Activist Marlene Carrasco says some organisations visit refugees in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre in the same way they might make a trip to the zoo.
“You know, [some of the big NGOs], they just come in, say hello, then the zoo visit’s over and they leave,” Carrasco told Green Left Weekly outside Villawood on a gloomy Easter Sunday.
The 42-year-old Muslim woman makes the short trip to Villawood every Sunday from Merrylands, the western Sydney suburb to which she migrated in the 1970s. She said visitors needed to do more than just visit refugees — and she should know.
"I was born in Chile during [the presidency of socialist leader Salvador] Allende in 1969 and the [Augusto] Pinochet coup was in 1973," she said.
"I migrated with my parents in 1976 with many refugees — I'm not one myself — and witnessed the post-traumatic stress disorder they all came with, the difficulties they experienced adjusting to life in Australia and the torture and death they witnessed and I have never been able to erase this from my memory."
That is why she helps run activist group Advocates For Refugees in Sydney, which aims to get people to build solid, sustainable friendships with asylum seekers and promote them as human beings.
"We need to develop the awareness that people in detention have emotions and feelings and that we have a moral responsibility to care for these people like we would our own families," she said.
“Our role is really to build support and advocacy around the Muslim community because there are a lot of Muslims in there and there wasn’t a lot of support for them.
“We’ve had a very big response. We’ve engaged the community to cook different ethnic foods and engaged with what the detainees need. We have a lot of community support, donating in-season vegetables, you know, sometimes the detainees are getting culturally inappropriate food when pork is mixed in with things and so on.”
Carrasco said due to the way that multinational security firm Serco runs Villawood, detainees have little say in how their lives are run.
“There was one guy that said to me, ‘I haven’t eaten a plum for three years.’ They have no control over their lives, so I think it’s important that they keep some control over themselves and their bodies, because unfortunately a lot of them are on medication.
“Serco can be very paternalistic in its attitude and how it runs things. Some guards are very humane, but others will take great delight in telling me I have to remove the potatoes or okra from the food and so on.
“The detainees really need to be monitored and properly supported. We believe there should be some independent observers that report back to the minister for immigration, Chris Bowen.”
Carrasco also sits on the board of the Multicultural Disability Advocacy Association, which advocates for people of an ethnic background with a disability, and has been approaching similar organisations to get involved in advocating for refugees with disabilities in detention.
“One of our aims is to create that broader community awareness around NGOs and along all sectors of the community so that people can have access and visit asylum seekers and befriend them and treat them like our human family, which is what we should be doing.
“I’ve had people when I first started to visit that were suicidal and now they look forward to Sundays when we come with the yummy food and they get up early and they come out and they’re happy.
“But then they tell me it’s six days till the next Sunday, so now it’s about trying to get people to come down every day and work on support both inside detention and outside in the community, buddying up, showing them how Australia works, the way of life, how the social system works and so on. People also need to approach their local MP and advocate for asylum seekers.”
After speaking to Green Left Weekly, Carrasco and her group of visitors entered Villawood as part of the Easter convergence on refugee detention centres around Australia. They proceeded to fill out visitor forms, get IDs checked and were issued with security bracelets.
As they lifted up the boxes of fruit, platters of chicken biryani and plates of home-made fresh cream cakes to take through security, Carrasco stopped everyone to pose with the food so she could take a photo for GLW. Instantly, Serco’s operations manager and several guards pounced on her, berating her for taking photos inside the compound and ordering her to delete them from her phone.
“That’s it,” the operations manager told Carrasco. “You leave me with no choice but to terminate your visit.”