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':