Stay Away From The Fence
By Nick OlleOctober 29, 2013
Why are Australian guards suddenly taking names at a longstanding vigil, where asylum seekers meet the community through a chain-link fence?
Asylum seekers at a Darwin immigration detention facility have been warned by staff not to attend twice-weekly vigils during which those inside the compound communicate with well-wishers at the perimeter fence.
Organised by the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN), the vigils have been held at the Darwin Airport Lodge (DAL) facility on Thursday and Sunday afternoons for more than a year – up until now with the full permission of the detention-services provider, Serco.
“But on Sunday [October 27] there were guards with lists, with people’s names and faces, and they were taking down names of people in attendance,” DASSAN spokesman Peter Robson says.
Just a week earlier, on October 20, The Global Mail joined about 50 people in talking to asylum seekers through the lodge’s fence and listening to a performance by the rock band Cambodian Space Project. At the fence were two guards who both were very relaxed and friendly with people on either side.
Dozens of “detainees”, as Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison insists his staff now call them, said the events were the highlights of their week. As one asylum seeker wrote in a letter to DASSAN:
“Please tell all the people who visit someone how much importance this is. When I knew someone was coming every week and we could talk about anything, or just sit together, and I could be with someone from outside, it made my long days more bearable. You do not know how much it means to us.”
The move to stamp down on the vigils follows The Global Mail’s visit and, on the following Thursday, a visit by the ABC. While at the vigil, ABC journalist Michael Coggan interviewed asylum seekers who said they’d prefer indefinite detention to being returned to the countries from which they had fled.
Since then, asylum seekers say they have been told both by senior Serco staff and case managers from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) that they should neither talk to the media nor attend the vigils. Some say they were told that attending the vigils could affect their visa applications.
Friendship Through A Fence
“The direct impact of that is that there were very few people at the vigil on Sunday night [October 27],” Robson said. The people who came told him, “We’re coming because we’re not scared,” Robson said, but others were too worried.
Some asylum seekers have complained that Serco staff are using intimidation tactics. Advocates at DASSAN have been told that guards are taking advantage of the fact that many of those in detention come from countries where talking to the media can get you killed. “And Serco knows that,” one asylum seeker said.
On numerous previous occasions Serco has assured DASSAN that it would continue to direct its staff to merely observe the vigils, so long as they remained peaceful and did not jeopardise the security of staff or the asylum seekers.
“We’ve had lots of feedback from people in detention – and from Serco staff as well – that the vigil is a really good thing for people in detention,” Robson said. “It is a peaceful show of support from the Darwin community for the people that are in detention. It’s been going for more than a year with no impacts other than creating a positive environment in which people can be friendly to each other.
“If people in detention are going to be prevented from having that kind of support it will be a really big shame,” he said.
It is unclear if Serco is acting on orders from the DIBP or directly from Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison’s office.
Both Serco and DIBP directed The Global Mail’s questions to Minister Morrison’s office. The minister did not respond to our requests for comment.