Daniel doesn’t look like a typical activist. He sports a shaved head, stands over six-feet tall and moves with the leisurely gait of a man who isn’t told to hurry up much. He exudes the calm badassery of someone who has listened to his share of punk music and can dissect Propagandhi lyrics for hours.
But there are occasional tells. When he turns around, I notice he had sewn part of a recycled Dead Kennedys T-shirt shouting “ERASE RACISM” into his jacket. There is a copy of “A People’s History of the United States” tucked away by the clutch in his car, just in case he needs a quick refresher on the labor tradition while trapped in gridlock.
He is an encyclopedia of activist information. He knows about the anarchist flash mobs in Newtown, can go on at length about the downfall of the organized left (spoiler: it has to do with a naïve hope that the proletariat will collectively rise up and attack Timothy Geithner), but what really sets him off is the treatment of refugees in Australia.
Daniel can barely contain his anger at the situation. He feels genuine kinship with the refugees who he says, “just want a chance” like anybody else.
He tells us we’re traveling to Villawood Detention Centre, which is located in Sydney’s western suburbs. I sit in the backseat. My radio co-host, Jamie, rides shotgun.
After caving to deficit hysteria, the Australian government began strategizing to reduce the budget and one of the ways they cut spending was by outsourcing detention center services. As a result, Villawood is run by a company called Serco, which Daniel calls “Australia’s Blackwater,” meaning it’s a very large private company that performs a typically public service – incarcerating human beings.
Serco is based in the United Kingdom and provides electronic tagging devices for offenders and asylum seekers. The company runs four prisons and two “Immigration Removal Centres” in Britain in addition to Hunfeld Prison in Germany, Acacia Prison in Western Australia and Borallon Correctional Facility in Queensland.
In 1999, Serco paid $53 million to acquire Elekluft, a company that specialized in military and aerospace customers and was originally formed in 1961 to install and support German air defense radar systems. Currently, Serco holds several international defense contracts, including the British government’s first modern outsourced contract for the operation and maintenance of the UK ballistic missile, early warning system.
The company is at the forefront of privatized public infrastructure, operating numerous facets of London transport (and the IT infrastructure of the London Borough of Southwark,) the Great Southern Railways in Australia and the Dubai Metro. It also supplies air traffic control services to international airports in Bahrain, Dubai and smaller airports in the United States, and since 2004, Serco has had a $7.9 million annual contract from the US government to manage airports in Iraq.
Serco’s privatized tentacles even ensnare health and education, including management services at several British hospitals. Currently, Serco holds a ten-year contract with Bradford City Council, Walsal and Stoke-on-Trent to manage and operate the local education authority, which entails providing education support services such as the dispensing of a student information system called “Facility” to schools and colleges around the world.
The company even has a $114 million contract with Ontario to operate the province’s Drive Test driver examination centers.
Quite literally, you could experience a Serco-provided life from morning until night and never realize it.
Much like Christian crusader and Blackwater CEO, Erik Prince, Serco CEO Christopher Hyman was born into an Indian Pentecostal Christian family. In an interview with the Guardian, Hyman remarked, “My faith is very strong. My whole life, I believe, is driven by God.”
Australia has a policy of mandatory detention for all refugees and asylum seekers who arrive by boat and the government has also sub-contracted with other nations in the past to detain immigrants offshore, including Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Indonesia. (The poorest country in the region, East Timor, is the current focus of the Gillard government.) There are five domestic centers located near Sydney (Villawood,) Melbourne (Maribyrnong,) Perth (Curtain,) Christmas Island (offshore) and Darwin (Air Force base).
Christmas Island is famous for the 2001 Tampa controversy when the government stopped a Norwegian ship, the MV Tampa, from disembarking 438 mainly Afghan asylum seekers, including 43 children and four pregnant woman.
The boat, which was designed to carry only the 27 crewmembers, was steered by Captain Arne Rinnan. After being rejected by the Australian government, Rinnan attempted to slowly turn the boat around so the refugees wouldn’t notice their retreat to Indonesia. Except, they did notice and started to throw a fit. Fearing an outright revolt, Rinnan turned around again and headed back to Christmas Island. The captain begged for permission to dock, saying that many of the asylum seekers were suffering from dysentery and that some were unconscious.
