been coerced by ACM staff to cover it up.
Mr Ruddock played down the allegations of abuse, calling them hearsay, and his spokesman has said they were investigated and found to be without substance.
Soon after the allegations were publicised, two of the nurses spoke to the media about the incident and their distress over conditions at Woomera. Detainees were treated "worse than animals, because animals have the best of care", nurse Marie Quinn said. She also alleged that a brothel operated at the centre, with girls under 16 providing oral sex in return for chocolate bars.
Since then, it has been alleged by the Catholic Church's welfare arm that women and children had been raped at Woomera but that penalty clauses in ACM's contract inhibited the reporting of such incidents. There have also been allegations that children have been handcuffed and that a centre nurse was sexually assaulted by an ACM staff member. There are concerns about the qualifications of some of the nursing team at Woomera and about large numbers of traumatised single men being locked up with women and children.
By November 22, Mr Ruddock had succumbed to increasing pressure over the allegations that the boy had been abused and announced an inquiry, to be headed by former Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Philip Flood. But when its terms of reference were later released, they were condemned - by the opposition, the Church, refugee and welfare groups - as too narrow and designed to look at processes rather than policies or the centre's management. These groups have called for a judicial inquiry, and several of those who say they have direct knowledge of events at Woomera will not give evidence to the inquiry because it has no judicial powers to protect witnesses.
But since the initial abuse allegation, the trickle of information about conditions inside Woomera has become a flood. Last week, South Australia's Human Services Department announced its own investigation had found no evidence to support the allegations the boy had been abused, nor that he had been traded to other men for cigarettes. He has been reunited with his father.
Several former Woomera detainees have also spoken publicly about their treatment there and have made allegations of abuse and assault by ACM staff. Bruce Garry, a former Woomera psychiatric nurse, has told reporters: "It's Yellow Peril revisited. Woomera is our statement as a nation that we don't really want these people visiting our shores."
If that is Mr Ruddock's aim, then it is working. Recently, he announced the number of illegal immigrants arriving in Australia next year was expected to halve.
Sue Green is a Melbourne-based journalist.