Inside immigration detention — Part 7

Issue 
'It looked like a prison — even the outdoor staff area had a cage around it.'

Carol Hucker worked in Manus Island Detention Centre as a counsellor for International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) and as a case worker for the Salvation Army from June 2013 to July last year.

She has allowed Green Left Weekly to publish her account so that people can become more aware of what is happening on Manus Island.

She said: “It is my hope that through this brief account the men on Manus will not be forgotten.”

This is the seventh part of a multi-part series and covers her time on Christmas Island in April and May 2014.

* * *

This was the first time I had worked on Christmas Island. The staff accommodation, to me, was luxurious. I shared a house with two other people but I had my own room. It was hot on Christmas Island but not as humid as it was on Manus. The island is very beautiful and good for bush walking.

There were separate compounds for families and for single men. The single men's compound was a 30-minute drive from the family compound. It looked like a prison; even the outdoor staff area had a cage around it. A series of buzzers controlled entrance to nearly every area.

In the single male accommodation there was an area that was set apart from the rest of accommodation. It had distinctive red doors. This area housed people who needed “behavior modification”.

Children in detention

During this rotation I was assigned to work in the family compound. As I approached the family camp on my first day I was reminded of children in childcare centres waiting at the fence for their parents to come. I had to remind myself that these children were not waiting for someone to pick them up. They were being detained for an indefinite period.

On Christmas Island children could go outside the compound on a daily basis, but there was no school for these children to attend and no organised sport or other activities. Their parents said they just went out to play together. Most parents were frustrated that the children were getting no education. It was not uncommon for children to demonstrate acts of aggression and regressive behavior, such as bed wetting.

Most of the families lived in fear of being sent to Nauru. Every Saturday they feared that someone would knock on their door to tell them that they would be transferred there. They knew about Nauru and did not want to go there. IHMS staff was sometimes told in advance who would be going but could say nothing to those being transferred.

Within the family compound there was a separate compound for unaccompanied male minors. This group was designated to be transferred to Nauru. The unaccompanied female minors were accommodated in the family compounds. Single male members of families were removed from the family compound when they turned 18 and sent to the single adult male facility. These young men could visit their families just once a week.

On Manus Island I had met some men who had been split from their families on Christmas Island. Once this happened it was very difficult to stay in contact. Consideration would be given for one off telephone calls, but they could not be made regularly.

Sometimes it was easy to please the children with small gestures. For example, one day I was surrounded by a group of little girls, about 8 years' old. They began to quiz me on certain princess characters and asked if I could get colouring books for them.

A couple of male children also approached me to get colouring books. I was able to do this and as I was giving them out one day, many more children approached me asking for copies. They were very happy to get these pictures. One of the mothers asked for a colouring book and she coloured some pictures in and gave them to me as a present.

Deportation

The refugee status of a Sri Lankan family I had become close to was rejected and they were designated to be deported. When I arrived, their first refugee determination status had already been refused. After the interview a young female member of the family chose to return home. When she arrived in Sri Lanka the authorities asked for a relative to pick her up. Her mother came to pick her up and the authorities arrested the mother and put her in jail.

The family on Christmas Island were terrified this would happen to them as well and decided to appeal the decision regarding their refugee status. They thought if they explained what had happened to their relative it would form the basis of an appeal.

As they waited for this decision, one of the young children of the family asked if she could come to counselling. She explained that she would get angry and didn't know why, but it scared her. This child, who was 8 years' old, was very considerate to others.

One day, while I was conducting a group for the children, I gave out some treats. One little girl didn't like what she had taken and began to cry. The other girl offered her lolly even though she did not have an extra one for herself.

During one counselling session we discussed what she had left behind, including her mother and father, and it was clear where her anger and sadness was coming from. During one interview she became quite distressed and said to me: “Don't you understand? If we go back to our country we will be killed.”

A couple of days later the decision was made to reject their appeal. It was the job of the mental health staff to check on people when negative decisions were given. I was not part of this, but went across later in the day to see the family, who were still distressed by this decision. They sat in silence. One family member had his head in his hand, while another family member had a hand on his shoulder. I never knew if they were returned to Sri Lanka as I left before the situation was resolved.

Traumatised people

A family received a call from family members in Myanmar, to tell them that most of their family members had been slaughtered by the military. The details were gruesome and the family was greatly traumatised on hearing this.

It appeared that the family had been attacked because they were minority Rohingya Muslims. This made it clear why they were hoping to live safely in a country where they would not be persecuted.

The IHMS worker who listened to them after the phone call was himself so traumatised by what he had heard that he asked them to stop telling him more details. He could not bear to repeat much of what he heard.

One older woman from Somalia, told me that she had chosen to go back to her country. She said all of her family had been shot and killed and that was why she had come by boat, to be safe. But she saw no end to her detention and there was no information from immigration about what was going to happen to her. She said that she would rather go back home than wait in limbo. She had made that decision and was just waiting for transport to be organised. She talked with acceptance about being killed on her return to Somalia. To this day I don't know if she is alive or dead.

Pregnant women would often have cravings. One had a craving for tomato and cucumber, but when she asked, she was told she just had to accept what she was given. So I smuggled some tomatoes in for her, which she greatly appreciated. They then began to grow tomatoes in their designated garden. She and her husband were designated to go to Nauru.

One family I met had young children and I often took treats to them. This family was moved to the Australian mainland for medical reasons not long after I left. They were given a letter from an IHMS psychologist advising that it would be unsafe to return them to offshore detention for medical and mental health reasons.

The mother was told by immigration officials that the medical staff had no right to interfere with their processing and that they would ignore the letter. I later confirmed with a lawyer that this was the case.

Immigration was ignoring all letters given by the medical provider, regarding people's welfare. The mother was also berated by one of the Serco security guards, who accused her of being irresponsible for bringing her children out on a boat.
In general, most of the women had university degrees of some kind, such as accounting, IT, science and medicine. Most of the people in detention could also speak English.

Some of the women had acquired injuries on their journey. One woman, who was using a crutch to get around, told me that she had sustained a back injury when she fell over on the boat. Another woman had suffered severe trauma as a result of the boat trip.

Most of the women wanted to cook for their families but when I investigated this I was told it was not possible as it was an occupational health and safety issue. I found a place in the community that offered activities for men and women but I was told that because they charged $5 per person for each activity that it would not be paid for.

I came to the end of another rotation. It had been difficult seeing men in detention on Manus, but seeing the children was heartbreaking. There were not enough activities for the children, and it was dehumanising and insulting for competent people with university degrees to have to ask the permission of security guards to do simple things, like use the internet.

[Part 1 of this series is here; Part 2 is here; Part 3 is here; Part 4 is here; Part 5 is here; Part 6 is here.]

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