Life in detention a daily shame

September 13, 2013
Part of the Wickham Point detention centre. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Soft brown eyes flicked furtively towards the guard’s room, then back to the ripe luscious strawberry she had carefully placed on the table’s edge. She waited for the guard’s laconic indifference to blend into the certainty of distraction, then secreted the treasure in her loose pocket.

“For my friend,” she confided, while a hint of defiance momentarily lit up eyes that for most of our visit had spilled out a lifetime of sorrow and loss. “My pregnant friend.”

The friend was one of 50 pregnant women at Wickham Point detention centre, an hour’s drive outside Darwin. This is a facility built and structured for single men. A portion has now been arbitrarily designated an “alternative place of detention” (APOD) and now interns 357 children and their families among the more than 1500 asylum seekers.

Its harsh regimen and imposing edifice replete with electric fences are confronting for anyone, much less small children and their parents.

We had been ushered into the center by officious Serco officers on what was the third day of our investigation into conditions at the various internment camps in Darwin.

We had been enjoying a veritable feast with the snacks, including some punnets of strawberries that a local advocacy group, the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network, had gotten permission to bring in with us, all duly x-rayed and screened.

The asylum seekers had generously shared their stories and confided their concerns regarding conditions and confirmed much of what others had revealed to us over the course of our weekend.

Food, of course, always features prominently, but dramatically more so when children are involved. The concerns ranged from hygiene (rice being served with hands) to extremely poor breakfasts with such a restriction on eggs it was triggering fights that children were witnessing.

We heard again how there were no snacks for even small children and baby food was rationed so empty jars had to be returned to get a new one.

My confidant’s eyes flashed with incredulity and a fierce indignation as she told me how a Serco officer had insisted that when they said everyone must line up — for the two hours it takes to get meals served — that literally meant everyone, even the toddlers and small children playing in the corner of the dining hall.

“He said if they don’t stay in line they won’t get lunch,” she told me. “The parents tried to say they are too little to do that but he argued with them, it is the rule.

“But I said to him, ‘what is your problem, don’t you have any children? How can you ask little children to stand in a line for so long every meal? This is ridiculous. You cannot ask children to do that.’ But he would not listen and everyone had to go and get the children to stand in line.”

It is clearly absurd to apply this policy to small children three times a day. We also discovered a lack of fresh fruit: one a day even for the pregnant women, hence the secreted strawberry.

Valid concerns were raised regarding the health of pregnant women and children because there were limits on fruit and other foods. This particular site is notorious for having an unusually large number of disease-carrying biting insects compared to other locations in Darwin and surrounds.

A series of other concerns were also revealed that reflected the inappropriateness of the imposed regimen and the rigidity with which Serco was applying various policies designed for a single men’s centre.

For example, even married couples have no entitlement to privacy. Guards, including male guards, have carte blanche to walk into family’s bedrooms, ignoring privacy, even when women are in the shower. This causes considerable embarrassment and distress.

Sanitary pads are doled out one at a time, so women need to repeat the humiliating ritual of requesting a fresh one each time they needed to replace a soiled one. Diapers are dispensed three per day. This was adhered to even when one child had diarrhoea and she was begging for more and quite reasonably asked the officer “How can I make him stop? What can I do? I cannot make it stop.” She was met with a rather unsympathetic and unhelpful response.

Pregnant women at Wickham are still waiting for maternity clothes and underwear, necessitating either going without or borrowing from larger women.

We listened and made notes and promised to try to help. It was clear the battles that had been won to lighten the regimen for families at other APODs would need to be fought again at Wickham.

All too soon it was time to go. The guard lumbered over and raised one hand, fingers spread. “Five minutes.”

We gathered ourselves together and, with that feigned cheerfulness that is typical of the ritual, hugged and waved our goodbyes.

The officer gestured impatiently for the visitors to stand off to one side while she inspected the group of asylum seekers. Identities needed to be verified before they would be ushered back through the air-locked series of cages to their compounds.

Everyone in detention has an ID card with their name, picture and “boat number” (a unique identity number composed of the first three letters of the boat they arrived on followed by a number in the order they came off).

One by one she barked out their numbers, ignoring the names clearly printed above. One by one they submitted to this public humiliation with a dignity and a grace that said volumes about their character and of course even more about that guard’s.

Even the child that had joined us with her dad answered to her number without hesitation, underscoring how common the practice is despite the immigration department’s and Serco’s denials.

I watched them go with the slow burn of rage simmering in my belly. No one should ever be forced to submit to being called by a number, nor be living behind electric fences, detained indefinitely without charge or trial. But neither should they be begging for enough diapers, or sanitary pads, or baby food, or concealing strawberries for a pregnant friend in the pocket of their trousers. These multiple, small, but far from trivial indignities, take a toll on people’s health and wellbeing. There ought to be no place for them in our nation.

[Victoria Martin-Iverson is a member of the Refugee Rights Action Network in Western Australia.]

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