REFUGEE SERIES: Australia’s immigration detention centres put spotlight on asylum seekers’ well-being

Published: November 20, 2012

Raj (centre), a Tamil refugee, with Victoria Martin-Iverson and Phil Chilton, volunteers from the Refugee Rights Action Network, based in Perth, Australia. Submitted photo


AVON VALLEY, Australia — The Yongah Hill Detention Centre appears suddenly amid the farmland and bush of the Avon Valley, about 80 kilometres east of Perth in Western Australia.

Beyond the electric fence of the imposing steel and concrete structure, located just outside the town of Northam, are 521 asylum seekers who have travelled to Australia by boat. The men, most Hazara, Tamils or from Bangladesh, have been transferred here from remote Christmas Island, the initial processing centre for boat migrants.

For many, this $125-million facility — Australia’s newest immigration detention centre, opened in June — is their first experience of mainland Australia.

At lunchtime, the men walk down a path heading toward the cafeteria, horsing around and laughing. The centre of the compound has soccer pitches, basketball and volleyball courts, an outdoor gym and an herb garden.

Australia’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration goes to great lengths to distinguish immigration detention centres from prisons, touting its volunteer opportunities for detainees, excursions outside the compound and soccer games with local community groups.

“Let’s be really clear — they are not prisons,” said Sandi Logan, national communications manager for Australia’s Department of Immigration and Citizenship. “These people are not being punished. They are being detained under the Migration Act. While they are being detained, they are cared for, they are fed, they are provided with activities.”

Literature from the department of immigration illustrates the struggle to make the distinction clear. Asylum seekers are not called detainees but clients. Staff hired to manage the facility are referred to as client service officers, not guards.

Australia wants to maintain its image as a generous nation for refugees. Nonetheless, it’s been dogged by criticism for the way asylum seekers are treated if they don’t arrive via “proper” channels — registering as a refugee at an Australian embassy overseas or with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in transit countries such as Indonesia or Thailand.

In August, two months after this centre opened, the Refugee Rights Action Network organized a major protest outside Yongah Hill, piping in a pirate radio broadcast to the detainees, some of whom came to stand near the gates in quiet solidarity, while others sat in their rooms and listened to the chant of “End mandatory detention.”

Aspects of Australia’s system, including mandatory detention, are being adopted by Canada under Bill C-31. Instead of building immigration detention centres, however, the Conservative government says any future asylum seekers who arrive en masse will be held in provincial jails, which Canadian refugee lawyers say is a clear violation of the UN Refugee Convention.

“I think it’s unconscionable for refugees and asylum seekers to be placed in prison,” said Paris Aristotle, head of Australia’s Foundation House: The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, which provides counselling and other services to refugees. Aristotle said many are dealing with post-traumatic stress from incidents that caused them to flee their home countries.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect people who have been through traumatic circumstances to be able to cope in prison populations, or that those environments are in any way geared toward dealing with the types of need those people have.”

The 568 asylum seekers who arrived on the Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea in October 2009 and August 2010, respectively, were held in jails across B.C.’s Lower Mainland, which drew protests from human-rights groups.

The men were kept in the Fraser Regional correctional centre while single women were held in the Burnaby detention centre, despite warnings from union officials representing B.C. correctional workers that conditions were already dangerously overcrowded.

Mothers and 49 children were detained in a separate wing of the Burnaby Youth Services Centre, which is run by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) stressed the asylum seekers were separated from the general criminal population, adding families were provided recreational and education opportunities and were granted regular visits with the fathers.

The asylum seekers who arrived by boat were held in detention much longer than most. In the case of the Ocean Lady, they were detained for just over three months. After the MV Sun Sea arrival, asylum seekers were held on average for four and a half months.

Two of the men from the MV Sun Sea remain in detention and their cases are reviewed every 30 days by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Many migrants posted a bond upon their release and agreed to abide by strict terms and conditions, which include reporting to the border services agency on a regular basis and providing their current address. So far, all have met their terms and conditions, the CBSA spokesperson said.

Thousands of people arrive at Canada’s airports every year asking for refugee protection. Last year, more than 6,600 people arrived by plane seeking asylum. They are held in “immigration holding facilities” in Laval, Que., or Toronto for an average of 19 days. There is also a 24-bed facility in Vancouver that can accommodate stays of less than three days.

The Yongah Hill detention centre is Australia’s newest facility. Submitted photo

The border services agency said provincial jails are used to detain higher-risk individuals — for example, those with a criminal background — and in situations where the CBSA does not have an immigration holding centre.

Delphine Nakache, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in migration and refugee law, authored a report on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that condemned Canada’s use of prisons to hold asylum seekers. Would-be refugees were forced to wear prison uniforms, including communal underwear, which Nakache said “tends to stigmatize them as criminals.”

They had to be escorted around the facility by guards and could only make calls when inmates were in the common area. Nakache also reported asylum seekers did not have access to the Internet or email, which limits communication with their family and friends, and their ability to get information to help their refugee claims and learn about their rights under Canada’s refugee process.

The report said the detention of migrants in locations such as police stations or prisons may contribute to violations of their right to “freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” The UN body stressed that asylum seekers should not be detained in prison, or, at a minimum, that they should be kept separate from the prison population. International law requires that if children are detained, they should be in “facilities and conditions appropriate to their age.”

Australia’s immigration detention system has been plagued with its own controversies, from suicides and suicide attempts to incidents of self harm and complaints of psychological damage from long-term detention.

