Life inside Maribyrnong detention centre

July 8, 2011
Protesters outside Maribyrnong detention centre, May 29. Photo: Margarita Windisch

Three Tamil asylum seekers from Sri Lanka detained in Maribyrnong detention centre have agreed to share their experiences with Green Left Weekly. They are terrified that talking to journalists may cause their applications for refugee status to be impeded or denied. Due to this fear, these three men have agreed to share their experiences on the condition of anonymity.

The asylum seekers, “clients” as they are called by the Serco personnel, came to Australia to escape persecution, harassment, torture and violence. They had hoped for asylum and what have they found instead? A prison.

They refer to themselves as “clients” as well, which is clearly a euphemism for prisoners.

Many spend months and even years in these detention facilities, moving from centre to centre, often divided from their families in the process.

They wait for any information relating to their destiny. They are largely kept in the dark about information relating to the timeframe in which they can expect their claim to be processed.

One asylum seeker said that instead of loud protests and angering the government, he would prefer people who support their rights as refugees to talk with the representatives of the institutions that deal with the management of these centres. He said this might help them get some answers about their applications and maybe an idea of how long they will be incarcerated and away from their families.

The government will eventually release most asylum seekers, once they have been found to be legitimate refugees — although this can be many years for some.

One asylum seeker expressed concern that, with the exception of learning some basic English, there is no training or learning provided in Maribyrnong that could equip them with skills needed to enter the workforce.

After they get released they fear they will be unable to take an active part in the community. For months, and in many cases years, they have gone through multiple traumatising experiences.

Escaping from war or persecution, without having even the time to think about the procedures required to apply for a visa; leaving their loved ones and families behind; crossing lands and seas that they don’t know, together with hundreds of other unknown people in the same circumstances; constantly cheated by people smugglers and all those who can possibly take advantage from their despair.

And when they finally get to the land they were dreaming of, they are imprisoned like criminals. “By this stage, our will has been suffocated,” one said.

These men are extremely scared that their applications will be denied as a result of the behaviour of refugee rights protesters and the riotous actions of other detainees.

“Although some detainees find it uplifting to hear the protesters outside championing for their [the detainees] rights and freedom, personally I, and many others, feel that it will upset the Department of Immigration and Citizenship as well as the Australian government, therefore causing our applications to be drawn out even further or denied altogether,” one said.

“I find it extremely distressing when I hear the protesters outside, because we just want the process to be completed as quickly as possible, we miss our families dreadfully.”

The Maribyrnong detention centre visitor lounge is not an unpleasant place, there are televisions, tables, chairs and couches and facilities for making coffee and tea.

“They treat us quite well here in many aspects,” another asylum seeker said, “the depression and trauma come largely from being separated from our loved ones for such a long time.”

One of the detainees, who speaks English fluently, explains that he has a university degree which he received in Sri Lanka. He is a very intelligent and well-adjusted person. However, the stress of indefinite detention coupled with missing his family terribly makes surviving in the centre unbearable at times.

“I spoke to my two-year-old daughter recently, who I haven’t seen since she was eight months old,” one asylum seeker lamented. “After speaking with her I was hit with an overwhelming depression and started cutting into my arm.”

Self-harm and suicide, are very common among detainees who have very little understanding of Australian immigration laws and don’t understand why they are being treated as criminals.

Another asylum seeker said: “All I can think about is negative things, we have too much time for thinking”. This man only represents one case.

Amnesty International says, “long-term detention of asylum seekers not only violates their human rights, it is damaging to their health. Many experience depression, mental anguish, trauma and psychological damage in detention, according to leading Australian health

Mental illness is widespread and prevalent and the government needs to address this problem more seriously.

One of the asylum seekers outlined ways the Australian public can help: “Instead of staging protests and actions, which cause a lot of stress for us inside, people can come and visit us here and help to break up the monotony of indefinite incarceration, this still shows people inside the centre that many in the Australian community support them and would love to welcome them into the community; this is a much better way [than staging the protests] to show your support for us, in my opinion.”

All they can do in these centres is sleep, play pool or a limited selection of board games, skip English classes because they are too difficult, read the very limited range of books available, watch TV, talk for a few hours via Skype with their families and use the internet (which is always controlled, along with every other movement they make).

They are never allowed to leave the centre, they meet a few people sometimes — those who know about them and want to spend some time together with them, to try and brighten their day.

Unfortunately many Melbournians don’t even know that right in this city are two detention facilities — one for adults and one for teenagers. Sometimes people visit the centre as a one-off occurrence and this leads the detainees feeling as if they are animals in a zoo.

It is advisable to establish relationships and keep regular contact to eliminate the feeling that they are some kind of carnival attraction.

They are people just like us; they are not criminals, so why are they treated as such?


the screws were ok to me i was on hunger strike i did not eat one thing i hate oz after that i will never go back there it started in sa i was trying to do the right thing and got locked up for it my name is chris wilcox oz claims it want skilled people then locks them up great place i have nothing against the screws in vic but the ones in sa if i meet them outside of oz they will get slotted no question thanks geeza

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