Thursday, 28 April 2011

Australia: An Immigration System In Crisis

What started out as a rooftop protest by 13 detainees (three Kurds, two Iranians and eight Afghans - all having been held for between 13-19 months), three of whom were beginning a hunger strike in protest against the Australian authorities continued refusal to grant them temporary visas, over a week ago quickly escalated into a mass riot that left large sections of Sydney's Serco-run Villawood detention centre in ruins. It also marked the latest episode in an escalating crisis that is afflicting Australia's grossly dysfunctional immigration system, one that unlike say Britain, automatically locks up all asylum seekers and clandestine migrants that arrive in the country without a valid visa until their cases have been determined. And, given the grossly overstretched system, that can mean years spent in limbo, in overcrowded and often temporary accommodation not knowing if your application is going to be granted or not. Is it any wonder that a tidal wave of self-harm, suicide bids and riots is sweeping the Australian detention estate?

The 20 April appears to have been sparked by the assault of at least one of the detainees by Serco security officers in the early stages of the rooftop protest. It quickly escalated to involve more than 25% of the 400 Villawood detainees, most of whom had already had their visa applications rejected at least once and some still with appeal hearing in the pipeline and therefore with much still to loose. Fires were set and much has been made in the Australian press of roof tiles having being thrown at fire crews attending the blazes but the protesters claim that only one of their number was doing this (possibly believing that they were going to turn their hoses on the rooftop protesters) and he soon grew tired left the roof. Whatever the case, the rebellion left 9 buildings gutted, including a computer room, kitchens and the medical centre.

Opposition politicians were not slow in trotting out the inevitable knee-jerk calls for the rioters to be sent back to Christmas Island, for their claims to be suspended for them to be sent to back of queue or even deported. More measure responses came from the likes of the Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young who said, "Long-term detention, indefinite detention, a lack of time limit on detention is... pushing them to breaking point."  David Manne, executive director of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, was also quoted as saying that "...what we're seeing unfolding at the moment is a very serious situation which was highlighted and indeed the concerns expressed by these independent experts, including the Commonwealth ombudsmen, about the enormous distress and pressure that people are being placed under, being left incarcerated indefinitely for prolonged periods, does have consequences. It's enormously damaging to people and it's something that in fact this government, two years ago, promised to bring an end to. It's this government that said it was going to fundamentally reform detention policy, as it said, the practice was dehumanising, very harmful, and not an effective or civilised way of treating people. And in fact that people would only be locked up in detention as a measure of last resort, only if it was necessary and only for the shortest possible time."

The two days after the riot, 22 supposed 'ringleaders' were dragged off to the maximum security section of Sydney's Silverwater prison, where they have been held without charge ever since, despite regular complaints to the Commonwealth ombudsman over their treatment. The same day an anonymous ex-Serco guard told the ABC's Lateline program that the privatised detention system was in crisis, and that the security company was largely at fault for throwing poorly trained new recruits in to a volatile job at the deep end.

Whilst the clean-up at Villawood continues and immigration officials tried to talk the 3 hunger strikers down from the detention centre's roof, solidarity demonstrations were taking place outside the fence at Villawood, with 16 protesters being arrest on 24 April, and outside the Curtin detention centre in Western Australia. The following day disturbances broke out at the Christmas Island and Curtin detention centre. At Curtin activists claimed that 150 detainees were taking part in protests and 100 had gone on hunger strike, whilst the Immigration Department confirmed that about 30 asylum seekers at Curtin had received on-site medical treatment because of the food refusal. Refugee supporters also tried to get in to Curtin to see the detainees, but 16 were arrested. On Christmas Island a number of detainees had sewn their lips together as part of the protest and outside Melbourne's Maribyrnong detention centre police pepper sprayed a demonstration of 250 protesters.

Meanwhile, the Gillard government upped their rhetoric, with the immigration Minister Chris Bowen outlining plans to toughen up the immigration character test, allowing him to refuse visas to anyone convicted of any criminal conduct while in immigration detention. The following day (26) Bowen upped the ante further by announcing a return to the Howard-era policy of temporary protection visas. The Council of Civil Liberties also announced that it had filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission outlining their dissatisfaction with the Immigration Department’s rationale for holding the Villawood protesters in prison. 25 asylum seekers had collapsed during a hunger strike at the Curtin detention centre and eight Christmas Island detainees began their own rooftop protest.

