Desperate refugees break out of Australian detention centres

By Regina Lohr
13 June 2000

The arrival of the Olympic torch at Uluru in central Australia last week gave the mass media an occasion for a carefully stage-managed spectacle: the Governor-General handing the torch to the area's Aboriginal inhabitants, providing a picture of racial harmony and goodwill, for the benefit of a global audience.

Yet just 1,000 kilometres away across the desert in Woomera, events were unfolding that revealed an entirely different state of affairs. About 500 asylum-seekers broke out of the over-crowded Woomera Detention Centre, and were soon joined by some 250 fellow prisoners at the Curtin and Port Hedland detention centres in the north of Western Australia, in a last-ditch bid to bring their plight to public attention.

Under the mandatory imprisonment policy initiated by the previous Labor administration, refugees who enter the country without official permission have been consigned to wire-fence enclosures in the most barren, inhospitable and isolated parts of the continent, thousands of kilometres away from the major cities, working class areas and immigrant communities where they might receive support and assistance. Last year so many refugees had been incarcerated that the Port Hedland camp became hopelessly crammed, so the Howard government established two new sites, at Woomera and Curtin.

Woomera is a small township near the former British nuclear testing range in the harsh outback, 470 kilometres north-west of the South Australian capital, Adelaide. At the detention centre just outside town, the first wave of about 200 refugees tore down the cyclone wire perimeter fence at 2am last Thursday. Three other groups totaling 300 joined them later in the morning, whereupon they marched through the main street chanting, “We want freedom” and carrying makeshift banners.

Spokesmen told reporters they had been treated “like animals,” kept in conditions “like a jail,” beaten by security guards and held for too long without due process, information, legal rights or outside contact. Their demands included full access to the media and to human rights organisations.

Mainly from Afghanistan and Iraq, and including 40 children, they demonstrated for more than 24 hours in Woomera, camping out in the open overnight without food or warm clothing, despite near freezing conditions. Six people had to be taken to hospital by ambulance after collapsing from exposure and lack of food.

A refugee from Iran told the media that the conditions that triggered the breakout had been building up for some time. He said the inmates had repeatedly told officials that they would escape and protest about their treatment at the centre.

“They wouldn't listen at all, they just gave us false promises for more than seven weeks,” he told ABC radio. “We want the United Nations, we want human rights organisations to do something for us. We know nothing about our future. We've been here for more than six months. We can't contact any of our family...we are 1,500 [prisoners] and only one telephone”.

Some of the demonstrators showed reporters cuts and bruises that they said had been inflicted by guards employed by the company that has been contracted to run the three camps—the US-owned Australasian Correctional Management. Victor Urjadko, a security manager, conceded that some of his staff might “overstep the [mark when] detainees became agitated”.

News of the events at Woomera sparked further breakouts. At the former Curtin Air Base around 150 refugees—men, women and children—pushed over the fence and started walking along a desert road toward Derby, 50 kilometres away. When they encountered a police roadblock 10 kilometres down the road, scuffles broke out and a dozen people were arrested.

About 100 people from Port Hedland Detention Centre climbed over fences, determined to join the protests. They turned back, however, when confronted by police.

Most of the refugees, mainly from the Middle East, have been locked inside the remote camps for many months after surviving hazardous journeys halfway around the world to flee persecution and oppression. Nearly all arrived on Australian shores or island reefs in tiny, unseaworthy boats, only to be immediately rounded up like criminals and dumped in the camps, where they have been held indefinitely and with no way of contacting the outside world—even their own families. The detention centres have no books in the refugees' languages, limited access to or no televisions and mail is censored.

Escapees from Curtin said three people had tried to commit suicide in the previous week because the conditions were so bad. Helal Faili, a Kurd, said detainees were mentally abused and beaten by guards. “Even for minor things they get out their batons and hit people,” he said.

Bitterly condemning the treatment of the refugees after their perilous journeys, he added: “We put up with man-eating crocodiles, poisonous snakes and scorpions, mosquitoes and this would not have happened in the places we came from. They torture us because they see us as coming from ugly countries. They tell us nobody likes us in Australia and we shouldn't have come.”

