The company responsible for running many of Australia’s refugee detention centres, Serco, has been accused of ordering asylum seekers not to speak to the media as the federal government moves to deport more asylum seekers to their country of origin.
Asylum seekers in the Darwin Airport Lodge (DAL) detention centre have been subject to intimidation and several have been moved to Christmas Island after speaking to the media.
Originally set up as workers’ accommodation, the DAL is rented by the federal government to detain hundreds of asylum seekers, mostly women, children and families. At least 60 pregnant women are detained there.
Because the site is more accessible than other detention centres, the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN) has held a twice-weekly community vigil outside the centre for over a year, and has been able to provide material support to those inside, such as providing baby clothes for newborns.
Recently DASSAN was working with mothers in detention to access appropriate food and clothing from community donations. On October 18, advocates learned the mothers had been taken at 5am, without warning, to Christmas Island, in preparation for eventual transport to Nauru. The eldest child was five weeks old.
A friend of one of the families received a panicked phone call from one of the women, who was crying and fearful of the conditions that they would face offshore.
The women had been told for some time that they would be taken to an offshore detention centre when the babies reach six weeks old. It is likely they will be taken to Nauru.
Facilities at Nauru are appalling — so appalling that pregnant women are exempted from staying there until their babies are more than six weeks old. Sanitation is poor, people have to queue for hours for food, mosquito-borne illnesses are rife and the primitive site bakes in 40 degree heat.
The removal of these women and their babies attracted media attention. Because the immigration department now only delivers information through the minister’s weekly briefings, journalists have begun going to the DAL vigil to get information about refugee policy and its impacts.
Journalists from the ABC and theglobalmail.org attended the vigil on October 20 where they interviewed asylum seekers through the cyclone fence.
By October 29, at least two of those who spoke to the ABC had been transferred to Christmas Island.
At the next vigil, several asylum seekers told DASSAN activists they had been informed by Serco that speaking to media would affect their claim for asylum. Some said they were told as a group and others that they were told individually. One asylum seeker said: “Serco will make trouble for me if we talk to you. I am sorry, you are our friends, we thank you so much for coming, but now we are afraid."
Serco security presence at the vigil was much higher than usual and a guard filmed all interactions between asylum seekers and DASSAN. Usually the vigil has a casual and friendly vibe, now the overriding emotion was fear.
The minister for immigration and border protection, Scott Morrison, has denied that asylum seekers have been told that speaking to the media would affect their claims. In his weekly media briefing on November 1, he said the only concern was that asylum seekers not “violate their identity”.
But all asylum seekers interviewed by the media had given their permission and were advised of the risks involved. If Morrison was concerned about reprisals against family members in home countries, why not grant them protection? Why are they being asked to choose between detention in an offshore facility or deportation to the countries they fled?
The answer may lie in other moves by Morrison’s department. On October 19, Morrison told the department that all asylum seekers in detention were to be referred to as “illegals” or “detainees” rather than “asylum seekers”, “clients” or simply “people”.
Morrison knows that the more Australians see asylum seekers as human beings, the less likely they are to support the punishment and pain that his policies produce. Morrison wants to dehumanise these people as much as possible; the threats and transfers, the cameras and meetings are part of this dehumanisation.
A policy of “stopping the boats” is less popular when the stories of those on the boats are known and they have faces that can be seen.
Meanwhile, the government has begun deporting Vietnamese asylum seekers, 1000 of which are currently detained in Australia. In a process known as “screening out”, 28 Vietnamese asylum seekers have been deported after their initial interview with immigration officials.
Previously this process has only been used against Sri Lankan asylum seekers.
Thegobalmail.org reported on October 25 that on the basis of one interview, which is held without legal representation and has no avenue for appeal, asylum seekers are being judged as not requiring protection and are being forcibly deported.
On August 22, security officials from Vietnam were granted access to Western Australia’s Yongah Hill detention centre and interviewed up to 100 Vietnamese asylum seekers there. There are reports that many were forced to sign documents they did not understand.
The day after the interviews, a young Vietnamese man who was interrogated attempted suicide by hanging and there have been reports of violence between Serco guards and Vietnamese asylum seekers since the interviews.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said: “Three Vietnamese asylum seekers deported earlier in October have been repeatedly harassed by police since they were returned. The government has sent these people back to danger. The government must call a halt to the Vietnamese deportations.
“Every asylum seeker who arrives is entitled to have their protection claim properly heard in Australia.”