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Inside an Adelaide detention centre: misery on quiet suburban street

Residents of Adelaide suburb Kilburn might not even know an asylum seeker detention centre is in their neighbourhood. One crusading lawyer speaks to InDaily’s Des Ryan about the conditions.

In suburban Kilburn in Adelaide, amid the humble redbrick houses and the factories, Garland Avenue is a dead-end back street. Right at the end, alongside the high factory wall of TI Auto Motors, 55-65 Garland Avenue stands out from the three redbricks across the road, reminders of an earlier Housing Trust era when Kilburn was the hub of South Australia’s railway workshops.

The Google street view of 55-65 is out of date. Taken in 2009, the photo shows an overgrown vacant block where a new clutch of buildings now stands with the unmistakeable air of a government institution. What sets it apart from the redbricks is the high brick and paling fence designed to prevent casual passers-by from looking in. Someone would need to stop and deliberately peer through the slats; and there is not much to see, just blank walls and a few domestic security grill windows.

The only entrance is through a reception area with its glass-panel security door. At 6am, the six-space staff carpark is full. From inside the office comes a male burst of laughter.

The official name of this place is “Adelaide Immigration Transit Accommodation”, although there is no exterior signage that says so. It’s actually an immigration detention centre, according to Adelaide human rights lawyer Claire O’Connor — a secure facility for locking up and isolating asylum seekers.

For a decade O’Connor, a barrister at Anthony Mason Chambers, has kept up the legal fight on behalf of refugees, back to the razor-wired days of the Woomera and Baxter detention centres. There is no visible razor wire at Kilburn. It makes little difference to O’Connor. She talks about it being a “barbed wire environment” for its mental impact on detainees.

One of her clients is in Kilburn, a 21-year-old stateless Kurdish man who arrived from Indonesia in 2010. Although his status as a genuine refugee is accepted, he remains in detention after failing an ASIO security check, apparently because his father was a suspected people smuggler in Indonesia.

The young man was recently transferred to Kilburn for his own safety. He was a detainee with a troubled past. Around a year ago he tried to hang himself in Darwin detention centre. He was only saved when Serco officers investigated the noise his body made in the shower cubicle where he had strung himself from the shower rose.

He was unconscious. It took 15 minutes to revive him. So it wasn’t a show. This man intended to die. Yet he was the same age as my daughter,” O’Connor said. The same person has a history of self-mutilation. “His arms are just shreds from the number of times he has cut himself with razors. I have photographs of his arms and they are just like an aerial photograph of ridges.”

O’Connor goes around giving presentations to service clubs and other community groups, describing in abysmal detail the misery faced by those in detention centres. Recently she addressed the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) national conference at the Stamford Hotel, Glenelg. She wants the community to understand what is going on here and in the other detention centres around Australia, in the hope that government policy will be reversed through public pressure. It’s hard, though.

One client, who was a very good soccer player, was put in prison in Kabul and he had his feet stripped with barbed wire so he could never play sport again.”

She knows many Australians have a cold, merciless view of asylum seekers. There is no national will to end their mistreatment. Waiting for the populace to rise up and stop the abuse could take a while. It’s actually more troubling than that, she thinks; a deeper racist streak in the national psyche.

None of these [asylum seekers are] from the West. They are not white people. They are from the Middle East and from Africa and it is OK to do this to Middle Eastern and Asian people; and we can’t forget the Burmese, Vietnamese and Sri Lankans in detention,” O’Connor told the ALA. ”Really, once you start saying that out loud then you really do hit the nail on the head about what the real issue is.”

The Department of Immigration website describes Kilburn, which opened in January 2011, as a “small residential complex” of two three-bedroom cottages, as well as a bed-sitter “for clients who may require a higher care”. But it is difficult for an outsider to enter a closed immigration facility like the one at Kilburn to double-check on the condition of the detainees there. Permission to visit is not easily granted.

O’Connor says solid psychiatric opinion holds that mental damage occurs in 50% of detainees after six months of incarceration. Beyond six months, the figure keeps rising, an inevitable consequence of having your life put into suspended animation with no idea when it will come to an end.

For people at the end of their tether, the mental damage can turn into desperate acts of self-mutilation and suicide. She says 30 people have died in detention in the past 10 years, 11 of whom were suicides, and most of those were in the past five years. She says the Immigration Department’s own medical records show people who enter detention in good health often go into mental decline. Since no other cause can explain their problems, the detention itself is to blame.

Yet the Commonwealth tried to pretend otherwise. ”In one case they blamed a young boy’s psychiatric condition on his parents for making the journey here,” O’Connor said. In another case, the Commonwealth lawyers told an inquest that an argument with his girlfriend had caused a refugee to take his life, not because he had been held in prolonged detention and was depressed.

