The detention of about 150 asylum seekers in a disused mining camp at Leonora, near Kalgoorlie in remote Western Australia, is a return to the dark days of previous Coalition prime minister John Howard.
Under Howard, asylum seekers were detained at a disused defence department shooting range at Woomera in South Australia. Both cases involve refugees being detained at remote prison camps and only allowed out accompanied by detention centre staff.
Green Left Weekly’s Niko Leka spoke to Mira Wroblewski, a refugee advocate who spent six months near Woomera detention centre in 2002.
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What was your reaction when the Kevin Rudd Labor government was voted in? What’s your response to Julia Gillard now being PM?
Relief! It meant the end of the Temporary Protection Visa scheme, the closing of Nauru [detention centre]. But I was naïve, as it turned out. Rudd was bad, but Gillard is worse.
As shadow immigration minister, she toed Howard’s line. I used to think, “where’s the opposition?”
By saying she understands the anxiety the Australian public feels about refugees, she’s not leading people out of their fear, she’s fomenting it.
Why did you go to Woomera?
The press was running conflicting stories about refugees, so I joined a refugee action to see for myself. My first view of refugees was some of the men being chased by police, running up the road. They looked terrified. They were manhandled and thrown into the back of a paddy wagon. On a gut level it looked wrong.
I saw kids behind wire. Then there was a woman with a headscarf who obviously couldn’t speak English, desperately trying to talk to us through the fence. I could hear the despair in her voice. The guards tried to stop her. She kept trying, and they beat her with riot shields until she went down on the ground.
It distressed me. I gave up what I had been doing and decided to stay in Woomera.
What was the housing like for refugees there?
The government produced glossy brochures that made it sound like they were being kept in a normal suburb with backyards. But only women and children were allowed to live there. The men’s mental health declined pretty quickly when they were separated from their wives and kids.
The houses were very overcrowded; they sometimes had three families in a small house. They were watched all the time -- they were surrounded by fences, guards and cameras.
Was the town welcoming of the refugees?
They’d had hardly any visitors. For many, I was their first. So they didn’t have a chance to get to know anyone. Strangely, I was allowed to visit, but the director of nursing and her husband at the local hospital were not. Many of the townspeople were the families of detention centre staff.
Were the refugees allowed into town?
They couldn’t come and go. They’d sometimes get a small budget to do shopping. They’d have to go with a guard. They weren’t given a calculator, and it would be hard to work out how much things were -- they’d been traumatised, didn’t speak the language. So they’d have to give things back at the checkout if they exceeded their budget.
The guards thought it was funny to belittle and humiliate them, saying things like “are you too stupid to work out what you need?”
They wouldn’t be allowed to talk to anyone. Even if it was only us in the shop, the guards would immediately stop us talking. I had to obey, because otherwise they would stop me visiting.
You were instrumental in the Australian Press Council ruling out usage of the term “illegal immigrant”. Is it coming back into the media?
The ruling applies to print media, not electronic media. I have now lodged a complaint about a TV news report about asylum seekers who were put into a Brisbane motel. The reporter kept saying the motel was “close to schools and playgrounds” — as if the refugees were paedophiles!
So even though it seems like you’re pissing into the wind, its worth complaining.
How do you feel about Curtin detention centre re-opening?
I met [now Greens Senator] Sarah Hanson-Young at Woomera. I met her again at June 26 refugee rally in Sydney. We said to each other: “Oh, no, it can’t be happening again!”