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock refused to negotiate with the refugees and instead requested the mobilisation of hundreds of state police to subdue them. He also ensured that the asylum seekers were denied food and shelter, so that they would be starved back to the camps.

Ruddock told the media that providing the refugees with food would encourage them to continue their protests. “If they are going to have meals they will have them within the detention centre,” he stated. To stop refugees buying food, local shops and businesses were surrounded by police or security guards or were forced to close. Security guards even prevented the refugees from using pay phones.

Ruddock sought to whip up fear among local people by claiming that some of the refugees might be dangerous criminals, risks to national security or carriers of diseases such as tuberculosis. He claimed that several guards had been injured in the breakout. Charges might be laid and the result would be further delays in processing claims for refugee status.

Immediately following the Woomera breakout, the government locked the media out of the township, in an attempt to prevent any reportage of the asylum-seekers' demands and comments. Having already barred the media from visiting the detention centres, the government sought to widen the ban to an entire town. An ABC news camera crew also reported that attempts were made to stop them from filming the confrontation between police and escapees on the road to Derby. These are unprecedented steps toward imposing press censorship over events in public places.

Ruddock claimed that the Woomera ban was necessary to protect the refugees' identities in case they or their families ever returned to their homeland, where they could be persecuted. Unwittingly, he only confirmed the real fears that have driven the refugees to seek asylum. The escapees sought access to the media precisely because they recognised that their best hope of being freed lay in their treatment being publicly exposed.

Ruddock vehemently defended the detention policy and threatened to increase the severity of the camps. Security would be reviewed but not the “standard of care” in the centres, he declared. He attempted to defend the length of time that the refugees were being held, yet he was unable to explain why after seven months not a single refugee had been granted refugee status. The process could not be rushed, he insisted. “We do not have the numbers of people available to process something like 400 people in a matter of weeks.”

One factor in the delays may be related to the Olympic Games. Mary Lindsay, a former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal, said she had been told the granting of refugee visas had been held up because Australian Intelligence Security Organisation (ASIO) officers were busy with the Sydney Olympics. ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency, is used to vet all immigrants.

The barbaric treatment of the asylum-seekers did not begin with the Olympics, however, nor will it end once the Games are over. Since the Labor government launched the mandatory detention policy in the 1980s, the number of prisoners has steadily grown from a few hundred to several thousand. There are currently 3,622 people incarcerated. All centres are full to capacity, with almost 1,300 at Woomera, 805 at Port Hedland, 1,105 at Curtin and 400 at smaller centres in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.

Moreover, the mass breakouts have erupted after at least a year of protests, escapes, suicides and hunger strikes. In August last year, for example, the overcrowding at Port Hedland provoked a series of protests and escapes.

In February this year, several hundred refugees went on hunger strike at Curtin over the conditions and length of detention. In an act of utter desperation, more than a dozen refugees from Afghanistan sewed their lips together to avoid force-feeding.

In April, Woomera became the focus of attention when staff revealed that a number of detainees had threatened suicide after being held incommunicado for up to five months. Two months later they are still there.

The Howard government has maintained these conditions despite previous condemnation by human rights and community groups. Amnesty International's refugee coordinator, Geoff Thom said the escapees were not criminals and called on the government to follow the example of European countries where asylum seekers were not detained. David Bitel of the Refugee Council said: “These are the actions of desperate people who, having fled their own countries, suffer further hardship under Australia's much-criticised mandatory detention regime.”

Ruddock, personally backed by Prime Minister Howard, has made it plain that the government will not only pursue the mass imprisonment policy but also enforce it with police state measures, including media censorship. In doing so, the Howard government is blatantly pandering to the most backward, racist and right-wing layers of the population, seeking to forge an electoral base for its increasingly unpopular program of spending cuts and tax handouts to the wealthy. At the same time, it is frantically trying to prevent the truth of what is happening inside the camps from being made known to working people across Australia and worldwide.