The near-continuous introduction, change and reversal of several federal government policies on asylum seekers arriving by boat have had a severely damaging effect on refugees held in the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin.
An Iranian man who arrived on Christmas Island just after the government announced it would “swap” 800 asylum seekers in Australia for 4000 refugees from Malaysia, said he was told every day he would be deported. “It was the worst two months of my life.”
The 29-year-old and his younger brother fled Iran after being persecuted and tortured by the government. They were held at the maximum-security North-West Point detention centre. Almost all male asylum seekers have spent time at this centre. It was described by an Amnesty International delegation that visited last month as completely inappropriate for asylum seekers.
The government’s promise to release more refugees on bridging visas – to live in the community until they win protection – has also made his situation worse.
“Everyone from my boat who was here are gone. It is just me and my brother.”
He said another detainee, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, smashed a computer the day before we visited in frustration over remaining while others continued to leave. He was taken to the higher security section of the compound and remained isolated from others.
The Iranian man said his brother was suffering serious mental illness because of his torture in Iran and then detention in Australia.
“When we first arrived I was so happy,” he said. “Now, I try to keep busy during the day, so I can sleep. But I always wake up and think, ‘Damn, I’m still here’.”
He doesn’t take part in the occasional excursions outside – to parks or a swimming pool – because “we can just taste a little freedom, and then we find ourselves back here and it is too sad”.
Darwin’s main detention centre was described by Amnesty International as “a mess of gates of fences” and inappropriate for detaining asylum seekers. We visited the compound before the Easter refugee convergence, which kicks off today.
The detention centre is inside a defence barracks, but Serco staff and private security contractor MSS patrol the front boom gate. We were escorted by car to the entrance, led through two 10-metre high electrified fences via huge steel gates to a demountable meeting room.
The centre is hidden behind layers of trees and fences. Refugees inside cannot see out unless they climb onto the roof.
A volleyball court still has holes dug by asylum seekers as makeshift graves.
Once a prison for up to 400 asylum seekers, the government is rapidly moving refugees out of NIDC. It is believed the centre will be refurbished to hold Indonesian fisherpeople charged with “people smuggling”.
[Refugee rights activists from around Australia are in Darwin over the Easter weekend to protest against mandatory detention and its three detention centre. This year’s convergence takes place in the 20th year of mandatory detention. Protests will take place outside NIDC and the Darwin Airport Lodge on April 7, and the new Wickham Point detention centre on April 8. Visit the Easter Convergence website.