On the 27th Christmas Island detainees announced a new hunger strike and the Villawood hunger strikers continued their protests in the face of the government's refusal to countenance any granting of visas to the men.


"There is something about taking people who have committed no criminal offence and keeping them confined and under the control of other people that eventually breaks them... I think almost all of us, if every part of our day was regulated by some arbitrary authority and we face the threat of being returned to a country where we feared for our lives, we just progressively break down." - University of New South Wales clinical psychologist Dr Zachary Steel, who specialises in refugee mental health.

All these events are taking place against a backdrop of 6 deaths in Australian detention centres in the last 6 months (5 suicides), continued calls for the closure of the Christmas island detention facilities and concerns over the high rates of attempted suicides and self-harm behaviours in detention facilities as voiced by the Australian Human Rights Commission [see for example 1, 2, as well as an interesting article by Dr Tanveer Ahmed], and the December Christmas Island boat tragedy, alongside concerns over the $15 million upgrade to a former army barracks in Pontville, Tasmania to house up to 400 male asylum-seekers.

And the most rational recent response to this crisis? Certainly not the Gillard government or Tony Abbott's opposition tub-thumping; it has been a R.I.S.E. press release laying out the blatant racism backgrounding the long and unsavoury history of Australia's system of mandatory detention for asylum seekers.

Also highly recommended is the Asylum & Refugee Law Project's excellent Frequently Quoted Inaccuracies series, which put the whole 'boat people' question in context and lay bear the inherent racism underlying the whole debate. For example, their table showing the relatively small number of 'unauthorised arrivals' compared to the numbers of visa 'overstayers' who enter the country 'legally':

Monday, 25 April 2011

Calais - The Police Response To The "Videos Of Shame": Still More Violence.


April 22, 2011

The Police Response To The "Videos Of Shame": Still More Violence.

Yesterday morning (Thursday, April 21 at 9), during a brutal police raid at the Africa House (Rue Descartes) three activists No Border filming and acting as observers were violently arrested and are to be prosecuted in court. More than 20 Sudanese refugees, mainly living in the squat were arrested. The police physically abused the militants. They destroyed one of their cameras and deleted the videos on the second.

"It looked above all like revenge for the publication of the No Border videos on the Rue 89 and Inrockcuptibles websites denouncing police harassment at Calais," said Martin, an Noborder activist.

Three activists were arrested. Two of them who were filming the raid were caught and thrown violently to the ground by the PAF and the CRS*. They spent nine hours in custody and they have several charges against them: illegal occupation, violent resistance in a meeting ... The trial will take place on July 12 in Boulogne sur Mer.

"Once again, this trial is just a strategy of manipulation to destroy the public image of No Border and to try and scare us, discourage us from contining to film and witness the reality Calais and its repressive system. But we are not afraid, we are ready to go to court to seize the opportunity to win this new political trial, "said Marine an activist.

Two weeks ago NoBorder released several videos that showed violence, sexual harassment, verbal abuse, destruction of cameras. In a video that was widely viewed it showed PAF officers arriving at Africa House in the morning to wake migrants with "Sunday in Bamako."

"The movies are published are the tip of an iceberg of daily harassment by the police in Calais. This violence is systematic and is part of an overall strategy against migrants in this city," said Martin. "Apart from the videos we have many other documents that are ready to be published or used as evidence in legal action against the police. We will not be intimidated by the violent reaction of the authorities, we will stick to our convictions. In Calais repression is the law. "

[* PAF - Border Police / CRS - Paramilitary Riot Police]

Notes to Editors

1) No Borders Calais have maintained a constant presence in Calais since June 2009. The work consists mainly of activists conducting surveillance against police violence and to show concrete support with the migrant communities.

2) The Africa House is an old disused factory in the Rue Descartes, Calais, where a hundred migrant Sudanese, Eritreans, Afghans have sought refuge.

