Federal immigration minister Chris Bowen announced plans for a new 1500-bed detention facility on March 3. It is to be located at Wickham Point, an industrial area 35 kilometres south-east of Darwin.
The March 4 NT News said the Darwin Airport Lodge, which currently houses refugees, would also be expanded by 400 beds.
This would bring Darwin’s total detention capacity to 2900, making the city the largest detention location on the mainland — larger even than the notoriously overcrowded Christmas Island facility.
Locking up people fleeing war and persecution is big business in Australia. The federal government contracts the management of detention centres to private prison company Serco.
In line with this, the federal government appears to have bypassed local and Northern Territory authorities, coming to an arrangement with private developer John Robinson to build the Wickham Point facility.
On March 13, it was revealed members of Australia’s wealthy Paspaley family, which owns Paspaley Pearls, were key figures behind the project,
The NTJ Paspaley Nominees company owns the 94-hectare piece of land where the centre with be built, ABC Online said on March 13.
Litchfield council chief executive Russell Anderson said the decision had come out of the blue, reported ABC Online on March 4.
“[Bowen] said the privately leased facility was more cost-effective”, SBS said on March 4.
Announcing the plan, the minister said the “capital costs” for the centre would total $9.2 million. Four days later, the government was forced to admit that it would also pay $74 million over three years to lease the land.
The March 9 NT News said that Robinson also owns the Darwin Airport lodge.
Much mainstream news coverage has reported criticism of the plan from both refugee rights activists and the Coalition opposition.
Justine Davis, Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network coordinator, told Green Left Weekly: “We believe that resources need to be put into processing people's claims, completing their security and health checks, and moving them into the community — not into building more places to lock people up.”
Davis pointed out the destructive role the mainstream media can play in influencing public opinion. “The Darwin community is traditionally a welcoming one,” she said, “but many people are misinformed and fearful about asylum seekers.
“The constant referral to people as 'illegals' by mainstream media feeds this, as do words like 'flooding'. Australia takes 0.3% of the world's refugees and displaced people. These people are genuine refugees; 94% of people who risked their lives to come here by boat had their refugee status approved.
People need to hear the real story, not the racist hype.”
In an appeal to populism, Coalition immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison told ABC Radio’s The World Today on March 4: “[The government has] opened more [detention] beds and announced more beds than they have in public hospitals and I don't think that's a particularly good record.”
The same ABC report quoted Coalition leader Tony Abbott, who said: “There is only one solution to this particular problem and that's to stop the boats.”
Labor and the Coalition have been engaged in a racist, “we’re tougher on refugees” stoush for years.
The expansion of Darwin’s detention capacity was announced as Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s plan for a regional refugee-processing centre in East Timor appeared to be flailing.
Gillard denied there was a connection, and Bowen insisted Wickham Point was a “contingency measure”. But the March 4 Australian reported: “One of Dili's most senior politicians, Secretary of State to the Council of Ministers Agio Pereira, said the plan was simply not on the government's radar. ‘There is no momentum,’ he [said].”
The announced detention expansion coincided with media reports about ASIO “security checks” prolonging the amount of time refugees are imprisoned. This adds to the overall numbers of those locked up and to the profits of the private contractors.
ABC Online reported on March 2 that 900 people accepted into Australia as genuine refugees were still in detention waiting for ASIO to complete security checks.
“The group makes up more than 13 per cent of Australia's total asylum seeker population”, ABC Online said, “and security delays are being blamed for overcrowding inside detention centres and millions of dollars in extra costs.”
The number of recognised refugees languishing behind bars while ASIO goes through its motions has almost trebled since October 2010.
According to the ABC, a senior government official tried to blame ASIO’s bad planning and staffing levels. But, ultimately, it is the Labor government that continues to lock refugees up, in growing numbers and for longer periods of time.
It is the Labor government that has broken its promise to end prolonged detention, broken its promise to get kids out of the prisons, and continued to funnel money into those profiting from human cruelty.
It is the Labor government’s inhumane policy that must change, not staffing levels at ASIO.
[The Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network can be contacted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .]