Compassion caravan visits remote refugee camp

Issue 
Leonora detainees wave to compassion caravan participants. Photo: RRAN

Over the weekend of August 14-15, a “Compassion Caravan” left Perth to visit the Leonora immigration detention centre.

Organised by the Refugee Rights Action Network of Western Australia (RRAN), the caravan included 22 people (including university lecturers and children) and a cargo of gifts for the 195 mothers, fathers and children in the remote Leonora detention centre.

Before leaving Perth, RRAN’s Phil Chilton told Green Left Weekly the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and federal police had no problem with the visit, but Serco, the company that runs the centre, threw up many obstacles. He was confident these could be overcome through negotiation at Leonora.

Press reports and accounts posted on RRAN’s website reveal the detention centre, previously a mining camp, is more like a prison than a suitable place for families.

The caravan was greeted by padlocked gates, a double fence, a 100-metre-wide dry moat and stony-faced guards. Extra police were sent from Kalgoorlie for the occasion.

The refugee supporters were willing to fill in any forms, follow policies and undergo background checks and references in order to visit. However, the centre’s management was adamant the visit would not go ahead.

A post on RRAN’s website read: “We laid the toys outside the fence and an army of guards came and took them inside. We received no information on how the donations would be distributed or even if they would be. The detention centre manager responded to most requests with, ‘I don't have to answer that’.”

In contrast, the asylum seekers were delighted to see their supporters. Through the fence, they shouted, whistled, held their children up on their shoulders, and waved signs reading "Welcome to Leonora family rejection centre" and "Why? Innocent kids in detention".

Eventually four visitors were allowed in. Emerging from the centre, Compassion Caravan spokeswoman Victoria Martin said conditions for children were far worse than those in the notorious Baxter and Port Hedland centres. She said staff shouted at women when they tried to hand her letters and notes.

She learned that mothers were not allowed to cook for their children and the guards were intervening in parent-child relationships.

"We were already starting to see signs and hearing from this mother and the other people that our group spoke to, about children wetting the bed, children starting to self-harm, children having nightmares because of the conditions that these families are being held in”, Martin said.

[RRAN is now organising a "Dictionaries for Detainees" project. It aims to provide at least one bi-lingual dictionary to each of the families held at Leonora. See www.rran.org .]