3) The videos are on:

see also:

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Barnado's Telethon 26/04/11

Phone the UK's latest prison profiteers! Ring them on Tuesday 26th April to protest against their involvement in detention and deportation!

In March 2011 Barnado's announced that they will run the play facilities at the UKBA's new "pre-departure accommodation centre" in Pease Pottage, near Gatwick. We call on Barnado's to stop cashing in on others' misery and have chosen Tuesday 26th April as the day to contact them. Below are the contact numbers for all the regional offices:

London & South East  -  020 8551 0011
South West  -  0117 937 5500
Yorkshire  -  0113 393 3200
Midlands  -  0121 550 5271
North West  -  0151 488 1100
Scotland  -  0131 334 9893
Wales  -  0292 049 3387
North East  -  0191 240 4800
Northern Ireland  -  0289 067 2366

For more info about the pre-departure accommodation see:

Saturday, 9 April 2011

You Legitimise Child Detention, We Disrupt You

On 9 March, Barnardo's announced that it had agreed with the UKBA to provide staff and children's activities for the proposed new immigration prison for up to nine families at Pease Pottage, Crawley Forest.

A group of activists from groups including London No Borders, All African Women's Group, and SOAS detainee support swarmed in to the Museum of childhood during Barnardo's fundraising initiatives panel this afternoon to ask, 'How charitable is it to collude with the UKBA in locking up children?' and 'Why fund that of all things during the crisis?'. Despite some protestations from the crowd, many looked thoughtful and kept quiet during the proceedings. After some leafleting and general interruption the group moved to the front of the museum where banners were laid out and discussions with passers-by took place- all in all a successful stunt.

Watch the video of the protest here.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Taking The Pease

Private Eye, 31 March, 2011.

Oranges & Sunshine: Children's Charity Barnardo's Must Learn From Past Mistakes

by Clare Sambrook, co-ordinator of End Child Detention Now.

This isn’t the best of times for Barnardo’s, Britain’s biggest children’s charity. Already under fire for lending its name to the government’s rebranding of child immigration detention, Barnardo’s has a shaming presence in the deeply upsetting film, Oranges and Sunshine, released today.

The film concerns the hard-to-believe scandal of 130,000 children effectively exported from Britain to supply free labour and “white stock” to the Commonwealth. The practice began in earnest in the late 1800s, a collaboration by government, churches and charities including Dr Barnardo’s. In the years after World War II, some 4,500 children in care were despatched, the last landing in Australia as recently as 1970.

Oranges and Sunshine opens in 1986 when real-life Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys hears something unbelievable from a client whose brother Jack, lost since childhood when they were taken into care, has got in touch. Now middle-aged, Jack writes from Australia, saying he was sent there as a little boy “in a big ship full of kids”.

“Why have I never heard about it?” asks Humphreys, played with skilful ordinariness by Emily Watson. “Why has no-one ever heard about it?”

The answer, Humphreys finds, is that governments, churches and charities lied about it. The film focuses on child migrants sent to Australia. Oranges and Sunshine — Jim Loach’s debut feature — takes its name from false promises made to children by adults entrusted with their care.

Child migrants were told their parents were dead. Parents who had left children in institutions’ care with every intention of getting them back were told they had been adopted by loving families close to home.

In fact they had been sent thousands of miles away to wretched lives and sometimes criminal abuse in the care of ill-run institutions and child-raping Christian Brothers.

The film reveals how Margaret Humphreys and her husband Mervyn discovered and exposed all this, founding the Child Migrants Trust to help migrants trace their birth certificates, their parents, and their past.

The loss and pain might have been less had governments, churches and charities seen for themselves the errors of past practice and worked urgently to inform and reunite the damaged families. In one of the film’s heartbreaking moments, Humphreys tells Jack — the lost-and-found-again brother in Australia, played by Hugo Weaving — that she has found his mother. Then she pauses.

“We’re too late, she’s dead, isn’t she?” he says. “When did she die?”

“Last year,” says Humphreys.