O’Connor says one of her clients, who could speak English, Farsi and Arabic, had been a confident spokesman for fellow refugees when he first entered detention. Now, even though he had since been released into the community as a genuine refugee, the experience of detention had permanently broken him. ”He just stays in his house all day and he doesn’t go out. He keeps pigeons. He has no friends, no relationships. He cries often. He is still harming himself,” she said. ”He went from being a very interesting man with a sense of humour. There is no sense of humour.”

O’Connor says she has seen clients’ detention records that say they were on a “two to 60” watch, meaning they had to be checked every two minutes to make sure they had not taken their lives. Those on the two-minute watch quickly shut themselves down, she says.

They are not going to say, ‘I’m feeling so bad today, I might risk my life’. What they do is they don’t tell anyone. They don’t want to have the light turned on and off every two minutes when they are trying to get to sleep. They are also heavily medicated to keep them quiet, to keep them from taking their lives. They are exiting detention severely damaged, unable to work, unable to form meaningful relationships, unable to be productive members of the community,” she said.

O’Connor says many of her clients have arrived in Australia seeking sanctuary after being tortured and traumatised by “disgusting regimes” in Iran or Afghanistan.

Young boys who observed older male members of their family tortured because they would not enter the Taliban. One client, who was a very good soccer player, was put in prison in Kabul and he had his feet stripped with barbed wire so he could never play sport again,” she said. ”That did not harm him as much as what we did [in detention]. It has to be the most disgusting, shameful aspect of this deterrent.”

Her Kilburn client remains unwell. ”He doesn’t go out in the day,” she said. “He continues to harm himself. We took a case to try and get him placed in a therapeutic environment. This man is very ill. He needs help and he needs care.”

An appeal hearing for his release is set for the Federal Court this month.

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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  • 1
    CML
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Well now, that’s what I call an “unbiased” report!!!!!
    I DO NOT accept that “we” are to blame for all the problems these boat people have, and all the bleeding hearts like Claire O”Connor are doing is making things worse.
    It is most unlikely that the MAJORITY of Australians will accept that boat people, who may be a security risk, should be let loose in the community. If that occurs, then we may as well give up on border security. What people like Claire just will not accept is that the citizens of this country have a right to their opinion, and at the moment that opinion is anti-boat people.
    The second mistake she makes is to accuse all of us who think this way of being anti-refugee. I, for one, applaud the increase in the refugee intake to 20,000, but reserve the right to take in those refugees who have been sitting in UN camps (particularly in our own Asia/Pacific region) for many, many years. I will never understand this “selective compassion”, as practiced by the refugee advocate lobby, where people with MONEY and from the MIDDLE EAST, are somehow more deserving than the poor and destitute in our own region of the planet, who will NEVER have the money or opportunity to get on a boat.
    And please do not insult my intelligence by telling me that rich people can also be refugees. Maybe, but I am NOT convinced. If they have the money to purchase false passports/documents (not an inexpensive business), then several airplane tickets (to get to Malaysia/Indonesia) and finally, to buy a seat on a boat to Christmas Island, then it suggests to me they could use that money to “buy” security in their own countries. None of the waffle coming from the refugee advocates even makes sense. Oh! and then there is the small matter of the destroyed documents before they reach Australia. Of course they have to do that because most of said documents are false and would diminish their ability to stay in this country.
    Make no mistake, we are being had!!

  • 2
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    DIAC love this, Gillard wants it and Bowen does it.

    This country is led by mental and moral morons who are actively supported by lazy racist media in pretending that refugees who seek asylum are doing something wrong.

  • 3
    michael crook
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Of course it is racist, but what would you expect from a nation that does not want to look at it’s own record of domestic violence and child abuse against it’s own children.
    287,000 children abused in 2009, we hate our own children why wouldn’t we be xenophobic as well. Our treatment of refugees is illegal and inhumane. Is that simple enough.

  • 4
    Paddy Forsayeth
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    As has benn mentioned a couple of times in in the Crikey comments, Australia is a signatory to the UN refugee accord. This, rightly or wrongly, permits anyone to arrive on our shores in any fashion and claim asylum. If, as CML asserts, the majority of Australians don’t want boat people then Australia has to renegotiate the UN accord and get it to exempt boat people or get out of the accord altogether. Presumably if we did that (drop it) then we would have to pick up the boat arrivals when they arrive and take them back to where they came from. What if they can’t remember where they came from(? no papers!!) where to next hmmmmm?

  • 5
    Daniel Ruben
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I heard on ABC RN that “difficult” uncoöperative detainees were being medicated with Mirtazapine without being told what they were being medicated with. Mirtazapine is an antidepressant which also has unbelievably powerful hypnotic effects. I’ve been prescribed this drug. One 30mg dose knocks you out for dead for 12-15 hours and you wake up feeling like a zombie, groggy as hell, barely able to move. Must be a really effective way to control “difficult behaviour” and too bad if the detainee feels like total sh*t the next day.