Earlier this year, a parliamentary committee investigating the effects of immigration detention heard major concerns about how the facilities are run. Serco, the international security company that holds the $756 million contract to manage Australia’s Immigration detention centres, has been the subject of much of the criticism.

There’s no officer-to-detainee ratio, which means security guards are at times grossly understaffed amid often overcrowded environments, where tensions run high. Stories are told of detainees being kept in solitary confinement, guards referring to asylum seekers by number and barring certain visitors without explanation. There have been abuse-of-force allegations and stories of inappropriate sexual relationships with detainees. Serco made headlines earlier this year for arbitrarily banning children from using crayons and coloured pencils in their rooms.

But the most common criticism is that the guards aren’t adequately trained to deal with the complex mental-health problems that can lead to self harm and suicide attempts.

Health services in detention are contracted to International Health Management Service, but the Serco staff are the ones with the most regular contact with detainees.

“The main issue is how do you have any company (with a law and order background) skilled enough to respond when people are in extreme distress?” asked Prof. Louise Newman, a leading psychiatrist at Monash University in Melbourne. “The focus that they have is much more on behaviour management, maintaining discipline across the system and not having the training to recognize when people are suffering from mental disorders.”

In a statement, a Serco spokesperson said staff undergo a four-week training program that includes on-site, supervised training, and are coached in mental-health and suicide awareness.

“We are committed to doing everything we can to keep the people in our care from coming to harm,” the spokesperson said.

Logan said the Department of Immigration and Citizenship has “absolute confidence” in Serco staff and their training.

Marcus Roberts, a spokesman for the network, said Australia’s system should serve as a warning for Canada, particularly if the plan is to hold people in prisons.

“Australia takes people who are victims of torture, victims of rape, victims of war, and they imprison them, innocent people who have committed no crime … for an indefinite period of time without charge or trial,” Roberts said. “They imprison them in conditions Australia knows leads to mental illness, will cause them to self harm and will cause people to take their own lives.”


Definition of a refugee:
— Refugees are people within or outside Canada who fear persecution if they go back to their home country.
— The federal government normally relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), other referral organizations and private sponsorship groups to find and refer refugees to be resettled in Canada.
— Canadian citizens and permanent residents can also sponsor refugees from abroad who qualify to come to Canada.
— In 2011, of the 34,227 refugee claims processed, about 38 per cent were accepted, 46 per cent were rejected, five per cent were abandoned by the applicant and 10 per cent were withdrawn because the person was excluded from making a refugee claim.
(Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada)

MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady – Status of the refugee claims:
— The MV Sun Sea, which journeyed to the B.C. coast in 2010, had 492 passengers aboard: 380 men, 63 women and 49 children.
— As of Oct. 30, 28 people have been accepted as refugees, 43 people have had their claims rejected and 23 claims have been withdrawn.
— 40 people were subject to admissibility hearings before applying for refugee status, which occurs when the CBSA makes allegations that the individual is a security risk.
— Of those, 25 people were issued deportation orders following negative admissibility hearings at the immigration and refugee board, 11 because of alleged membership in a terrorist group, and the rest for acting as crew members and therefore being complicit in human smuggling.
— 18 people were found by a judge to be admissible to make refugee claims, but the immigration minister appealed 10 of those cases. In three cases, the judge’s original decision was overturned, resulting in deportation orders.
— The Ocean Lady, which was intercepted in 2009, had 76 men on board, including one minor. One person has been given a deportation order. Nine people have been accepted as refugees and 14 people have had their claims rejected. One claim has been withdrawn.

Related articles:
— Canada to admit 1,000 fewer newcomers on humanitarian grounds (
— Most Sri Lankan Tamil migrants from MV Sun Sea await decision on refugee claims (
— It’s time to challenge Australian refugee policy (
— Inside an Adelaide detention centre: misery on quiet suburban street (
— Nauru detention a ‘breach’ of rights (

The Times Colonist’s Katie DeRosa travelled throughout Australia and Thailand to learn more about Australia’s mandatory-detention policy and talk to refugees, in an effort to understand why they would pay a human smuggler and risk their lives getting on a boat.
She travelled to Christmas Island, a remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, 360 kilometres south of Indonesia, where hundreds of people arrive a month and where all refugees are initially held in one of two detention centres. She also visited Northam in Western Australia, where the government has just spent $125 million on a new detention centre;  the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, where refugee families are held in a suburb-like alternative detention centre called Inverbrackie; and Dandenong just outside Melbourne, where a thriving Afghan refugee community has revitalized a previously dead area. And finally, she travelled to Sydney, where an Afghan Hazara refugee has used art and the support of an Australian family to thrive in community detention.
In Bangkok, DeRosa talked to refugee families who are stuck in limbo waiting to be resettled. They live in constant fear of being rounded up by the Thai police, which refugee advocates say drives them to pay human smugglers for a spot on a boat.
DeRosa’s project is the first to be funded by the new James Travers Fellowship, created in memory of the former editor of the Ottawa Citizen and Toronto Star.

The series continues Wednesday.

Today: Canada introduces mandatory detention
Sunday: A visit to Christmas Island, the first stop for most boat refugees
Tuesday: Yongah Hill Detention Centre is refugees’ first experience of the Australian mainland
Wednesday: A young refugee is released into the community and finds his way through art
Thursday: Inverbrackie is a detention centre that looks like a suburban community
Friday: Refugees bring life back to a struggling city
Saturday: Refugees in Bangkok wait and hope for a new life

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