A 105 minute docudrama written by Rona Munro (of Loach-senior’s Ladybird, Ladybird), the film stays close to Humphreys’s quest, eliciting the children’s stories gently, gathering darkness as it goes. Resisting flashbacks, Lynch lets the childhood horrors play out in the audience’s mind, where they stay. This quiet film provokes a deep and lasting anger.

Barnardo’s — only briefly mentioned: a name check, a scribble in a notebook, a cog in the machine — has tended to bury the past, but the past haunts the latest chapter of Barnardo’s story.

In February 2010, a full twenty-four years after Humphreys first heard of the “big ship full of kids”, Prime Minister Gordon Brown at last apologised to child migrants — paying tribute to Margaret Humphreys and the Child Migrants Trust.

Barnardo’s then chief executive Martin Narey welcomed Brown’s apology, expressed sympathy with the migrants, but resisted apologising for Barnardo’s part. Instead, Narey said: “This policy was well intentioned and many who advocated it before and after the Second World War sincerely believed migration would offer impoverished children the chance of a radically better life.”

He added: “I hope that today’s events give every one of us an opportunity to reflect on past failures and learn from past mistakes.”

This expression of regret, that it seemed right at the time, did not accept responsibility, own up to or challenge what Barnardo’s officials had done. Their sincerity did not help the children, who might have been better served by alertness and scepticism in the adults charged with their care.

New times, new scandals. Has Barnardo’s learned from past mistakes?

Ten months ago the UK’s new coalition government promised to end the “moral outrage” of immigration child detention, which, it is now widely accepted, causes children lasting psychological harm. But instead of ending detention, the government commissioned a review of the “alternatives” led by the Border Agency’s own director of criminality and detention Dave Wood, a man whose false undermining of the medical evidence of harm is a matter of parliamentary record.

In December the “alternatives” were unveiled: detention, rebranded. According to calculations by Professor Heaven Crawley at the Centre for Migration Policy Research the government’s new “family-friendly pre-departure accommodation” could hold 4,445 children every year.

Last week the Border Agency won planning permission for a “family-friendly” facility in the Sussex village of Pease Pottage, complete with 2.5-metre perimeter fences, electronic gates, “control and restraint” — and Barnardo’s charity workers to “help families prepare for their return”.

Objectors who attended the Council planning meeting (noting councillors’ concerns that a “majestic beech tree” should be protected from the children) claimed Barnardo’s involvement “almost single-handedly swung the application in UKBA’s favour”.

The Border Agency is cock-a-hoop, trumpeting public approval from “highly respected” Barnardo's. The charity’s new chief executive Anne Marie Carrie admits: “There will be some who say, ‘Why would Barnardo's be involved with this?’”

Indeed there are. Former Children’s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green is among those asking what on earth Barnardo’s is playing at.

That others, who privately confess dismay, fear to speak out, is one measure of Barnardo’s clout.

Yesterday, in response to emailed questions, the charity said:

Barnardo’s will be providing welfare and social care within the new pre-departure accommodation being established for asylum-seeking families in Crawley. The decision to do so was made by the Chief Executive with the support of Barnardo’s Council and goes right back to our core purpose: Barnardo’s seeks to support the most vulnerable children in the UK. We have agreed to play a role because we believe it is critical that families and children are treated with dignity and respect and able to access high quality support services during this time.

Among the questions Barnardo’s declined to answer: “What potential problems and conflicts might arise from lending the Barnardo’s name to the UK Border Agency?”

And: “Why did Barnardo’s not seize the opportunity of government’s wish for third-party endorsement to push the government to honour its pledge to end child detention?”

In other words, isn’t Barnardo’s helping to create the situation that makes children vulnerable? Won’t it be party to their distress?

Gordon Brown apologised to the child migrants last year on behalf of Britain. Barnardo’s didn’t apologise, but it did pledge to “take the opportunity to reflect on past failures and learn from past mistakes.” Perhaps they should reflect more deeply, in particular on whether Barnardo’s role should be to keep a proper distance from the government and its agencies. Instead of deploying its reputation to legitimise and endorse the new detention regime by contracting to serve it, Britain’s most powerful children’s charity could be leading the fight against child detention.