Detention: Scenes From The Inside
By Lawrence Bull, Luke Bacon, Paul FarrellJune 11, 2013
Tracing the pressure that led to an extraordinary, explosive riot on Christmas Island, through the story of someone who was there and the story as told in the official records.
The first thing Atash wanted after his boat trip from Indonesia to Christmas Island was a shower. He had just spent his third night at sea with some 40 Afghans, Kurds and Iranians. Their faces were blistered with infected sores from sleeping on the dirty deck of a tiny fishing boat. Their eyes were bloodshot.
They were herded into the showers, and there were fights for the shampoo and soap.
It was mid-2010 and the detention centre was overflowing. A headcount hours earlier had reported more than 1,800 detainees in a centre built for 400. Atash and the others had spent all day in processing and medical checks, and it was late at night when the guards gave them further toiletries and clean clothes before showing them to their accommodation — about 40 bunk beds packed tightly into a tent. At its peak, up to 200 detainees would live in this tent village, Marquee Compound, North West Point Immigration Facility.
Record numbers of people had started to seek asylum in Australia by boat that year, putting unprecedented pressures on the country’s immigration detention system.
For Atash, though, the centre was a welcome relief. Nine months prior, Iranian officials had detained and abused him for two weeks after identifying him in a photo of protesters decrying a dubious national election. His harassment continued to the point where he feared for his life. He’d bribed Tehran airport officials to let him leave the country the week before, with no destination in mind; he’d never heard of Christmas Island. By the time he was lying seasick on the crowded boat — so close to the water he could touch it with his hand — he’d already lost the energy to care about the waves overhead or the people screaming. His exhaustion had overwhelmed his fear of death.
In a recent interview with The Global Mail, Atash recalled his journey through Australia’s immigration detention system; he now legally lives and works in Australia on a visa and did not want his real name used.
Atash says that living on Christmas Island, in cramped quarters with 40-odd men, disagreements over noise and personal space were commonplace. “You’re sharing that place with people from different backgrounds. People have different ways of living, eating, cleaning and so, it was very hard to get used to all those new things ... It was challenging.”
Guards would summarise one conflict as follows:
This is a summary of a report written by a staff member of Serco, the multinational company managing the centre. It is one of more than 7,600 reports recorded inside Australia’s immigration detention facilities between October 2009 and May 2011. The records were obtained under Freedom of Information laws and made publicly accessible on the new, independent Detention Logs website.
During Atash’s first week in North West Point Immigration Facility (the island’s main detention centre, also called ‘Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre’), a male-only centre, the database shows five incidents of threatened self harm, four of actual self harm, four minor disturbances, two incidents of abusive/aggressive behaviour, two involving minor damage to the facility, and one confiscation of contraband (a recording device).
A couple of months after Atash arrived on the island he was moved to ‘Education Compound’ – a set of classrooms being used as temporary locked dorms. He still slept in a bunk bed, but there was a bit more space between the beds in this room. At its peak, this compound would house more than 140 detainees at a time, and frustrations manifested in many incidents – some minor, some serious.
Three weeks later, Atash was moved again, this time to a permanent compound – ‘White 1’.
Each of the centre’s four permanent residential compounds was named after a colour, and each divided into sub-compounds numbered 1 or 2. Each sub-compound had a capacity of 50 and a surge capacity of 100, but at this point even the recreation rooms were being used as bedrooms. Atash was in a room of 18 beds, shared with Afghans, Kuwaitis, Iraqis and Iranians.
He says there were, “A lot of arguments, of course, a lot of fights — group fights, individuals.
“People would hang sheets from one bed to the other to make a private area for themselves, which I did as well. If you wanted to study or read a book, that would become your private area.”
There was a lawn in the middle of the compound, with a space where people planted vegetables and spices, and a volleyball area. Detainees were restricted to their compounds from 11pm until 8am, but during the day they were permitted to go into the centre’s common area, known as ‘Greenheart’.
