Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre. One week before Christmas 2017:
It is early morning, and the door to one of the detainee’s rooms is open wide. Sitting in the doorway on a plastic chair, quietly watching over the room is a Serco welfare officer wearing a red Santa hat. The sole occupant of the room – the huddled figure asleep in the bottom bunk, perfectly oblivious to the silent presence of the officer in the gaudy red hat just inches from where he slept – is on a 24-hour suicide watch. He has spent almost 6 years in detention, and has been effectively rendered stateless. The government has been relentless in attempting to deport him from Australia where he has lived since childhood, but his country of birth will not accept him back. For him, the stand-off means that he has been condemned to a life in confinement. For the sake of anonymity, I shall simply refer to him as Gabriel.
Australian Border Force oversees and administrates a network of onshore detention centres which includes Christmas Island. It is their officers who carry out the detention of so-called non-citizens and determine their placement within the system. The centres are run as virtual maximum security prisons, and the similarity between the para-military Border Force operation and the SS run concentration camps of Nazi Germany is striking.
Border Force have seen fit to place Gabriel on remote Christmas Island where he has no possibility of contact with his wife and his young son. Added to his sense of despair at being held in a limbo which has no foreseeable end, the distress of his separation from family and the recent advice that he has been denied legal aid because he is not on the Australian mainland have caused his mental state to deteriorate to the point where he is now routinely self-harming.
I am at pains to describe to you my own anguish in witnessing the forlorn sight of this broken man quietly applying antiseptic cream to the angry red slashes on his forearms, let alone attempt to describe the hell that his life has become.
Gabriel’s pleas and representations to Border Force are voluminous, and include a psychiatric finding that he is at risk of committing suicide. The report identifies his removal from access to family as the primary cause, and recommends his transfer to a mainland facility where he can have face-to-face contact. His young son also undergoes psychiatric counselling as a result of Gabriel’s removal. Despite the weight of clearly documented evidence suggesting that a simple return to a mainland detention centre would take him out of harm’s way, each request has been flatly denied. Instead he is simply placed on a suicide watch to ensure he doesn’t attempt the loneliest form of escape in the quiet of the night.
I question the avoidable tragedy of that lonely sleeping figure, who over the past months has fought a virtual David and Goliath battle with a government department which has grown increasingly callous and smug with its reach and its powers. The calculated ignorance of psychological reports and the physical evidence of self-harm on the part of Border Force goes beyond mere negligence of duty of care. One could rightly surmise from their actions that they seek to cause intentional harm.
Even as I write these words, the image of that red Santa hat is burned into my consciousness. What it signifies sickens me to my very core. How a tragic scene like this – a broken detainee on suicide watch – can be so thoughtlessly and flippantly dressed up with a festive novelty hat, as though it is a normal event. It stands a sick testament to the terrifying fact that this culture of locking people away in indefinite detention has become normalised, and little more than a cruelly sadistic game for its perpetrators. Gabriel’s story is just one of many.
The horrors of Manus Island are just one part of this broken immigration machine. There is still another layer to Australia’s draconian immigration detention regime which is yet to be fully exposed. That is the domain of onshore detention, and it is rarely given more than a cursory glance largely due to the public perception of those who have been so detained by it.
Dutton’s modus operandi when challenged on indefinite detention of asylum seekers is now clear and well documented – he uses lies and smear tactics to demonize refugees and turn public sympathy against them. In exactly the same way it has been easy for him to deflect attention away from the onshore detention regime. The Immigration minister typically describes those detained there as ‘hardened criminals’ and ‘members of organised crime gangs’ to elicit a ‘well, they deserved it’ reaction from the public at large. Add to this the tight veil of secrecy around Immigration detention matters which has included gag orders on staff employed at detention centres, and you have a recipe which has allowed a culture of injustice and heavy-handedness to flourish and grow.
In June 2016, the Hon. Peter Dutton MP stood up in parliament and proudly boasted that he had cancelled the visas of 2,000 non-citizens, 137 of whom were members of organised gangs. That amounted to just 7% of the total, and yet nobody bothered to challenge him to explain exactly who made up the other 93 per cent.
So who are the 93 per cent? Who exactly is Australia locking away indefinitely before deporting? The stories of injustice are numerous, and many will surprise. Many individuals have lived in Australia since their childhood, and many are one-time offenders with no criminal past. Some of those detained on ‘character grounds’ have been detained for little more than traffic offences. One detainee had simply been fined by his local council for burning off in his suburban backyard during a fire ban. Chillingly, some have no criminal charges whatsoever. If you have charges laid against you which are subsequently dropped and dismissed, you now run the risk of having your visa cancelled on the claim that you present a ‘future risk to the community.’ These people have been detained for years. Not weeks. Not months. Years. These are the people Peter Dutton would have you believe are “some of the countries most hardened criminals.”
