Villawood mother's punishment continues

November 17, 1993

Sarah Stephen

Virginia Leong was subjected to horrifying punishment for her protest on July 14 against the prospect of forced removal from Sydney's Villawood detention centre to the Baxter detention centre in the South Australian desert. Leong, along with another mother and her son, climbed onto a laundry roof and held up a banner for the media and protesters to see.

Green Left Weekly reported in its July 28 issue that Leong had been separated from her two-year-old daughter, Naomi, held overnight in solitary confinement, then classified as having mental problems and taken to Bankstown hospital. The Department of Community Services removed her child to put her into foster care. Hospital staff refused to commit Leong, and after a lot of work by supporters Leong was reunited with her daughter a week later.

When I first spoke with Leong on July 21, she showed me a "management plan" she had agreed to sign that day. The plan involved her moving from the main compound of Stage 2, where all the families are, to Lima compound, which is a small building without a yard designed to house single women in Villawood for short periods of time.

The agreement stated that Leong would be in Lima until July 16. When I visited again on August 4, she told me she was still in Lima. She was not entirely surprised that the agreement had been broken. She said it happens all the time.

Being in Lima for a long period of time will take its toll on Virginia and Naomi. They can only come out into the visiting compound if a visitor requests to see them. Most significantly, being in Lima has deprived Leong of the support network of friends and other families in the main compound of Stage 2.

She has been under constant watch by a Global Solutions Ltd (GSL) officer since being in Lima. She told me she could understand this if she was suicidal, but to be constantly watched when there is no suicide risk is just punishment.

Until August 2, she was watched constantly; since then she has been checked on every hour. Leong thinks this is because of a staff shortage. "They followed me everywhere I went, taking notes. They wrote down what I was doing every two minutes. When I was sleeping, they would come right up to the bed and look at me, with their faces really close."

She told me that the hourly checks went all through the night, and some of the guards would slam the door as they left the room, so she woke up every hour.

During that first week in Lima, a GSL manager and a psychologist came to see her and asked "stupid questions". "They asked me, 'What do you want? I said 'I want to go back to Stage 2'. They told me 'That's not the issue'. Then they asked me, 'How do you feel?' I told them: 'Ask the person who's been taking notes every two minutes!' They asked me if I could still look after Naomi, and I got really angry and said 'What are you trying to do? Take her away from me again?' I refused to say anything more after that."

Leong said nothing changed after the visit — she remains under observation in Lima.

The Tongan mother of two who protested on the laundry roof with Leong told me that her son had been prevented from giving a speech at his school during multicultural week, after the school received instructions from the immigration department in Canberra.

As we were sitting in the visitor's area, the two mothers pointed to the new fence being built between the visitors' area and the main compound, which will be of corrugated iron instead of wire mesh. It obscures the view of Stage 2. The Tongan mother told me: "They tried to take families to Baxter, and now they're bringing Baxter to us."

Baxter has been built so that detainees can't see outside and people outside the detention centre can't see in.

Naomi knows nothing of life outside the detention centre's fences; Leong gave birth to her daughter in Liverpool hospital two years ago. Naomi has been separated from her mother twice — once when she was very young, and a second time on July 14.

Some families held in Villawood are asylum seekers, some are not, but all of them suffer the fear, uncertainty and humiliation of detention. This is doubly true for their children. The campaign continues to free all children and their families from detention.

From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
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