The days were dull. Between meals detainees might attend an English class, go to the gym, or queue for the Internet. Many would stay in bed until the afternoon.
Atash taught English classes, through which he got to know many of the other detainees. By this time he had been in detention several months – long enough to notice changes in people’s behaviour.
“People were okay at the beginning while they were getting to know the place, but after about three months people would become frustrated,” he says. “Some people would go on hunger strike, some others would cut themselves. People would show their frustration in different ways.”
Every Sunday on Christmas Island, staff would announce who was to be allowed refuge in Australia, and who was to be denied.
Atash says that early in his time there, about 15 to 20 protection visas were granted each week, along with notice of about 100 to 150 rejections.
Of the reactions to such news, Atash says, “Some would become more aggressive. They would tend to have less patience and would lose their temper easily, which was understandable.”
But as the months slipped into 2011, he says, the granting of visas slowed to one or two a week; with far more rejections.
The overcrowding, shortcomings in services, and increasing rejection of asylum claims were noted in an independent review commissioned by then Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen, as exacerbating the tensions on Christmas Island.
During Atash’s detention at North West Point the detainee population grew to more than 2,100 — which was greater than five times its intended capacity. The three smaller centres held nearly 700.
On March 1, 2011 — 10 days before the centre exploded in riots — detainees on Christmas Island were granted the right to seek judicial review of a negative refugee assessment, which previously had applied only to applicants on the mainland. This put them on equal footing. However, only new arrivals and those awaiting assessment were eligible – a minority on the island at the time. (The change was the result of a unanimous High Court ruling that two Sri Lankan asylum seekers had been denied procedural fairness.)
While Atash was on Christmas Island, visa denials per ‘boat person’ more than tripled nationwide, according to figures in the independent review.
“People were getting their second rejections and getting even more frustrated. And people had [waited] for the outcome for five, six months, and the outcome would come back with a negative answer. And they were frustrated, saying: ‘You could have actually released the outcome much earlier than making us wait six, seven months.’
“Some of them would react really badly. As soon as they’d get the outcome they’d go and cut themselves. So it was all that negativity, day after day. And it was adding to the tension, slowly.
“I pretty much witnessed all of these kind of incidents, from people wanting to hang themselves, people would cut themselves. People would swallow razor blades. People would go on hunger strike. You name it, I’ve witnessed it.”
The deep cuts affected him most. Those, and the riots.
“They’re still with me, and won’t go away. It was the worst incident.”
THE FOLLOWING IS a compilation of Atash’s retelling of the riots, and the findings of the Hawke/Williams independent review, based on sources within the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), and Serco (the private company running the centre).
On March 7, Serco received information about a possible escape plot by a group of mainly Arabic detainees aiming to compel the department to address their visa applications. The same day, a detainee told Serco staff that hundreds of detainees who had received negative status assessments planned to set fire to compounds. On March 9 the source said the “fire riot” would occur on the Friday, March 11. The source had been previously providing correct information, about another large-scale event.
Hours before the riots, an anonymous source told Serco the entire population planned to escape to the airport in two to three weeks.
The company’s Christmas Island Acting Regional Manager took precautions – holding meetings with detainees and with other agencies (including DIAC), briefing staff, searching room, checking fire preparedness, providing extra entertainment for detainees, and arranging portable video cameras to record potential incidents.
For Atash, the daylight hours of March 11, 2011 seemed to proceed like those of any other that year.
The men had finished dinner. The roller doors separating each compound were locked, and had been for days. The independent review stated this was “in response to detainee requests for an improved sense of community and privacy”. But Atash says it was because of a fight between two groups.
“It was kind of spontaneous.
“Everybody had had his dinner, it was like 7 in the evening,” says Atash, “People from White 1 compound could hear some sort of screaming and shouting outside.
