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Seeking Asylum
<p>Nick Olle/The Global Mail</p>

Nick Olle/The Global Mail

Asylum seekers at the Darwin Airport Lodge told us the vigils are the highlight of their week.

Stay Away From The Fence

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.

<p>Nick Olle/The Global Mail</p>

Nick Olle/The Global Mail

“If people in detention are going to be prevented from having that kind of support it will be a really big shame,” says DASSAN spokesman Peter Robson.

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.

9 comments on this story
by darwin supporter

Today two friends who talked to the media were sent to Christmas Island - under the government's new rules - for indefinite detention. Other friends in detention tell us that they are too afraid to come and even say hello. What has our country become - when we allow foreign security forces into detention to interview the very people who have fled from them? When we lock up small children for more than a year? When we send newborn babies to Christmas Island - forever? When we hear that public servants are ordered to call people ' illegal' and ' detainees'? when those who tell their stories are intimidated, terrified and even deported to Christmas Island ?

October 29, 2013 @ 7:02pm
by MP

One of the saddest and most concerning outcomes of the Abbott Govt Asylum seeker issues is they have taken away the voice of the needy .
To silence for political gain is outstanding (gobsmacking stuff for Australia) and I can not believe anyone can or should or would want to accept this type of behaviour classed as governance.

October 30, 2013 @ 9:02am
by lance

darwin supporter--:
---alas this unhealthy hieghtening of dehumanising victims who flee war torn authoritarian regimes
is an allowable legacy handed to Scott Morrison to to pick up from where The Horrid Howard Years
by choice portraid these desperate souls as--- infiltrating terrorists----

It seems that over this new governments term in office that anything that will attract attention to humanise or attract empathy to what Scott Morrison calls DETAINEES such as in the way of
these kind thoughtful vigils
will be dealt with in the same way as the authoritarian regimes from which these desperate people took flight from

October 30, 2013 @ 9:25am
by Betty Taylor

Thanks Nick for bringing this to public attention. ..we need to know what government is doing in our name. Asylum seekers have no rights..so much for our obligations under UN conventions. To diminish the spirit of hope is cruel & inhumane

October 30, 2013 @ 11:10am
by pam

God, where are we headed? What price is this new government prepared to pay for its political point scoring? And to threaten vulnerable people that their visa applications could be threatened when in all likelihood this government will give them a snowflake's chance in hell of being granted asylum is chilling. This is not the way to go.

October 30, 2013 @ 10:51pm
by Carmel Boyce

I feel sick, that a 'christian' PM would condone this kind of cruel behaviour, denying people hope and support. There is another 3 years - 55 days of this, UNLESS there's a double dissolution. There might a be chance if that were to happen, except that the other side of the coin sings the same tune. Only the Greens have any compassion and empathy.

November 1, 2013 @ 2:20pm
Show previous 6 comments
by Elisabeth Hanscombe

This has the tone of a Fascist state, not that of a democracy. Asylum seekers need everything that everyone else needs, especially compassion and understanding, along with a friendly response.

November 1, 2013 @ 2:25pm
by Jayne

Once landed ashore we become responsible as part of a global community to ensure the well being of these people. Physically, emotionally and mentally. A system should be implemented whereby interaction and socialisation with others is feasible. There are countless positives from this. The majority of these detainees will remain in Australia, so let's be wise and utilise the time in detention to assist their transition into our society and have less traumatised and socially dysfunctional people entering into it when the time for their release finally happens. English language speaking opportunities being just one example; never mind a sense of being cared about. Such draconian attitudes as are described in this article only demonstrate ignorance.

November 2, 2013 @ 9:04am
by Martin Wright

The Prime Minister cannot and should not claim to be a Christian, a true Christian attempts to follow the footsteps of Christ; Abbott and his cohorts are so far removed from this concept that it is possible to be.

Between the Asylum Seekers and the trashing of Foreign Aid this Government has made Australia appear to be an uncaring nation. I hope that this is a misconception.

November 2, 2013 @ 12:29pm
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