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Features & profiles

 

The Woomera migrant detention centre

2 December 2000

Published in The Age 


“Let me describe the place’s “gulag design features”. The generators and arc lights go all night. There are more generators  than trees - I counted them. It’s this massive, featureless car park in the middle of nothing. Flat in every direction. They’ve put razor wire around it, and they’ve stuck families behind the razor wire. They make them wear tags with numbers, and that number is the name they’re known by while they remain there. It’s pretty shameful.”
 
Bruce Garry has put Woomera Detention Centre behind him now, and moved to sub-tropical Byron Bay in northern NSW. But the images he accumulated, whilst serving as the Centre’s psychiatric nurse till September this year, will not easily flee his mind. 
 
“It’s Yellow Peril revisited,” he says. “Woomera is our statement as a nation that we really don’t want these people visiting our shores.”
 
But Garry is equally quick to caution that some recent reports on Woomera are simplistic, or just plain wrong - and that the situation there is anything but clear-cut.
 
Correctional workers of the much-maligned Australian Correctional Management, which runs the Woomera Centre, are doing a formidably difficult job in dire circumstances, he believes. Not all the Centre’s Middle Eastern detainees have behaved creditably. And it’s not just the refugees who are doing it tough at Woomera: the Centre’s staff come in for megadoses of stress and anxiety.
 
“At Woomera,” Garry says, “everybody become the victim of an obscene system which bends you out of shape. Why not spend the $150 a day we are now spending on each detainee to educate them, teach them English, and teach them a bit about Australian law and culture? That way, if they’re accepted to stay, they’re grateful, well-integrated residents.”
 
Kieran Riordan is a psychologist who worked as the Woomera Detention Centre’s counselor till October. He “does not expect to be asked back” to Woomera - and is also settled into the more salubrious lifestyle of Byron Bay. Riordan believes that Woomera exists as a “deterrent” - to dissuade potential illegal migrants from attempting to come here.
 
“The current system,” he says, “Re-traumatises many of these people - after often horrific experiences in the Middle-East. It then releases them into the community. They’re effectively being taught a deep suspicion of the way authority is exercised in Australia.”
 
But Riordan, too, is wary about some of the recent reports on the Centre.
 
“In an environment where genuine and non-genuine refugees live closely,” he says, “some of the “genuines” know who the “non-genuines” are - but can’t say anything because of fear of reprisals in the Centre, or in their country of origin where life may be cheap. In this situation, “non-genuines” are able to use a number of smokescreen tactics - for example causing unrest, or falsely reporting on fellow detainees.”
 
Because of such scenarios, many of the publicly-known “facts” about Woomera should not be taken at face value, Riordan believes.
 
Bruce Garry states that there is no truth in the suggestion that detainees are being “restrained” with psycho-active medication.
 
“As the staff member who was responsible for administering the medication, I can only say that people have no understanding of the kinds of stresses detainees are under.”
 
Riordan explains: “For example someone might work long hours at the Centre for a week, to earn $35 - all of which goes on a phone call back to Iraq. In the course of that phone call he might learn that his wife and five children have just been tossed onto the street.”
 
“That he would require anti-depressants is hardly surprising,” Garry concludes. “But medication is not being used to pacify people.”
 
Riordan believes that although the majority of detainees are genuine refugees fleeing persecution, there have been cases of criminals, including people-smugglers, entering the Centre - as well as “people who have been involved in torture or oppression in their country of origin.”
 
“Small wonder,” he says, “That these groups take a long while to process.”
 
He acknowledges that through a very thorough processing effort by Immigration, the Centre has released 1600 of its initial population of 2000. “You don’t often read about that.”
 
 
Another example of the situation’s complexity, says Bruce Garry, is that Woomera detainees have been trained by people-smugglers to “burn their documentation on arrival in Australia - which sounds pretty bad. But you have to realise that these people often come from societies where documentation creates a paper trail which can lead to their execution.”
 
Much of the recent ACM-bashing is misplaced, Garry believes. “ACM is not the evil empire. But there are poor upper management decision-making processes which prevent the younger managers in ACM from implementing new ideas.”
 
And it’s not at all true, Riordan says, that Canberra has a hands-off approach to managing the Woomera Detention Centre.
 
“ACM and Immigration work hand in hand, and any significant event at Woomera is relayed to the Minister’s senior people in Canberra.”
 
“It’s easy to point the finger at ACM as the culprit in this very sorry saga. However I attribute responsibility for the Woomera debacle to John Howard and Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock - who have established, and closely monitor, the budget, the ethos and the implicitly deterrent aspects of the Australian detention centre industry.
 
