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Last week protests became riots on three separate occasions on Christmas Island. Of the more than 170 asylum seekers who absconded from detention, between ten and twenty had not returned by Tuesday of this week. A lack of government commentary means it is still unclear as to whether everyone has been accounted for. Following the protests, an estimated 250 asylum seekers could face criminal charges and the rejection of their claims for refugee status. Less than two months ago, following speculative media coverage from a Sydney Morning Herald journalist regarding supposed connections to Scientology, the Australian League of Immigration Volunteers (ALIV) had its contract to provide recreation and education programs to Australia’s detainees cancelled by Serco, the private company responsible for administering Australia’s detention centres. Since this time, no similar charity has replaced these lost services.

Detention centres on Christmas Island are overflowing. While the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, cites the government’s reduction of asylum seeker numbers on the Island from 3052 in December 2010 to 2539 a week ago, the remaining population is more than three times the operational capacity specified by the contract between Serco and the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. At Northwest Point, the main centre on the Island, about 1800 asylum seekers are being detained in a centre designed for less than half this number, many sleeping in demountable buildings and white tents more commonly associated with music festivals. Last Thursday, those living in two major temporary accommodation areas attached to the maximum-security facility were told to pack up and move inside the main grounds of Northwest Point. It is unclear how these six hundred individuals are being housed in already overcrowded buildings.

During the weekend before last, peaceful protests began at Northwest following the receipt of a government letter which stated that security checks for a number of detainees recognised as refugees would not be undertaken until April. There are currently about 900 individuals who have been accepted as refugees but are awaiting security clearances from ASIO, an increase from 330 in October 2010. Following mass escapes from the centre, responses to the protests became violent as Australian Federal Police and security staff handcuffed suspected protest leaders and employed tear gas to control protesters generally. Last Thursday night, tensions escalated further with detainees setting fire to buildings and accommodation tents, and AFP officers using tear gas and bean-bag bullets to again quell protesters. Reports have suggested Serco officers were unaware of this aggressive move until it was taking place and that a number of non-protesting detainees were also targeted. Current reports claim that there are now between 170 and 190 AFP officers on Christmas Island.

The protests on Christmas Island are not an aberration to the current state of Australian detention centres. Last week protests were held at both the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin and the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre, near Derby. These events follow protests at Villawood Detention Centre late last year. Predictably, the Federal Opposition has seized upon recent events as evidence of what they argue is Australia’s lax border protection policy. Julie Bishop has stated that the recent violence was inevitable given the overcrowding in the facilities, suggesting Chris Bowen should be “held to account” for the current “chaos”. Tony Abbott has attributed the worsening state of Australia’s “detention system in crisis” to the current government’s inability to “stop the boats”. Comments from both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have characterised the protests of the detainees as irrational, condemning their violence and suggesting that it will only slow down the processing of their claims. Such comments condescend to asylum seekers, whose protests concern these very delays. Last week 155 detainees were flown from Christmas Island to the mainland, with other large groups moved onshore throughout this week.

This spate of protests should come as no surprise for either the government or the opposition. News has emerged this week of a letter sent to Chris Bowen last December by a local resident worried at building tensions on the island. More significantly, in a report released early last month, the Commonwealth Ombudsman made a number of criticisms of the Christmas Island facility based on observations collected between October 2008 and September 2010. The report argued that overcrowding in the centre has contributed to hygiene problems, a lack of access to communication facilities, such as phone and internet, and a lack of necessary resources for lawyers and migration officers working within the centre. Insufficient mental health services and low officer-to-detainee ratios continue to undermine detainees’ well-being, despite government efforts to expand the former.

It is surprising to me that from no corner in the recent debate have I heard mention of the possible ramifications of removing the major non-government contributor to education and recreation programs in the detention centres. In January this year, a long and successful relationship between ALIV and Serco was terminated, with the charity no longer able to provide recreation programs inside a number of Australian detention centres. The termination came immediately after Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Nick O’Malley, published a conjectural article speculating on supposed connections between ALIV and scientology. The real story at the time concerned ALIV’s failure to produce required financial statements and a related investigation by Fair Trading NSW. The poor management of the charity was disappointing for the many volunteers that have worked within the organisation and especially the detainees who benefit from its contribution, however appropriate financial records have since been submitted and the matter remedied. I have argued elsewhere [http://blogs.usyd.edu.au/thinkingculture/2011/01/refugees_pay_a_high_cost_for_j.html] that O’Malley’s allegations about connections between the charity and Scientology were poorly grounded and after correspondence between the SMH and myself, O’Malley noticeably backed away from his earlier claims.

In the time that it worked within Australian detention centres ALIV provided informal programs aimed at involving as many detainees as possible, in order to reduce the trauma associated with mandatory detention. Programs ranged from informal English language lessons, to cooking, music and art classes, to Yoga and other sports activities, and various party and games nights. In discontinuing the charity’s contribution, Serco has removed the opportunity for detainees to participate in activities other than the very limited range of educational classes they themselves offer. It should be said that even where ALIV’s volunteers were present, its programs only serviced a proportion of the detainee population. However, the symbolic value of the volunteers’ presence is something that should not be underestimated and I would suggest the recent absence has played some part in building tensions within the centres. Where government contracts with private companies for custodial institutions focus on security first, and the well-being of those being detained second, the role of non-government organisations in providing extra services and a symbolic lubricant between the managers and the managed is vitally important.

In recent days the Federal government has flirted with the possibility of a new type of visa that would allow those asylum seekers who have been recognised as refugees to live in onshore communities while their security checks are processed by ASIO. While it is preferable that those individuals whose refugee status has been recognised do not continue to be detained, one would hope that such government consideration instigates reflection over a situation where refugees are able to live in the community during security clearances while a majority of asylum seekers are mandatorily detained offshore, one of the political justifications for which has been the potential security risk posed by these individuals were their claims to be processed while they lived in Australian communities. There are no signs from either side of politics that Australia’s current system of mandatory detention is likely to change significantly any time soon. As such, it is imperative that charities, ALIV or otherwise, are allowed to play a more significant role inside detention centres, in order to relieve some part of the stress inevitably associated with detaining people. Greater access is clearly of pragmatic utility, if it contributes at all to reducing tension and the frequency of violent protests. But greater access is also symbolically important. There are many good people working for both Serco and the DIAC. However, it is vital that asylum seekers in Australia’s ‘care’, many so accustomed to state violence as a response to their protests, are able to engage with Australian citizens who are neither employees of the state nor a company to whom the state’s responsibility has been outsourced.


Liam Grealy

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This is the blog for thinking and talking about culture, Cultural Studies and cultural analysis at the University of Sydney.
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