Five days passed and though the government offered medical assistance and food, they still refused to allow the ship into territorial waters. Finally, in an act of desperation, Rinnan declared a state of emergency and entered Australian waters without permission. The government responded by dispatching Australian troops, who boarded the ship and prevented it from approaching Christmas Island. The troops reported that the refugees were dehydrated, malnourished and suffering from exhaustion and cases of lice, scabies and gastroenteritis.
Another incident occurred in October 2001 when the SIEV-X sank en route to Christmas Island and 353 refugees, including 146 children, drowned. But before they died, the then-survivors clung to debris for 22 hours and, although the Navy was aware of their presence, did nothing to rescue them.
In response to the inhumane controversies, former Prime Minister John Howard introduced an equally inhumane “emergency bill” called the Border Protection Bill 2001, which granted the government permission to remove any ship in territorial waters with “reasonable force,” and protected the government from any criminal proceedings after the fact. The bill aimed to be a retroactive piece of legislation thereby protecting the government from any unpleasant legal ramifications over messy civilians deaths.
Christmas Island is now used as a convenient way to deny asylum seekers protected status. The Howard government secured passage of legislation, which removed Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone, so when asylum seekers arrive on the island, they cannot automatically apply for refugee status. The people are either deported or detained indefinitely.
There are now roughly 5,000 people in detention on Christmas Island and Serco has made tremendous profits capitalizing on anti-refugee policies. In the first half of 2009, Serco saw its profits rise by a third to $136.6 million due to an influx of contracts. Again, in the first six months of 2010, Serco reported a 21 percent rise in profits. It seems while many businesses are experiencing hardship and bankruptcy, the human incarceration business is booming.
In 2008, before Serco operated Villawood, the facilities were called the “most prison-like” of all Australia’s detention centers by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission. In response, the government pledged $186.3 million in funding for the redevelopment of the center that is expected to be completed by 2014. The Refugee Council of Australia reports that the overall capacity of the center will increase to a general operating capacity of 400 and a surge capacity of 728.
Then in 2009, Serco signed two contracts with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to manage detention facilities on Christmas Island, Perth, Darwin, Melbourne and Sydney. As such, Serco has access to an unlimited, government-sanctioned supply of people to lock up. Ostensibly, the government assumed a private corporation couldn’t possibly do a worse job of running refugee prisons than they had.
Last month, a 36-year-old Fijian national named Josefa Rauluni, who was being held at Villawood, killed himself by jumping from a roof. The morning Josefa leapt to his death was also the day he was informed that he was scheduled to be deported back to Fiji. Refugee advocate Sara Nathan says Josefa feared prosecution in his home country, which is under the rule of a military dictatorship that has expelled Australian diplomats.
Following his death, successive groups of prisoners staged protests that lasted for days and included self-harm such as cutting themselves and bleeding on their bed sheet banners and dry hunger strikes. One of the detainees was a woman who was four months pregnant and refused to eat during the demonstration. Another group consisting of 16 Kurdish and Iranian men staged a 12-day hunger strike, which finally ended when the Immigration Department promised to review their claims.
* * * * *
As we drive through the semi-industrial suburb of Villawood, which consists of tiny, run-down homes and the occasional McMansion, I realize the only thing that pisses off Daniel more than refugee mistreatment are factual inaccuracies.
Daniel has heard all the usual anti-refugee talking points, so he possesses an arsenal of handy facts to shoot down the nationalists and racists. Jails act as deterrents. Nope, not for truly desperate people fleeing a dictatorship or war torn country. It’s flee or be killed. Australia is overrun by boat refugees! Nope, boat arrivals only make up five percent of Australia’s annual humanitarian intake. There are approximately 50,000 “illegal” persons in Australia at any one time and most of them are British. Immigrants cost Aussie taxpayers money! It’s actually more expensive to keep them locked up at Christmas Island.
