motel 8-09-2010 10-00-45 AM

The Australian government maintains that it does not detain children in immigration detention centres (IDCs). Instead, children are detained in Alternative Places of Detention (APODs) which can be motels or mining camps which SERCO, a global security company, runs.

The Asti Motel in Darwin is one such APOD, as are the Leonora Mining Camp, two other motels in Brisbane and the Airport Lodge Motel in Darwin.

Much community angst has been generated about asylum seekers “living it up”, and the secrecy in which they are kept apart from Australians does not help to mitigate the idea that these so-called “queue jumpers” are being privileged.

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I checked out these conditions first hand in Darwin last week. First of all, while there are no fences at the Asti (unlike Leonora and the Darwin Airport Lodge), there are plenty of guards sitting around watching. I counted seven across the front alone, others were stationed at every corner.

“Welfare checks” are conducted twice a day. Between 5.30am and 6am guards enter the rooms to count heads. Sheets are pulled down on children and parents alike as the head must be seen. Families must be in their rooms by 10pm. Children of all ages with their parents sleep together in one room. Newborn babes share with older children.

Life for children in this environment has little to offer. School has been promised for five months now. This is soon to change with the department promising that children will be in school by the end of the week. However, it raises another tenet of mandatory detention, which is its secrecy and lack of transparent oversight. In the face of this blatant breach of Australian law, none of the four monitoring bodies has any capacity other than to provide advice.

The only amusement for the children in the APOD is the swimming pool, beckoning in the tropical heat. After months of looking longingly at the pool, children are now allowed one hour, three times a week as SERCO has employed an outside lifeguard to come in and supervise. There are no bikes, balls or playground and the children have not been out of the motel since April when they arrived.

Volunteers commissioned by SERCO bring toys and activities for a few hours but then take them all away again. These groups are instructed not to build any relationships with the people. Little chance of this as they, like so many other staff, disappear in two weeks to be replaced by others. The large empty car park is being promised as a play space “one day”.

motel 2

Children get 30 points and adults 50 each week to spend in the store. Thirty points will buy them a can of soft drink, a packet of chips and maybe some nuts. One mother, who was a teacher in her home country, has set up an informal program. With no classroom or materials, it is difficult to make it a meaningful experience for the children.

Visitors must apply in writing, 24 hours in advance with correct names and spelling to see an asylum seeker. As I waited to visit the people I had applied to see, I listened as a mother was berated in front of her children by a SERCO manager. She was being told that she could only do something for half an hour. My family were sent away to wait outside their room while I was installed downstairs in a visitors’ room. A peremptory wave told them when they could come to the room.

Visitors must hand over their phones before the visit. I took some clothes for the women who were pregnant and finding their current clothes tight and  uncomfortable. These had to be handed over to the guards who would search them before handing them on to the women.

There are some “unaccompanied minors” in the motel also. These teenagers have nothing to do all day but wait and grieve for the family members and life they have lost. Asylum seekers rely on case managers to keep them informed about the progress of their cases but these turn over every two weeks. Then there is a new person asking interminable questions and not knowing what is happening.

A 10-year-old fixed my eye, compelling me to listen to her story of escape. She described hiding in the trees with her parents while insects bit her feet and legs and not being able to move “staying still still still quiet quiet”  because military were searching for them. Her mother wrapped her arms around her, not shushing her, understanding her need to talk but reminding her wordlessly that now she was safe.

Many of these children have come out of camps — you can see it in their watchful eyes.