Close the detention centres!

January 31, 2001

Editorial: Close the detention centres!

Philip Ruddock, the federal minister for racism, has argued that last week's protests by asylum seekers at the Port Hedland detention facility were caused by a small group of “troublemakers” who were awaiting deportation. This argument is blatantly untrue, as Ruddock himself has admitted by saying that he couldn't guarantee a repeat of the protests.

The protests, like the protests at the Woomera facility last year, are a direct result of the brutal inhumanity of the government's policy of mandatory detention for refugees who arrive in this country “illegally”, and the even greater inhumanity of the way it is implemented by the Coalition government.

What Ruddock won't admit is that the reason so many people from the Third World are coming without the “proper” papers and outside of the “proper” channels is because of his government's restrictions on their chance to come here legally.

Successive Australian governments have favoured skilled migrants, frequently wealthy businesspeople, over those from poorer or less educated backgrounds. This government has also slashed the family reunion scheme, making it increasingly difficult for migrants and refugees to bring their families here.

It is no wonder that so many detainees have embarked on protests — hunger strikes, mass breakouts, even centre occupations such as occurred at Port Hedland.

Conditions at the detention centres are appalling. At Woomera, women and children are taken to the park once a fortnight, the men never leave the compound. Refugees are identified by numbers which are sewn onto their clothing, not by their names. The children do not attend school, and there are no language classes.

Although most of the refugee population have been through horrendous circumstances, there is no systematic assessment for post-traumatic stress disorders by trained psychiatrists.

Detainees have a sword constantly dangling over their heads. Many refugees are deported on cruel technicalities: most frequently, that they did not formally request asylum immediately on arrival or that they are deemed to have not tried sufficiently hard to get asylum elsewhere.

These deportations occur with little public protest, because very few Australians are aware of them. Many of the refugees deported are not even aware of their right to appeal the decision to deport. Some are unclear why they are being deported.

Contact with lawyers and humanitarian groups happens only when a refugee makes a specific request, meaning that they are often starved of information about their cases. Rumours are the main source of news.

By placing refugees in camps in isolated rural areas, and by restricting access to those camps to friends and supporters, as well as humanitarian organisations, the government has sought to limit sympathy for refugees by isolating them, and information about them, from the broader community.

Nevertheless, for all the government's efforts, protests by refugees at detention centres will, and should, keep happening. These protests are attempts by refugees to break through the isolation, and highlight their plight to the Australian population. Since the protests began, community outrage over the conditions in the camps has increased — it must continue to do so.

This outrage has already had some impact. Sections of the mainstream media have started to acknowledge the problems in the detention centres and have blamed them on poor management by the company which holds the private contract for the Port Hedland compound, Australian Correctional Management.

Even the Labor Party, which has sickeningly backed Ruddock's policy, has now bowed to public opinion and stated support for an inquiry into camp conditions.

But a review of the centres or a change in management is not enough. Refugees arriving in Australia need to be offered sanctuary and the chance to build a new life. For this to happen the detention centres must be closed and refugees must be allowed to immediately settle into the community and provided with a decent standard of income support, language classes and professional medical assistance.

Until this happens, we will continue to see protests at refugee detention centres.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.