Close the Baxter prison!


Sarah Stephen

On March 24, former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer will deliver the findings of his inquiry into how Cornelia Rau was mistakenly held in Baxter detention centre for 10 months on the assumption that she was an illegal immigrant.

Palmer's report won't mention the way Rau was treated while she was in detention. It won't mention that she was kept in solitary confinement for 18-20 hours a day, that it took six guards in full riot gear to get her back into her isolation cell. It won't mention that Rau was taunted by guards, who watched her while she was showering, or that detainees were pressured to complain about Rau so that she could be further punished, or that the detainees refused, choosing instead to help get her released.

Palmer's report certainly won't mention that all the 218 asylum seekers held in Baxter are treated in a similar way, with much damage to their mental health. There is a culture of punishment and abuse that permeates detention centres and a complete breakdown of the immigration department's duty of care.

In a letter to a supporter, one Baxter detainee described how his hands were cuffed together during a dental operation. After a series of fires which broke out inside Baxter at the end of 2002, asylum seekers recounted the brutal collective punishment that was meted out. One man wrote: "I have faced a lot of bad things in detention. I was never handcuffed in my whole life. When they put me in handcuffs in the hot sun I cried, I couldn't control myself. After that, strip search in front of two officers. It is a very shameful thing for me and I could not eat for two days. I don't know why they treat us so bad, maybe we are not human because we are not white."

Baxter first opened in September 2002, at the height of a groundswell of refugee-rights campaigning. Its construction allowed the government to close Woomera detention centre, which had become the focal point for national and international outrage at the Australian government's mistreatment of asylum seekers. Baxter was hailed as a more "humane" form of detention, a "state of the art" facility that cost some $28 million to construct. No razor wire, just an "energised detection and deterrent system", as former immigration minister Philip Ruddock described the 9000-volt electric fence.

It is a state of the art facility in one sense — it's caused more asylum seekers to completely lose their minds than any other. Asylum seekers who have spent time in other detention centres say that Baxter is the worst. All of the nine compounds are constructed in a circular fashion with a continuous facade. There are no outward looking windows. Friends are routinely separated in different compounds so they can't visit each other.

There are many cameras in each compound. The only place to be out of camera range is to stay in your room, or in the toilet. There are cameras in each of the isolation rooms in the "management unit". It takes around five days for detainees to receive medical attention, and when they do they are invariably told to drink lots of water and given Panadol.

Most of those who remain in Baxter are from Afghanistan and Iran. There are small numbers of Iraqis, Vietnamese and Sri Lankans. Many asylum seekers being held in Baxter have been there for many years, like Kashmiri asylum seeker Peter Qasim, who is in his sixth year of detention. He has asked to be returned, but the Indian government will not accept that he is from Kashmir.

Other asylum seekers have agreed to return to the countries they fled from. They have got to such a point of madness and despair that they don't care if they get killed upon their return. They say that anything is better than the hell of indefinite detention.

Over the Easter weekend, hundreds of refugee-rights supporters from around Australia will protest outside immigration minister Amanda Vanstone's house in Adelaide, before converging on the Baxter detention centre for three days of protests and kite-flying. They hope to shine the spotlight back on the Baxter hell-hole, and restate the call for an end to the brutal policy of mandatory detention.

John Pilger recently gave his support to the convergence with this message: "Places like Baxter belong in totalitarian countries, not democracies. They take away the basic human rights that ought to be the cornerstone of a democratic state, and their presence diminishes every one us. They should be closed down".

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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