“All of a sudden – it was just like a movie playing in my mind, I will never forget this. People in White 1 compound suddenly rushed towards the roller doors and then they started to lift up the roller door by force. They got out of the compound. And the same thing happened to every single compound. They did it to White 2, then Green 1, Green 2; Blue 1, Blue 2; then Gold 1, Gold 2. So in one hour, one hour-and-a-half, all the doors were actually up. Then some people started to jump over the fence and decided to actually leave detention – go out.
“It was the beginning of a riot.
“You know when something’s going to happen. You get the feeling. The time is close, and it is happening … but no one knew it was going to be a riot and it was going to last a week.”
The electric perimeter fence had not been activated, because the Government had intended the centre to be a low-risk facility. A Serco staff member would later state that staff were outnumbered by more than a hundred to one. Some staff were as young as 17.
Hundreds of detainees left the centre. Some walked 10 kilometres to the airport, others went to the island’s small town. For two days people walked in and out of the detention centre at will.
By the following morning up to 200 detainees were in the island’s small airport, refusing to return to detention.
DIAC and Serco spoke to a small group of detainees who listed what they were angry about:
● the timeframe between being found to be a refugee and being granted a visa (due to delays in security clearances);
● the timeframe between a negative decision and an independent merits review hearing;
● concern that UNHCR mandates were ignored in decision-making processes;
● the lack of third-country options for those on a negative pathway; and
● the absence of perceptible change following the announced March 1, 2011 changes, which were supposed to speed up processing.
Atash and other detainees described their own experiences in the riots, in an official complaint to the Commonwealth Ombudsman, as follows (and the incident reports of the events are included):
Atash stayed in the centre, as did most detainees. But on the third day of the riots, a Sunday, he was one of 14 detainees who were arbitrarily handcuffed and forced into the secure Red Compound. Staff had branded them as ringleaders.
Other detainees asked Serco staff about the missing men and were told they had been transferred off the island. When the detainees realised this wasn’t true, they broke into the compound to free the accused.
According to the independent review, 150 detainees forced their way inside using tent poles and concrete blocks. Serco, DIAC and the interpreting staff locked themselves in a secure room. The detainees succeeded in releasing all but three of their friends.
After 11:30pm, the Federal Police’s Operational Response Group arrived, responding to an urgent request by Serco and DIAC.
Police fired tear gas and ‘beanbag rounds’ (bags filled with shotgun pellets) from 12-gauge shotguns, later stating detainees had been throwing rocks. One detainee’s leg was broken, another had a hole in his foot the size of a ten cent coin.
The police escorted the staff out of the building. Atash said the three detainees trapped inside say they had started to suffocate from tear gas flowing through a broken window. Serco staff freed them just in time. By the morning of Monday the 14th, two of the 14 alleged ringleaders were on a charter flight to the mainland.
That afternoon staff picked up rubbish and made plans for a film screening.
These two are the only incident summaries mentioning harm to staff (although the independent report refers to incidents of unidentified detainees punching and throwing rocks at staff).
On Tuesday, March 15, detainees met with members of the Council for Immigration Services and Status Resolution. Atash says there was a peaceful protest in which detainees held white flags made of toilet paper and carried flowers to give to police. The response was more tear gas and beanbag bullets. He says this escalated the situation.
“One asylum seeker had his chin torn up after being shot,” stated Atash’s complaint. “There were many more who got shot in their face and arms.
“This behaviour from the police enraged the crowd, and some lost their control and started to cause property damage by setting some tents and canteens on fire and smashing CCTV cameras.”
Fires destroyed tents and canteens. Most protesters condemned the vandalism, and fights broke out between peaceful protestors and vandals.
On the evening of Thursday, March 17, DIAC officially handed over control to the AFP. Officers were stationed throughout the centres. By Monday, March 21, police reported having 188 members on the island.
More than 600 detainees were then transferred to facilities on the mainland.
Atash’s complaint says police retaliated against Iranian detainees – locking up some 200 of them in the gym over Persian New Year, throwing firecrackers inside, laughing with Serco staff at the detainees’ fright. Police apprehended suspected rioters from the gym the next day, Atash says, and they also raided detainees rooms’ early in the morning, guns in hand. He says they smashed a decorative table made for the New Year’s celebration.
