The Northern Territory: Australia’s refugee detention capital

March 16, 2012
Refugees held inside Darwin's Northern Immigration Detention Centre last year.

The Northern Territory has become Australia’s refugee detention capital. The federal immigration department’s new plan is to fund extra police for NT detention centres.

The immigration department, Australian Federal Police and the NT police agreed on March 12 to a two-year deal for 94 new police officers, worth $53 million.

NT chief minister Paul Henderson said it was “great news for the people of Darwin”.

He said: “The worst case scenario is a full-blown riot and a breach of security which would see a significant number of detainees break out into the broader community.”

NT Police Commissioner John McRoberts said he was “delighted” with the 8% boost in police numbers, reported.

Refugee supporters, activists and ex-detainees will converge in Darwin over the Easter weekend to witness and protest against NT detention conditions and show solidarity with the single men, families and children locked up there. The convergence, which takes place at a different remote detention centre each year, will mark 20 years of mandatory detention in Australia.

Almost 1000 refugees are held in three NT detention centres — the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC), the Airport Lodge in Darwin and a new centre at Wickham Point about two hours away.

There has been constant protest and unrest in NIDC for several years. But most actions are non-violent, such as rooftop protests and the hunger strike begun by long-term detainees on March 7.

Other protest actions have included asylum seekers digging graves for themselves in the compound and lying in them, sometimes overnight.

When locked-up refugees become violent, it is usually against themselves. The Darwin Asylum Seekers Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN) said on March 11 that two Iranian detainees had tried to hang themselves in their room. Other asylum seekers responded by “chanting for their release from detention”.

DASSAN's Fernanda Dahlstrom said dozens of suicide attempts took place in the centre last year and self-harm was continuing “at an alarming rate”.

DASSAN said: “In the past three weeks in NIDC one man attempted to kill himself by swallowing a light bulb, one man attempted to hang himself with a shower curtain and there have been a number of hunger strikes.”

When refugees did, as Henderson fears, break out of the centre in September 2010, they held a peaceful protest outside the detention centre gates, holding banners pleading for protection and mercy.

Amnesty International representatives visited several Australian detention centres, including the three NT centres, this year. In its February 22 report on the visits, Amnesty said NIDC was “a mess of gates and fences” and “remains totally inappropriate for the long-term detention of asylum seekers”. The report said the longest time refugees had been held there was between 600 and 700 days.

Amnesty said: “The effect of their internment was starkly displayed through the scars of self-harm many asylum seekers showed the delegation.”

The Wickham Point detention centre has taken almost 460 asylum seekers from other centres since it opened in December. Amnesty said “the level of security both inside and outside the centre is still completely unnecessary for a facility purpose built to hold asylum seekers not criminals”.

Despite Wickham Point’s remote location, hostile climate and insect plague — the area had previously been considered unfit for human habitation — the government plans to expand its capacity to 1500. Amnesty noted many asylum seekers transferred in December had not yet begun any assessment process for their asylum claims. Some were not due to begin until late this month.

Amnesty also visited Curtin detention centre, the North-West Point and Phosphate Hill detention centres on Christmas Island, and Perth detention centre. It showed the situation of anguish, unrest and protest in NIDC is mirrored across the detention centres.

Although most refugee protests are peaceful, physical conflict does take place between asylum seekers and guards.

The federal police used tear gas, “bean bag” bullets and batons against asylum seekers at the Christmas Island detention centre in July last year.

Riot police have carried out full-scale assaults on refugees protesting against their unjust confinement. Many refugees are later dragged to court on “assault” charges, but the guards and police that perpetuate the violence are not questioned.

New documents leaked by Crikey show that private-detention contractor Serco condones violence against its “detainees”.

On March 13, Crikey leaked a 2010 “prison-style training manual” detailing “control and restraint” tactics for Serco employees.

The manual instructs staff to target refugees' pressure points, use “joint-lock control and escort” positions, and use “defensive counter strikes” to create “temporary motor dysfunction [and] muscle impairment”.

Crikey said: “The 400-page, illustrated 2010 and 2009 Serco induction training documents … shows how prison staff are trained to kick, punch and jab their fingers into detainee limbs and ‘pressure points’ to render them motionless.”

It “recommends the use of ‘pain’ to defend, subdue and control asylum seekers through straight punches, palm heel strikes, side angle kicks, front thrust kicks and knee strikes”.

Immigration minister Chris Bowen and a Serco spokesperson responded to Crikey that the manual was “no longer in use”. Bowen said the use of force was “strictly a last resort”.

But they “refused to detail how the British-owned multinational has altered or updated it”. In January, a court upheld Serco’s bid to keep its current training manual secret, agreeing with Serco’s claim that making it public would be a “threat to national security”.

Read more refugee rights coverage.


the things ive seen are horrible i cant believe the treatment of the people, the disrepect, the verbal abuse, the threats, the intimidation, they think they are better than us, they treat us so poorly, the violence aggressive behaviour towards us, they gang up on us they dont care if we get hurt.

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