On the flight from Cairns to Weipa, a burly young bloke boarded wearing his “WE BUST OURS so WE CAN BUST YOURS” T-shirt with attitude. We were later to recognise him as a guard at Scherger Immigration Detention Centre in north Queensland. The drive from Weipa to the Scherger took us through clouds of red dust for 40 minutes until the first of the gates into this high-security camp and we began to understand the message in this most isolated of camps.
Four-metre high fences double-ring the camp. Guards unlock the chained-up gates, checking passengers and recording car registration. The same process was repeated two kilometres further at gate two. On arrival the security game continues with IDs produced, bags searched, mobile phones and laptops confiscated and bodies security wanded. It is hard to remember that this is administrative detention, not prison.
Gatehouse inside the four-metre high double fencing.
Wilson Security guards are lowest in this pecking order of a hierarchy more complicated than the Vatican. Serco rules the roost. Immigration staff move around making no eye contact with anyone and reluctantly submitting to the high-security game of wanding them in to the compounds.
Walkie-talkies with call signs and barking “copy” and “over” and military lingo complete the prison-like camp atmosphere.
Fenced walk-in after passing through gate four.
Wilson security works seven days on and then seven nights on then seven days off on a continual rotation. Most fly south for their break, which leaves a five-day break when a day’s travel at either side is included. Serco guards work six days on with one day break in between, then six nights, on a three-month rotation. The compensation is a wage of $2100 per week for an unskilled worker with no qualifications beyond a two-week course to gain a Certificate 2 in Security and a police check. The staff look exhausted and irritable. The animosity between Serco and DIAC is palpable.
I had visited Scherger in May. It was made clear on the drive out that this visit was going to be different. In May we had been allowed to sit outside under the trees, meeting whoever wished to see us. The Tamil and Hazara men divided up the time amicably choosing their own interpreters from within their groups. It had been as pleasant and relaxed as is possible in a high-security detention security.
Some men sought private conversations, which the others respected and moved away. We broke no rules and took no photographs. However, we did report the bizarre and cruel deportation game played out in the camp a few days before Miqdad Hussein, a young Hazara hanged himself in his room in desperation and hopelessness.
The last gate
Whatever the reason, we were informed on the first day that we would only be allowed into a small room at gatehouse three and we would only be allowed to see one person at a time. On the second day, the watering system played a heavy stream of water on the plastic and tin walls of our cell. A guard was posted to keep “youse in line of sight at all times”.
When the men came to see us in the hut they were searched before seeing us and after even though guards watched us with the “line of sight security” throughout the visit. Hazaras were wanded while the Tamils were physically searched with hands all over their bodies and up and down their legs and thighs. It was demeaning. One man shrugged sadly and said “As Tamils we are used to this from the Sri Lankan military”.
I asked security why there was a difference in treatment between the Tamils and the Hazaras. The guard denied what I had witnessed. I asked why the Tamils were not just wanded like the rest of us. The senior security guard informed me that the wand only detected metal. I asked what they expected to find with their hands — her reply, “well they might have a piece of rope in their pockets”.
On the second day we had negotiated group access through Canberra. We were allowed 2. 5 hours per day in the mess. The open kitchen, with full-force fans going, created an atmosphere akin to being in an aircraft hangar with the jets roaring. As we were escorted through the back of the camp to the back door of the mess, men called out to us from behind the fences and pushed pieces of paper through the fence with notes asking us to call for them and signing with their ID numbers. It is hard at such times to remember that this really is Australia. They were not allowed to ask to see us even though they knew me from a previous visit.
Visitors are not encouraged at Scherger. This is an isolated, closed camp. Weipa townspeople refer to the Serco manager as the “Colonel”. What was most disturbing in our meetings with the men from Hazara and Tamil groups was the level of depression and desperation. Many have been in detention now for 22 months with nothing to do and no visitors. The only men who get out are a small group of Christians, who are escorted to church on Sunday.
New offices expanding into the bush.
The Sri Lankans are not allowed to have cricket bats and balls because these could be weapons. They play instead with a child’s plastic bat and foam ball. Life in detention is full of petty rules. As ever, some spirits will resist. A group of Hazara men are weaving carpets on their metal bed frames but again are stymied by the slow arrival of wool. Our suitcase full of wool and a frame loom had still not been handed out when we left. All mail is opened as are all parcels.
The former Immigration Detention Standards (IDS) have been abandoned and minimum standards are now delineated by the commercial-in-confidence contract with Serco. Breaches are regulated by “abatements” (fines). Deaths, escapes and media contact with detainees are costs that Serco seeks to avoid. As a result, the camps are run with risk-adverse measures paramount. For example, excursions are limited to five men at one time and kept under two hours so that the men can be kept on the bus and the reasoning is, minimise any risk of escape.
By regulation, if they are longer than two hours, they are entitled to a toilet break. Serco is very sensitive about this as private contractors have been fined for this in the past. This means that an excursion that includes 90 minutes travel time, there and back to Weipa allows a maximum 20-minute drive around the town. Considering the isolation and feelings towards asylum seekers, it is hard to imagine anyone attempting escape. Where would they go?
The recent suicide has had a deleterious effect on conditions for all. A risk-averse suicide prevention regime that places all the men under constant surveillance has been instituted. Guards are assigned to a donga block and required to keep checking on every “client”. No one is allowed to sleep undisturbed by day for more than two hours without being checked. At night their rooms are entered two-four times with the torchlight flashing in faces and doors banging as guards leave.
Each person is checked off a list at the dining room door and if two meals are missed, they are called up to explain. Anyone suspected of not eating or of exhibiting suicidal ideation or depression goes onto a HIGH IMMINENT ALERT, which requires them to have a guard follow at arm’s length for days on end. The men say that this drives them crazy. Suicide prevention has no therapeutic component, although most recently two men have been sent to Toowong Private Hospital for treatment.
This place was used by the Howard government when its long-term detention regime filled psychiatric hospitals in three states with people broken in mind and spirit by the indefinite mandatory detention policy.
On the second day we realised that the men were walking slowly around the wired compounds like automatons. We saw the heavily lidded eyes of the men as they tried to focus and concentrate on details and dates with their forms. It was then that the men confirmed that most of them were taking sleeping tablets and on anti-depressant medication. They told us that there are long queues morning and night as most men are prescribed drugs by the contracted doctor.
There is no psychiatrist and only two counsellors and two psychologists for 575 men. While they always remembered their ID number, they had forgotten many things about their lives. They told us that the tablets gave them headaches and made them forgetful but without them they could not sleep at all. Most were going to bed at 5am and sleeping to avoid the day. The camp is quiet with no protests as in other places. The extensive and heavy use of drugs possibly suits Serco and DIAC for this reason.
The men have no complaints about the physical conditions of their imprisonment although there are still six large plastic tents — some used as dormitories. Their major concern is about the length of time taken for decisions and the arbitrary nature of the refugee process. Decisions depend largely on who they get to assess their claims. This is evidenced by statistics that show that while the overall acceptance rate at IMR (second-stage interview) for Afghanis for 2011 is 78.6% positive, there are three reviewers whose rate of acceptance is less than 10%.
This inconsistency in decision making is a cause of great distress. Many were in detention for eight months before they had even a first interview (RSA). They then waited up to eight months for a decision on that interview. Many are now still waiting for the second interview (IMR) and a decision on that interview. They worry constantly about their families. Those who have been tortured are bedevilled by the mental flashbacks and physical pain of injured bodies.
The men say that they are useless because they cannot help their families. These are people who have worked all their lives. Being cooped up with nothing to do is driving them crazy. Waiting is also making them sick with worry about the future.