Melbourne residents may be relieved and a little exalted at seeing off the proposed Border Force community roundup, but there is no such relief for the people in detention who have to live under their harsh rule. Since Border Force assumed an oversight role in detention camps the men women and children locked up under this regime have seen great change. As one man who has been detained for five years, put it. ”I used to live in detention now I live in a military camp”. The Border Force representative when asked in May this year, by the Senate Inquiry Committee to clarify their coming takeover of detention explained it thus. “Border Force will put Serco on steroids”.
This culture shift places families and children in conditions more akin to a prison camp. The physical manifestation of the militarisation of detention is underway at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows where 4.5 metre high fences are currently being erected to encircle the existing camp complex. The only people who have escaped are not asylum seekers but rather people who have overstayed their visa conditions. No asylum seeker has escaped or attempted to escape to justify this new security. Each morning uniformed Border Force staff who were formerly Immigration officers in civilian clothes, stride out around the camp to make their presence felt.
Meanwhile a new form of psychological warfare is taking place. Guards are under new orders to physically search and scan people constantly even though surveillance cameras are everywhere. Fathers and mothers are scanned then patted down in front of their children before the family leaves the camp for appointments to hospital or trauma counselling. Previously women were not routinely searched by touch.
Women who have been sexually molested in the Nauru camps now must submit to hands touching their breasts, bottoms and up and down their legs. Some guards have a lighter touch than others. The women are suffering panic attacks and distress and in one instance a husband was knocked to the ground as he protested on behalf of his wife. The men are similarly patted down and then some are sent out in handcuffs for hospital visits. The cuffs are left on even in hospital. Most recently a man was forced to keep handcuffs on as his hand was x-rayed. Another man with serious kidney problems was unable to provide a requested urine sample at a hospital visit because he was handcuffed.
Rooms are now searched without notice at any time. Children are witness to their parent’s helplessness and denigration. Every night at 11pm and 5am, guards come to rooms for the nightly head counts, banging on doors, shouting the question-how many. Some guards do not wait for a reply but barge straight in. Fathers sit outside the room before 11pm and 5am to forestall the banging which wakes their babies and children. Any wonder the children wet their beds and cry out in terror with bad dreams. The children are stressed because they live in constant fear.
Both in Darwin and Melbourne in the middle of the night, guards togged up in riot gear have invaded rooms and dragged people out to waiting vans for transfer to planes to Nauru. Children have witnessed this extreme violence with dogs as families are separated, mothers weep and fathers are taken away. In Darwin the past two transfers saw families taken to the Don Dale decommissioned youth prison where women and children were separated from their fathers and husbands. The women and children were forced to strip in front of guards and to shower without doors. They were then given special clothes for the plane journey back to Nauru and escorted up the stairs with guards on either side. We know this happened because of information sent back from Nauru.
Visits were previously open from 2pm until 7pm each day at the MITA in Melbourne. Visitors were required to produce photo ID, lock their phones and bags away and wear an identity band to enter. Since Border Force took over, visitors are required to book visits for a two hour session only, at least 24 hours in advance. Visitors are required to fill in pages of identity information including drivers licence numbers and car registration. Guards greet us by name because they know us and then request photo ID to establish identity. Visitors are often refused on grounds that the sessions are full when a check reveals maybe only five people in the room. Children stand at the glass doors begging to come in and are turned away. Tables are numbered and visitors were expected to only talk with the nominated people at their table. Even Serco could see this was too ridiculous so it is observed infrequently. But Border Force have militarised the visits room which is the only warm comfortable communal space at the MITA camp.
One of the best ways to make life bearable for asylum seekers is to give them a chance to go out and “breathe the free air” as they term it. Until Border Force took over, three community women were allowed under strict conditions to take people out regularly without guards. We have done this for three years, quietly without fanfare. No one has escaped or been harmed as they enjoyed a few hours respite from a locked environment. We witnessed at first hand the happiness and joy experienced by people who have been locked up for years. Even the most depressed felt better after a day out.
Unforgettable it was to see the family whose 4 year old son had been kidnapped and the father tortured in Iraq, who seemed to have forgotten how to smile until they gently stroked the velvety ears of the goats at the Collingwood Children’s Farm. The joy of the children at the Werribee Zoo or the indoor playground on a wet day. The two year old gently tinkling a spoon in a glass in a café in Sydney Road as his mother said, “He has never seen a glass in his life”. The joy of people eating with real cutlery after two years of plastic plates, cups and utensils. Shopping for new born baby clothes- pastel coloured grow suits instead of the SERCO regulation issue of prison grey baby suits. Three years of seeing people remember the simple joys of a normal life, watching parents pleasure as their children played at the adventure playground next to the Children’s hospital.
All this has been stopped by Border Force without reason. The Border Force culture is to make the lives of people in detention as miserable as possible. Even the children are not exempt from their harsh rules. The children are returned from school at 4pm each day. Like all children after school they are hungry. New orders block their access to dining room or kitchens until 6pm.
We in Melbourne may have tasted a small victory in stopping Border Force in our streets but this privilege does not exist for the men, women and children in the detention camps. They have no rights to protest against the harshest of conditions and are forced to suffer the brutal culture of the Border Force regime. Spare a thought for those enduring detention camp life under the Border Force regime.