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The Google street view of 55-65 is out of date.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.