“IN AUSTRALIA, it’s not easy to visit a detention centre. You need someone to visit, make a trip to the outback or to Sydney’s fringes. You have to be motivated join a group like Chilout (Children Out of Detention). And yet, more Australians should visit their country’s detention centres.
A friend encouraged me to visit Villawood. You will be different if you go, she said; you’ll want to go back. She was helping someone there. She talked with him on the phone. He’s bright and so expressive, she told me; he’s desperate. We set a date.
We arrived by car at around 4pm with temperatures over 40 degrees. An eclectic group of three Jewish and Catholic backgrounds, one a retired Australian army officer, dressed casually. We were to visit a young Palestinian, more than two years in detention at Port Hedland, Woomera and now Villawood. A stateless person.
We carried bottles of water, some groceries, his favourite Tim Tams and pistachio nuts. It was Ramadan and he was fasting 16 hours a day. In addition, I had bought him a box fan unopened, straight from a hardware store.
Marcus Einfield has likened behaviour of guards at Woomera detention centre to the thuggish “activities of the SS in the 1930s”. To argue this, however, is counterproductive, playing into Philip Ruddock’s hands and not helping refugees caught in no-man’s land.
Australian detention centres are privately operated businesses where escaping inmates (dealt with in overly harsh ways) cost operators points with government contracts and thus money. But this is business, not state terror.
Meanwhile, as governments globally respond to the invasions of asylum-seekers by assaults on people-smuggling, a cruel and dehumanising racket, they have resorted to a war thinking which allows no empathy for ”collateral damage” detainees caught like civilians in bombing raids. And there are votes in reassuring electorates our borders are protected.
All this can be understood intellectually, but only when you are at a detention centre can the perverse reality have a full impact.
At Villawood, there are five locked gates to pass through before the visiting compound a barren incline surrounded by wire that we view walking to the entrance.
It could be a scaggy playground except for the 10m-high fence with razor wire. You notice the razor wire first, huge curling tunnels across top and bottom of every fence. It glistens in the sun, new, with little axes of razor-sharp steel along the wire, inches apart.
A smiling young warder lets us in, saying she thought she had to work the next day in the heat. But she doesn’t and is now so happy. We fill out identity forms, move into the security office where we leave our belongings in a locker. We can take the foodstuffs, the fan must stay behind.
Our detainee’s name will be written on the box. These warders are no better or worse than bossy lower-order custodians anywhere power can be misused in a democratic society.
For more than three hours we sit in bare shade in the visiting compound. A convivial three hours in penurious conditions a compound with not even a tap. We joke and talk. We wave old Chinese airline fans for relief from the heat. We discuss Ramadan, and how it is meant to make the observant Muslim fully understand what it means to go without. Ironic in this setting, I muse.
The misery around us isn’t stark, just noticeable in snatches. Scars we try not to notice from suicide attempts. Tears, desperate hugging, visiting children bored until they can sit on their father’s lap when their mother isn’t. Asian, Middle Eastern, Caucasian, they’re all here. But then you realise, this is the nice time. The time that goes so fast, our detainee friend explains to us. The rest of the time is the desperation, the waiting.
In spite of the television set, the videos, the Tim Tams and the pistachio nuts. If he had one wish, what would it be? He would be free with papers to prove it.
This isn’t a criminal we are talking to. He’s clever, speaks English, is morally grounded, likes Western culture, could mix with your adult children and be their friend. You imagine what he might do if he could come with you at the end of the visit. What an addition to the gene pool, this healthy and fine-looking human. But his chances of staying are about as slim as his chances of survival in Syria or Palestine, should he be deported.
As we leave I ask if my friend can get his fan that evening it’s so hot. I get a shrug for an answer from the woman warder. It’s then I know that I’ll be back.”
Article published in The Courier Mail