Jenna Al-Ansari on the prison-like strictures of Australia’s notorious immigration detention centres

Australian Government poster issued by the Overseas Settlement Office to attract immigrants

Sydney, Australia: Detainees at an Australian immigration detention centre have burnt down nine of the detention centre buildings: Firefighters were attacked by the demonstrators with roof tiles and anything to hand to keep them from putting out the blazes.

The situation began with just two detainees involved in a peaceful rooftop protest. This quickly caught the interest of one hundred other detainees, and by late Wednesday night, the protest had escalated into a full-scale riot. Protests in such facilities are massively on the rise, proportional to the skyrocketing of illegal immigrants attempting to enter the country. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Minister Chris Bowen affirmed that those involved in the riot had had applications for asylum rejected.

Villawood is a detention centre not for criminals, but for asylum seekers who are waiting for their application to be processed, and also for immigrants whose visas have expired. Australia’s position on immigration is one of the harshest of affluent countries, and is often criticised as xenophobic.

Research from the BBC’s Nick Bryant has indicated that violent riots, suicides (including that of one Briton just two months ago) and self-harm attempts at Australian detention centres has risen dramatically, due to the overcrowding and unreasonably long waits for applications to be processed. Another detaining facility on Christmas Island faced criticism this December from Amnesty International, who warned that asylum seekers’ mental and physical health was at risk due to this practice of overcrowding.

Villawood Immigration Detention Centre was most maligned in 2001, when a Four Corners documentary, The Inside Story, exposed the maltreatment of six-year-old Iranian refugee Shayan Bedraie, who was so traumatised through witnessing incidents of self-harm, suicide and violence in his seventeen months spent with family in detention centres that he refused to eat or speak. Villawood’s solution was to periodically have him transported to a nearby hospital to be drip-fed and rehydrated, and then returned to detention.

Before changes of legislation in 2005, hundreds of children and their family members were detained in remote immigration detention centres – some for months or even years. Most of these children had arrived by boat and were seeking asylum. In 2005, the Migration Act was amended to affirm ‘as a principle’ that a minor should only be detained as a measure of last resort. Now, children are no longer held in Australia’s ‘high security’ immigration detention centres, although many are still held in ‘low security’ counterparts.

In January 2008, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) published their report on Australia’s immigration detention centres and found Villawood Detention Centre to be the ‘most prison like’ of all Australia’s facilities, with shaky infrastructure and harsh, inhospitable living conditions; they demanded it be closed immediately.

The recent riots come hot off the heels of three Villawood guards whistle-blowing about poor handling of the contract by Serco, the company in charge of security at Villawood. They revealed that guards were routinely given tasks such as guarding individual refugees (referred to by the staff as ‘clients’) and guarding the outside perimeter of the facility, for which they have no training.  ‘[Villawood] has problems with absenteeism, so MSS sometimes fills the gaps inside the centre, which we aren’t qualified to do.’


Jenna Al-Ansari