The arguments are almost identical to the anti-Mexican immigrant bigotry infecting the US right now. Useless proposals like the wall will never stop desperate people from escaping their dire circumstances, and Arizona passed its draconian racial profiling law even though illegal immigration has now declined by 67 percent and violent crime dropped in Arizona by 14 percent.
In times of economic despair, people love to focus all of their hatred and fear at soft targets, and poor brown people who don’t speak English are the easiest scapegoats.
* * * * *
The eeriest part of Villawood is its unostentatious appearance. From the outside, it looks like a DMV, save for the high fences. The inside looks like an airport check-in counter, complete with two women seated behind a counter, adjacent to a metal detector.
Daniel explains we’ll need to fill out some forms before we can go into the heart of the center. He takes us over to a table fitted with cubbies that are packed with daunting For Official Office Use Only papers. Daniel finds the correct ones and plops them down before us.
The walls are fitted with large framed posters that look like motivational Benetton ads. People of all races embrace, laughing and smiling above the Orwellian message: “Serco: Bringing service to life.” Two Asian men, dressed in construction gear, drape their arms around each other as they pose in front of a crane.
Daniel taps the form where there’s a space next to the “Visiting” category.
“Write two of these names,” he says.
He produces a list of detainee names on his phone. I write down two of them. Daniel stresses to right down the names exactly as they appear. Any mistake – even a simple misspelling – could result in us getting turned away. Basically, Serco is looking for any reason to prevent access.
I get to “Occupation” and look at Jamie. He shrugs. “Just don’t say journalist,” he says. Serco doesn’t permit any kind of recording devices to be taken into Villawood. No cameras. No audio recorders. The company has worked extremely hard to cultivate a certain image of their detention centers that they don’t want ruined by some muckraking journalists. And due to the recent detainee uprisings, Serco is doubly paranoid about any meddlesome types sneaking documentation equipment inside.
I’ve noticed Jamie has written as his occupation “Comedian,” which he is. That seems like a harmless job, so I write it down, too.
Before we walk through the metal detector, the guards instruct us to take everything out of our pockets. Everything. That includes any scrap of paper – receipts, tickets stubs etc. I unthinkingly empty all of my belongings into the little bin presented to me: sunglasses, a scrap of paper.
I walk through the detector and don’t set it off. I smile at the guard like I’m expecting him to congratulate me. He doesn’t look impressed. That’s when I notice a group of women: the two guards and what looks like their superiors have gathered around my bin. They’re looking at my scrap of paper.
“What is this?” an irate, Indian female guard asks me as she walks over, tapping the piece of paper.
I had been taking notes in the car as Daniel gave us some background on Villawood. And like I was trying to attract the attention of every Serco employee within a 50-mile radius, I had circled and starred two words: “FIJI SUICIDE”
I play dumb and smile, “Oh! My mom is always wondering what I’m up to, so I jot down notes for when I email her.” I’m still not sure how those specific words came out of my mouth. It has to be the worst lie ever told and I’m including Dubya’s WMDs in that assessment.
The guard stares at me and I keep smiling as I look back at her. She knows I’m full of shit and knows I know she knows I’m full of shit, but I’m not saying a word. I accept that I’m going to get kicked out of the center, but I’m not surrendering my notes.
She frowns. “Well, this part,” and again she taps FIJI SUICIDE. “We’re worried about this part.” We’re worried about people talking about this part.
She seems exasperated with my cute, but stupid, act and she sighs. “Yes.”
“It’s just so I remember what I want to tell my mom.”
More angry staring.
Daniel interjects at this point and says he’s never had a problem before with bringing his notebook into the facilities. The Indian woman gestures to the other women, her superiors.
“New management,” she says.
Finally, she grudgingly hands back the paper.
* * * * *
The yard of Villawood looks like a mini-campus quad. The grass is finely trimmed and benches and small gazebos pepper the area. There is a small playground for when families bring children to visit some of the male refugees. The pristine surroundings are betrayed by the fence, ever looming, always a constant reminder that the people inside Villawood are prisoners.