So how have we arrived at a situation like this? What became of the lucky country – the land of the ‘fair go’? Australia, like other western nations like USA and the UK has bowed to a conservative narrative of protectionism which has seen the closing of borders and a ‘national cleansing’ with respect to non-citizens. The line between punishment and detention has blurred. If you add to this recipe a culture of corruption and secrecy, you have the potential for human rights abuses and cruelty, as evidenced by Gabriel’s story.
Departmental corruption is rife, and the Federal Government’s independent watchdog, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) recorded a historic high of 244 new corruption investigations last year. Almost half of the corruption issues investigated by ACLEI related to the Department of Immigration & Border Protection, followed by the Australian Federal Police. To understand how this culture flourishes you only need begin by looking at the key players in this farce.
The saying ‘A fish rots from the head down’ finds no better application than with Border Force and its overarching Ministry of Home Affairs. The organisation is rotten from the very top down and morale within its ranks is reported to be at low ebb. Minister Dutton’s Trump-esque propensity for outright lies and deception, and his condemnation of anything counter to his own agenda as ‘fake news’ is now well documented. He has curried precious little favour beyond the hard-core conservative faction with his recent diatribes on ‘African crime gangs’ and his attacks on the Victorian state government and the judiciary. His off-the-wall portrayal of terrified Melbourne diners is a shambling attempt to strike fear in the populace and press home government and ideological imperatives. Like Trump, he is quick to decry foreigners and he emboldens neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Controversy has also surrounded the head of Border Force Roman Quaedvlieg, who was suspended from official duties in May 2017 which arose from an “external investigation into his activities.” according to the Department’s communications officer Sandi Logan. Eight months of investigation without resolution begs the question of just how deep those ‘activities’ go. Quaedvlieg is no stranger to corruption investigation, having been investigated by the national corruption watchdog in 2008 in his former role as Australian Federal Police Chief of Staff over the bungled sacking of an undercover police officer.
As far as moral turpitude is concerned, we fare little better with Secretary for Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo, with just one degree of separation between him and Border Force corruption. In mid-2013, the ACLEI released a report tabling allegations of foul-play involving customs officers at Sydney Airport. Four officers were charged with various criminal offences including bribery, conspiracy, drug importation and abuse of office after their involvement in the scheme was revealed.
Following the release of the Commission’s report, Michael Pezzullo, then Chief Operating Officer of Australian Customs and Border Protection, vowed to crack down on corruption within the service. What he omitted to mention was that his own brother was one of the officers in question. A 2014 investigation named his brother, Customs officer Fabio Pezzullo, as one member of the corrupt syndicate.
A senior Customs source claimed Mr Pezzullo did not disclose the charging of his brother with criminal offences when he updated a Senate committee about the Customs corruption scandal because he was being ”legally cautious.”
Despite this debacle, the Prime Minister nevertheless appointed Michael Pezzullo to the position of Secretary of the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection just months later in October 2014.
“The globalisation of terror, crime and indeed evil is becoming much more manifest and apparent to people,” Mr Pezzullo stated recently, “And the co-ordination of Australia’s security instruments, including ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, immigration and border authorities, was vital because “home is not what it used to be”.
Home most certainly isn’t what it used to be. I lament what Australia is becoming at the hands of men like Pezzullo and Dutton. The world has been here before.
“This is no laughing matter,” said Pezzullo.
Looking at the unprecedented level of corruption within your own Home Affairs ministry, and the flagrant breaches of human rights in your concentration camps, I for one am not laughing.
This month, Australian Border Force again re-affirmed their decision not to relocate Gabriel back to the mainland, citing a lack of accommodation as the reason. They have provided this explanation to him consistently as a stock letter over the past months. The latest psychiatrist’s evaluation recommended a transfer, and stated the concern that he would commit suicide in the medium to long term if he lost hope of achieving his goals.
Gabriel’s room was routinely searched after his suicide watch was terminated. His young son had made him a picture frame in his primary school craft class. It had been broken as the three officers rummaged dispassionately through Gabriel’s belongings.
In related news this week, detainees in Melbourne and Sydney immigration detention centres have commenced a co-ordinated hunger strike to protest a draconian new law which restricts visiting rights of family members. AIM Network carries the story here.