BY TAMARA PEARSON
SYDNEY — On April 14, without any notice, 29 refugees being held in the Villawood detention centre were forcibly moved from the centre's stage 3 compound (where detainees without family members are kept) to the stage 1 compound, which is supposed to only house new arrivals.
The centre's manager claimed this action had been taken because the 29 detainees had deliberately burnt fences using lighted paper, fought with an Australasian Correctional Management officer during a protest and verbally abused ACM officers.
A statement issued on April 21 by a representative of the 29 detainees paints a different picture for why they are being punished by ACM. The statement explains that on March 31 about 150 out of 180 stage 3 detainees signed a petition protesting their treatment by ACM officers.
According to the statement, ACM responded to the petition by inviting the detainees to a meeting. Various issues were discussed, including installation of telephone lines, removal of fences between the stage 2 and stage 3 compounds, improvement in food and provision of amenities for visitors.
The detainees' statement alleges that after various meetings with different levels of ACM management, many of which were cancelled without explanation, ACM agreed to have Telstra install phone lines, even though ACM at first said this was not possible for budget reasons. The detainees comment in their statement that this excuse has been used for the past few years and hasn't stopped ACM installing surveillance cameras.
However, because there was no improvement in food and the other grievances they had raised in their petition to ACM management were not being addressed, those who had signed the petition decided to stage a peaceful protest at lunch time on April 13.
As a result a peaceful protest was organised. According to the detainees statement, "normally meals are not supposed to be taken outside the [compound's] dining room". But on April 13, "we insisted to have our lunch [outside] as part of our peaceful protest".
After the ACM supervisor in charge finally agreed to this, one of the detainees held open the dinning room door to enable the others to take their meals outside. However, "one ACM officer" tried to stop the detainee doing this.
"The officer pushed him aside. Unfortunately, a cup of hot water on the tray he carried poured down onto [the detainee's] chest. He was seriously burnt. Some part of the skin peeled off. In panic he [threw] away the tray and [it] landed on the officer's shoulder. The officer's shirt was dirty but [he was] not injured at all. The injured [detainee] was rushed for medical attention. This issue was reported to police. The peaceful protest [was] cancelled."
At about 8pm, the program manager informed the stage 3 detainees that the centre manager would like to talk to them at 8am the next day. However, "The manager did not come, and instead, the detainees were forcibly removed to stage 1".
The detainees' statement continues: "The ACM officers rushed in our room, took us out from bed, handcuffed [us] and [moved us] straight away to Stage 1. Many of us were not properly dressed. Only with T-shirt, underwear and barefooted in such cold morning. Couple of detainees who vocally protested this inhumane removal were beaten by the ACM officers (the removal of us were videotaped by ACM)."
Several hours later, the 29 detainees who were moved from stage 3 to stage 1 were told that if they did not obey the instructions of ACM officers they would be moved to another detention centre or even jailed.
In their April 21 statement, the detainees point out: "In Stage 1 there are 3 dorms. In our dorm there be over 40 detainees confined in a filthy and stuffy room for about 18 hours per day. The size of the dorm is about 20m by 8m. We're allowed to go out for fresh air 4 times a day. Each time 1 to 1 and a half hour. (It's included for laundry, food, medication, telephones call and other basic requirements).
"[Our] two representatives who were treated most worse. They're confined in a cell for 23 hours a day. Only one hour for fresh air per day.
"Many of us are in deep shock, frightened, having nightmare and getting more and more depressed. We're worried of what will happen to us again. Many detainees turn to smoking and smoking while a number of non smoking detainees have to 'enjoy' the stink of air in the room. [The passive] smokers are now suffering respiratory difficulties and nausea. Our health is deteriorating and our lives are in great danger...
"The ACM only gives a relief pills. They firmly believed that what they're doing is right."
The detainees claim that the accusations made by ACM as justification for their removal from stage 3 to stage 1 — the deliberate burning of fences and fighting with an ACM officer during the April 13 peaceful protest — are untrue. Their statement concludes: "ACM knows very well we're defenceless. There's no independent body to monitor its activities. There's no human rights [here] at all.
"ACM knows how to abuse its power very well, do anything as they like. Many Chinese who [have] just newly [been] brought in[to] this detention centre who never at any time exert any peaceful protest nor signing any petition were also removed to Stage 1 from Stage 3, simply because they're Chinese (we're badly discriminated against).
"We hope after reading this atrocious oppression made by ACM toward detainees here, you'd sympathise with us and immediately bring ACM to justice."
From Green Left Weekly, May 1, 2002.
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