The women and children are held in separate quarters, Daniel explains, gesturing into the distance. He guides us into another building where there are a couple of tables and a kitchen.
* * * * *
We’re sitting in the kitchen for about ten minutes before two men walk out. They’re both neatly dressed and clean-shaven. The men warmly embrace Daniel and we engage in pleasantries, shake hands and walk outside where the men can smoke the cigarettes Daniel brought them.
It’s extremely sunny, so we sit in one of the gazebos and Daniel remarks that the hot weather is enjoyable. He explains that some of the refugees are unaccustomed to the cold and had a hard time adjusting to winter.
Both men are refugees from Sri Lanka. Shayan, the younger man, tells us he’s 25-years-old. The men have been trying to learn English, but it’s difficult without a proper classroom setting. To practice, Shayan has been writing poetry.
He is extremely soft-spoken and at first seems more interested in his cigarette than our conversation. But then, he begins to interject. “Twelve people die in my boat,” he says in broken English.
It sounds like a quiet cry for help. Many of the refugees are traumatized from their journey. They have seen loved ones die, and now they don’t have access to mental health care facilities. They’re alone, terrified and they can’t sleep at night.
The men continuously stress their loneliness. Days consist of sitting in their small rooms, which are no larger than typical prison cells. They have been given cell phones, but only a limited number of credits. When they run out, the phones are useless. Mostly, they rely on email and Facebook, though those outlets are limited.
Following some of the protests, the detainees lost their email privileges, they tell us. The Immigration Department has previously said that such protests won’t affect the detainees’ application statuses, but it does appear to affect email. I contacted Serco about the email allegations and a Senior Operations Manager named Shaun Maxwell responded to my inquiry by suggesting the prisoners raise the issue with the “staff in their accommodation area,” a prospect that will surely be most unappealing to the imprisoned.(1)
Waiting is the hardest part. Ramasay, the older refugee, has been in detention, first at Christmas Island and then later Villawood, for a total of 18 months and he has no idea what will happen next. Maybe he’ll get released tomorrow, or maybe he’ll be sent back to Sri Lanka. Or maybe he won’t be released for another two years. He is in a constant state of limbo. He feels like he’s mentally deteriorating from the constant boredom and fear.
As a result, the detainees’ sleep schedule is completely out of whack, so the guards have been pressuring them to take sleeping pills. If the detainees refuse to take the pills, the guards can send them to Stage One (the high security facilities).
The men say a detainee recently overdosed on the sleeping tablets. I ask Ramasay if he takes the pills. “Of course,” he says.
We ask them if they’d like guests to bring them any treats. Fruit? Maybe some nuts? They shake their heads. All they want, they explain, is some company – someone to talk to. Also, cigarettes would be nice.
The worst part is that these men haven’t committed a crime. They are asylum seekers fleeing a Sri Lankan dictatorship. Literally, their only crime is not having drowned during the journey to Australia. At least, that’s how they feel. They are strangers in a foreign land and it would be perfectly understandable if they assumed all Australians hate them, which is why they’re being kept in a government-sanctioned cage.
Ramasay seems to have his own theories about why refugees have been targeted to endure the brunt of popular anger.
He points to his bare arm and says, “Not white.”
1. Maxwell also wrote that he had no record of a journalist by my name visiting Villawood in the last six months – again because I disclosed my occupation as “comedian,” and not “journalist.” He said if I wish to return to the center as a journalist, I’m required by the Terms and Conditions of Visitor applications to contact the department (at firstname.lastname@example.org or 02 6264 3383), giving seven days notice for my application to be approved, or rejected. Most visiting journalists don’t have a full week to wait around for Serco to decide if they’ll grant access to the press, which, of course, is the whole idea. Serco is working to create a hostile environment for visitors, especially activists and the press, in the hopes that people will stop showing up.
Serco recently banned a group of people from Westies Welcome Refugees (WWR) from Villawood for 24 hours, following a meeting the group had with refugees from Sri Lanka who are being held in the center. Guards told WWR that the questions they asked the prisoners were not personal, but a “breach of security.”