The following is an article written by another woman who came on the trip to Leonora with us at the weekend.
My thoughts on the weekend.
By Sally Woodliff
We set out from Perth in a bus full of books and toys. 22 people from diverse backgrounds – a social worker, some university lecturers, an ex-detainee (now a business owner), students, teachers, tradies and children; a 3 year old and a chubby cheeked baby. We were on a “Santa Claus mission” to bring smiles and fun to the nearly 200 mothers, fathers and children in the Leonora detention centre. Our requests were few and seemingly reasonable; to visit with the people detained, to run some organised sporting activities with the children and to set up the donations in a way that would allow the parents the freedom to choose the toys, books and clothes most suitable for their families.
Instead we were treated as potential criminals. Extra police drove in from Kalgoorlie to watch us. Both federal and state security accompanied us as “facilitators”, but failed to facilitate anything beyond what we were able to sort for ourselves. At one stage, when the frustration got too great, I went for a walk around the block and was followed by a police van. They sat and watched me cry and then took my details. I can only assume that I have either been added to their list of potential trouble makers or was vetted for previous misdemeanours. We were on a good will visit so we tried at all times to be pleasant and non confrontational, yet when we asked for copies of any policies so that we could comply with them we hit a blank wall. We asked what we needed to do to make contact possible. We were willing to fill out forms, hand over our working with children checks and provide references. We were simply told, “Nope, not going to happen.”
The centre itself looks like the sort of prison camp you would expect to see in a third world country. There is nothing but red dirt and dongas, surrounded by high block-out fences and guards standing to attention at intervals around the perimeter. We were separated by padlocked gates, a double fence, a 100 metre wide dry moat and a plethora of stony faced guards. They have made a deliberate barrier to stop the world seeing in and the detainees seeing out.
The people inside had heard we were coming and were very obviously excited. Children were hoisted up on shoulders in order to see over the compound walls and faces popped up over the fences. They were waving homemade signs, one reading “Welcome to Leonora Family Rejection Centre”. The children started up the communication by shouting “Hi!” and cheering. We responded with “Azadi!” (freedom!) and blew party whistles. We laid the toys outside the fence and an army of guards came and took them inside. We received no information on how the donations would be distributed or even if they would be. The detention centre manager responded to most requests with, “I don’t have to answer that.”
I felt as though I’d entered an alternate reality. I thought the police were meant to protect people’s legal and civil rights. The police were there to make sure that Serco, the private company operating the centre, would not be inconvenienced by our charity. I said to two policemen, “How can you stand it? Don’t you just want to bust them out and play a game of football?” One looked uncomfortable and the federal “facilitator” told him not to answer me. The other smirked and said he’d rather be at home playing football with his children (who I assume are not locked up in a prison camp). I worry about what it must do for the mental health of the personnel involved in the centre – it must require a lot of emotional suppression in order to deal with the reality they see. The line “I was only following orders” only works for so long.
What makes the police presence even more unbelievable was the fact that only that morning we had rung the police from the Kalgoorlie camping site to report a father who was threatening his young daughter with extreme violence. We reported that we had heard the father threaten to strangle her and “put one through the back of [her] head.” The police responded that it was not their business to deal with “how people parent their children” and that they could only do something after actual violence had occurred. It seems incredible then that they had travelled to Leonora on only the idea of we might do… I’m not actually sure what they thought we might do…. chant? Wave signs? Talk to people??
I have personal experience with grief and trauma. The outpouring of support I received after my partner died was nothing short of remarkable. Australians have a great capacity for compassion and understanding. When each day seemed to last a month and I struggled in a sea of pain I was supported by a professional counselling service and an incredible community who allowed me the time, space and freedom to recover equilibrium. These very traumatised families are being denied all of the things necessary to recover mental stability. They are in a highly stressful situation with no feelings of safety or assurance. They feel they might be sent home at any moment, to almost certain death. They are separated from normal life – they are prevented from cooking for their families, from having their own space and possessions and they have no access to the natural environment. They are watched at all times by guards who are used to dealing with criminals. The guards have no training in mental health, children’s welfare or social work. I wouldn’t allow some of these men into my classroom, yet in Leonora they have unrestricted access and power over the children and their parents. I can’t tell you how much this frightens me.
Our translator talked to me about his own experiences in detention. Six years on he battles daily with the mental, emotional and physical scars from the three years he spent in Australian detention centres. What occupies his mind now is not the time spent fleeing his home or the time in camps in other countries or what must have been a terrifying journey in a leaky boat. He is damaged from time spent in our country, under the “care” of our systems and governments. He asks “Why was I punished? I’m a good person?” Unfortunately his case is not unique. There is overwhelming medical evidence that there is a direct link between immigration detention and deteriorating mental health. Our translator said that he could see the signs of beginning mental illness in the faces of the people he met in the Leonora facility. Despite popular belief, on their own children don’t just “bounce back” from traumatic experiences. They need professional support and care to be able to deal with the past. Without support, and with the ongoing stress that they experience in these facilities, they are likely to develop mental illnesses that will be with them for the rest of their lives. That treating people with such severity is not only part of Australian policy, but is also now celebrated as an achievement, is unforgivable. It needs to stop.
The media are denied access to the centre. People who enter to visit are not allowed to take anything with them – not even a pencil to make notes. Visitors are not allowed to take anything out with them either, including handwritten notes from the detainees. The manager reported that all written communication had to go through an “official process”. This means that guards would write down who the letter was from and who it was addressed too. Detainees were also not given a receipt for their letters. We were unable to recieve a letter that we knew had been written for us. The reason given was the existing back-log of unsent mail that would have to be processed first. I find it hard to believe that facilitating contact with the outside world is a priority for centre staff.
Visitors must give 24 hours notice and have the name of the person they want to visit. They can be refused if the name is incorrectly spelled. They can also be denied entry on the discretion of the centre manager without a given reason. None of the official web pages contain the mailing address of the centre. Letters sent to “Leonora detention centre” are returned to sender. Effectively this means that the asylum seekers are denied any form of communication with the outside world. They have no voice.
This is occurring under a Labor government. From all the signs it only looks like it will get worse unless the public make a concerted effort to say this is not okay. The Liberal policy is potentially even more inhumane, with the proposed reintroduction of temporary protection visas and reopening of Nauru. Temporary protection visas keep families separated, place asylum seekers in a psychologically devastating state of uncertainty and deny them their fundamental rights such as the right to work and to take English classes. Currently this abuse is occurring on Australian soil with guards who are able to go home at night to their families. Who will staff an off shore detention centre? What will ensure the staff’s mental stability? And who will be there to monitor what happens? Out sourcing our processing facilities to countries who themselves are struggling to provide human rights for their own citizens can hardly ensure an improvement to conditions.
There are workable and humane solutions that maintain the dignity of refugees. We could pump the money that is currently going to Serco into services that everyone could use. We currently have a severe housing shortage in Australia for needy people. Imagine if the millions (billions?) of dollars going into detention centres went into housing, ESL education programs and mental health workers. Imagine what that would do to a town like Leonora. We are currently seeing an overwhelming waste of money, resources and human potential. Not to mention what it is doing to our international standing and our national image of Australians as fair and compassionate people. This situation needs to stop. I normally hate it when people compare situations to the Nazis but in this case the thinking is the same. Fundamentally good people are standing by while lives are destroyed by cruelty, pettiness and a careless disregard for the dignity and well-being of fellow human beings. Get informed. Get active. Please.