Atash states that about 100 detainees were locked inside White 1 without sheets or blankets, including many innocent people. He estimates about 600 or 700 detainees had been involved in the riots – perhaps a quarter of the island’s total detainee population. He thinks the harassment was used to provoke people into lashing out and incriminating themselves. They were locked inside for 15 days. One Kuwaiti man tried to hang himself but was saved by friends.
After threats of mass self harm, DIAC transferred 10 “people of interest” to the mainland where, the complaint states, they were compelled to sign papers implicating their involvement in the riots. They said they were threatened with detention in “a worse place” if they didn’t sign.
When asked for comments about incidents around the riots, a DIAC spokesman said the issues “were encompassed as part of the Joint Select Committee process and again as part of the Hawke-Williams review”. Asked about transfers, the spokesman said these happened “for a range of operational reasons”, and notifying the client varied “because of logistical, security and operational considerations” but was always “appropriate”.
The police charged 18 men with offences including burglary, property damage and harming/threatening a public official.
Seven men were convicted in total. Three for removing or attempting to remove cans of soft drink from the kitchen, one for removing a small number of food and beverage items, one for two counts of common assault and one count of property damage, and one for threatening harm to a Commonwealth Officer (although he successfully appealed), and one for possessing a weapon.
The last man was refused a protection visa by the Minister. At least three of the others have been granted protection visas.
Atash was cleared of all charges and granted refugee status. He now lives and works in Sydney.
Epilogue: A SERCO GUARD’S INSIDE EXPERIENCE
A former guard, who worked for Serco on Christmas Island for a few months last year, spoke to The Global Mail about his experience there, on condition he not be named. The centre’s population had waned to the hundreds. He never witnessed an incident of self harm, nor was he aware of any occurring at the time. But he empathises with the detainees and their situation.
His training was a four-week course in a Sydney hotel function room. His teacher hadn’t worked in immigration detention, but in English prisons.
When he arrived he felt instantly neglected. The other employees were scattered across the island. He had no cooking facilities. No transport. A local drove a bus around, but it only came every two hours, and would break down regularly. He was forced to hire a car for $50 a day, just to get to work.
In his first week he was supposed to learn by ‘shadowing’ other employees, but was working alone after three days. The centre was drastically understaffed. He would work 12 hours a day, six days a week. On several occasions, he said, he witnessed overworked and unsympathetic nurses demand injured and unwell detainees walk to the sick bay – even once with a serious foot injury. He said one client was left unattended in bed for several days, screaming in agony, before an aircraft was chartered to medivac him to Perth to treat his appendicitis.
He said Serco gave him about a week’s training on how to write incident reports.
“We thought that when we got there we’d be writing incidents every five minutes. When we got to the site the management told us no, we don’t want to see all these incidents. In fact, if I raised an incident they were down there to see me, and a lot of the time they would try to convince me not to put the incident in,” he said.
“They never said ‘Don’t write the report, but you get the drift – ‘Oh, if you write this, we’re going to have to do this...’
“A lot of people would buckle and say ‘okay, I’m not going to put it in.’
He said he was underpaid for months. He never wore the Serco uniform — they didn’t have any left. The centre had a revolving door policy.
“All 40 people I joined with are gone now ... within six months, he said.
Detainees were routinely woken at night, told to pack their bags and taken to a holding area. They were to be transferred in the morning, for reasons unknown even to staff. Those who were given notice were often told they were headed to a centre on the mainland. Considering this a positive step, the detainees would often spend the evening celebrating with their friends. But when they landed on the mainland they would find a plane waiting to take them to Nauru or Manus Island, the former guard said.
“I said, ‘Look, if you guys aren’t a bit more upfront with these people, you’re going to end up with another riot, because the trust is just gone out of all these people who had hope.”
Serco did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.