  • 6
    Sue Hoffman
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    CML “And please do not insult my intelligence by telling me that rich people can also be refugees.”

    A refugee is a person who is outside their home country and has a well-founded fear of persecution for one of five reasons - google the refugee convention. Being a refugee is about persecution not being rich or poor.

    Sometimes rich people are targeted as they might influence others - break the spirit of a person that a community looks up to, then others will acquiesce.
    Its not uncommon for doctors to be targeted because they refuse to participate in torture or insist on treating people whatever political belief or religion they have.

    Militias can try and force wealthy people to support them to access their money to buy weapons and so on.

    If a group is targeted because of their ethnicity or religion, whether they are rich or poor is irrelevant.

    I doubt that this will make any difference to you, CML, but maybe someone else is interested in the validity or otherwise of the statement you made.

  • 7
    Posted Thursday, 15 November 2012 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    A really notable part of this is that we are torturing people - and make no bones about it, constantly switching the light on and off every two minutes is a form of torture - because of allegations against their parents.

  • 8
    The Old Bill
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    CML I may have disagreed with you over the evil internet question, but this time you have almost redeemed yourself. However I would suggest it is very hard to “buy” security in Afghanistan or any of these unfortunate countries for the price of a couple of airfares and a short boat ride.
    We also still have the moral dilemma of bombing the crap out of these countries whilst telling their citizens it is safe to be there. There again, we have totally ignored refugees from our region and anywhere else without major oil reserves since World War II, as you have so rightly pointed out, so why start caring now?

  • 9
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The difficulty I have with CML’s position is that he/she separates “boat people” from other asylum seekers (who obviously come by air with passports, visas etc) and then separates all asylum seekers from those already assessed elsewhere as refugees who are assisted to reach Australia.
    Presumably CML doesn’t have any problem with ‘assessed elsewhere’ refugees (the balance of the 20,000) even if they come from the MIddle East? So the problem must be asylum seekers. Interestingly, asylum seekers come from pretty much exactly the same places and circumstances as ‘assessed elsewhere’ refugees and nearly all of them are found to be ‘genuine’. They appear, to us, to have chosen or stumbled on or simply escaped by different routes which entailed different administrative pathways, different time scales, greater or smaller risks. Whether they have genuine home-country papers (passport, visa) or whether they purchased false ones or disposable ones is pretty much irrelevant because from their point of view they all simply escaped - and now they are all seeking refuge. Does it really matter how they did it?

  • 10
    CML
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    @ HCMc - I don’t think we should be taking ANYONE from the middle east/sub-continent. At least not while there are still thousands of “processed” refugees from countries in our own (Asia/Pacific) region, awaiting resettlement in Oz.
    It is frequently asserted that we should be taking refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan because we have been involved in the recent wars in these countries. However, since John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard first sent, and then condoned the presence of our troops in these countries, without the consent of the majority of Australians, I don’t see why “we” have any obligations to these people. Perhaps all the politicians could pay for the refugees coming from these countries, and take the blame for their own stupidity.
    The law should be changed to ensure that there is a citizens initiated referendum held before Australian troops are committed to ANY war in the future. At present there doesn’t even have to be a vote taken in the parliament (about which we could at least lobby our local members), so the resulting refugee problem should be on the heads of those who made these decisions in the first place. It is unfair to expect the taxpayer to foot the bill for thousands of refugees coming to this country (by whatever means), when they (taxpayers) had no say in what caused the problem in the first place.
    Like hundreds of thousands of others, I marched in the street to protest about our involvement in both wars. “We” were ignored. Therefore, it is not “our” problem.

  • 11
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    CML, you confirm exactly the point I was making. You referred to: “…. thousands of “processed” refugees from countries in our own (Asia/Pacific) region, awaiting resettlement in Oz.” CML, these ‘processed refugees’ are mostly (though not all) from the Middle East. They have been ‘processed’ in Asia. They are waiting in Asia. If I am not mistaken, you seem to object to these particular refugees (already ‘processed’ and waiting in Asia) BECAUSE they are from the MIddle East. That is, you would be happy to have Burmese or Thais or Vietnamese refugees although you also draw a line at the “sub-continent” which I guess would exclude Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi refugees? You really don’t like the idea of those non-whites eh?
    Anyway, good luck with the citizens initiated referendum.

  • 12
    CML
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    @ HCMc - I have replied to your latest comment, but in moderation. Check later?

  • 13
    CML
    Posted Friday, 16 November 2012 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    I give up - Crikey what the hell is going on?

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