“The continuation of the Woomera Detention Centre is not supportable on humanitarian grounds. It may, however, be a politically savvy manoeuvre to win over the One Nation vote.”
 
In an unpublished comment from the interview in today’s Extra section, the Prime Minister told The Age  he denies having his eye on the 900,000 One Nation votes cast at the 1998 election. “Not in any systematic sense. I’m not constantly adjusting policy to try and suit them, if that’s what you mean.”
 
 
 
The Age  understands that one highly placed manager within Australian Correctional Management is gravely concerned about the company’s methods at Woomera - and the damaging effect they are having on detainees and staff.
 
Kieran Riordan says that whilst concern for detainees’ welfare is quite rightly dominating the media, the public needs to be aware of the tremendous stress loads suffered by Woomera staff.
 
“In groups and individually, I saw sixty-five staff members in two months suffering some level of post-traumatic stress,” he says of the period which followed the August riot and fire. “They included anti-riot squad members, Immigration, correctional, medical and administrative staff, as well as security services people.
 
“Correctional staff turnover is deliberately set at six weeks,” Garry says. “Experience has shown ACM that they can get six weeks out of these people before they become a liability.”
 
Riordan believes that “the nature of the arrangement the Immigration Department has imposed on ACM has resulted in an unusually high number of staff members suffering from job stress - particularly among officers whose personal values conflict with the inhuman nature of the system.”
 
 
 
The riot and fire of four months ago was a watershed event for the Detention Centre.
 
“I spoke to guys who thought they were going to die that day,” Bruce Garry says.
 
Staff carted away five tons of rocks which had been thrown in the riot. “"Riot helmets were cracked and shields smashed to pieces by steel pikes," Riordan says. “It was a scene of murderous rage by about 100 refugees - and an amazing show of restraint by security staff.”
 
Garry believes that the riot happened because “the detainees had been taken to their limit. These people are actually very ordinary - very like us. They behaved in exactly the same way we would have in their circumstances.”
 
What are those circumstances?
 
“I’ve worked in the Curtin Detention Centre in the north-west of WA,” Garry says. “Woomera is like Curtin with all the trappings which make life liveable taken away. No trees, no grass, no sporting facilities, barely any access to TV and video facilities. It’s more like a POW camp: minimal, spartan and punitive.”
 
Riordan adds, “I didn’t even have a room to counsel detainees in. We had to sit outside on a couple of chairs in the dust. There was no safe observation room for the Centre’s many psychiatric emergencies.
 
“It’s an impoverished environment. That’s psychological cruelty in my book.”
 
There’s even an echo of the old White Australia dictation test, it appears. “All documents the detainees are given - such as their case decisions - are in English, which many of them don’t read,” Riordan says. “Translations are not provided by the Department, as a matter of policy.”
 
Professional staff presently working at Woomera believe most of the problems described by Riordan and Garry are getting worse, not better - despite the Centre’s falling numbers.
 
Staff are searched for mobile phones, and nursing staff are harassed over potential leaks. The level of paranoia is currently so high that some staff believe their phones are bugged by the government.
 
Haji Nabizarra, an Afghani was who was discharged from the Woomera Centre a month ago, supports this view of a deteriorating situation.
 
“Since the fire was lit by those crazy people,” he says, “There has been much more door-locking, and roll calls. It’s a very bad situation now. All those nations thrown together, no post office, almost no phone access, and families that may not have heard a word about you for a more than a year.”
 
Haji is concerned about how bad the burning of the centre’s recreation hall and school must look to the Australian public.
 
Riordan and Garry re-emphasise that the situation at Woomera is far from simple.
 
For example, says Garry, “the Centre’s Manager, Jim Meakins, is not a bad person. He just lacks the sensibility, or flexibility, for the job he’s been given to do.”
 
Riordan disagrees, “On the contrary, anyone in that position faces an impossible task.”
 
“The Centre’s staff are inappropriately prepared to deal with an incarcerated Middle Eastern population,” Riordan says. “It’s just the wrong model for what is required. There’s the strain of secrecy, there are heart-breaking scenes of children peering through prison fences - and there is the constant sense that something is terribly wrong with Australia.”
 
“But,” he repeats, “The situation is not black and white. Woomera is a cauldron. A very complex psycho-social environment. You have a mix of Afghanis, Iraqis and Iranians. On top of that you have the correctional staff, the support staff, the Federal Police, and the spooks from ASIO visiting regularly. It’s a surreal environment.”
 
Bruce Garry says, “We’re talking about a fundamental divide in history - between Muslim and Christian culture. And it’s being played out in the goddam Australian desert.”


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