Two faces of Sydney

Marissa Ram

By Marissa Ram

Marissa is a Human Rights Center Fellow and Berkeley law student. She is interning with the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties, helping to provide legal representation to refugees subject to Australia’s controversial “mandatory detention” policy.

Sydney is beautiful. Stunning beaches. Towering skyscrapers. Terrace houses. Arresting views of the Harbor Bridge and Opera House. Unique cuisine (albeit, in this metropolis of the Three-Dollar Banana, exorbitantly expensive), shaped by the multitude of immigrants who inhabit this city.

fortified prison entrance

Entrance to Fowler compound, Villawood Immigration Detention Center (Courtesy of Australian Human Rights Commission)

But right now, all that seems very far away. I’m standing in a holding area of the Stage 1 security clearance in Villawood Immigration Detention Center. Questioned, frisked by guards, stripped of camera, cell phone, water bottle, everything I carried here save my pen and papers, stamped, and assigned a security tracking number. Frozen here in a tiny, concrete, windowless square. The doors are armed, the cameras focus on my face. The minutes tick by, seeming to stretch on for hours. I wait for someone to let me out.

Each week, I and my fellow interns at the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties (NSWCCL) visit immigrant detainee clients. The majority have come to Australia by boat, paying huge sums of money to “people smugglers,” for passage in a tiny ship, packed tightly like sardines at its bottom to avoid detection.

Australia is a signatory to the U.N. Refugees Convention; it also practices mandatory detention. Individuals who enter the country without a valid visa are immediately detained and often deported. This includes immigrants seeking political asylum, particularly those who reach Australia by boat. Most have been processed “offshore” on Christmas Island and then sent to a privatized mainland detention center.

Painting of boat, captioned "No way to Australia," in immigrant residential housing

Painting in immigration residential housing adjacent to Villawood

Until recently, immigrants processed offshore who were rejected for asylum were unable to appeal that decision, since mainland law didn’t apply to offshore detention centers. However, last November the Australian High Court ruled that failed asylum seekers were indeed entitled to seek judicial review of their assessment. The NSWCCL is helping these asylum seekers try one final time to prove they meet the refugee criteria. Additionally, we represent citizens of “high-risk” countries, like Sri Lanka, whose processing has been delayed because of “adverse security assessments” (i.e. they are deemed to constitute a “threat to national security”).

The steel-enforced door opens and a guard ushers me in the common room, where I join the rest of my colleagues. The detention center is penitentiary-style — stark and cold, with steel and metal everywhere. There’s also a smell I can’t place. Sterile, but not in that hospital-smell kind of way. More like fresh air hasn’t circulated in a long time.

The men we speak to try to be upbeat during our visit, but I notice their fatigue and the dark circles under their eyes. Contrary to their expectations, they have been locked up for extensive amounts of time. Many are in solitary detention. One man in his early twenties asks how long the appeal process will take. He, like countless others here, has already been in Villawood for two years without the slightest idea of when he will get a decision concerning his visa application. Applicants with “adverse security assessments” wait even longer for answers.

stark room with cement beds

Sleeping accommodations at Villawood (Courtesy of Australian Human Rights Commission)

Debate over the national refugee policy is raging here, a constant fixture in newspapers and late-night news. Australia takes only two percent of the world’s refugee population, but the media and politicians perpetuate an image of a country flooded with opportunistic “economic migrants” pretending to be asylum seekers. The real men, women and children seeking asylum are invisible to most Australian citizens. Furthermore, the placement of detention centers far from the Australian city center is strategic: it distances the asylum seekers from the public. And when you lock someone up, it’s already implied that he’s a criminal who’s done something to deserve it.

For refugees themselves, the long wait is often accompanied by loneliness, depression and anxiety. There have been riots, hunger strikes and suicides. All that immigrants inside Villawood can see of Sydney is sky and the tops of palm trees. Vertical bars across a tiny window are a constant reminder that they live in a prison; in turn, few people in Sydney see this world that exists on the outskirts of their beautiful city.

After the long drive back to the city center, I board my bus home. I see lights twinkling from tall skyscrapers, smell beans roasting from a café, hear teenage girls making plans for the night. I’m back in the Sydney I’ve come to know. And while my world seems to change from day to day here, I know that when I return to Villawood next week, everything will be just the same as when I left it.

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15 Responses to Two faces of Sydney

  1. We are pleased Marissa’s intern opportunity in Australia has exposed her to helping immigration detainees; it is indeed valuable work with often vulnerable clients. However as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s spokesman, I do take issue with her suggestion that the reason we have established facilities “far from the Australian city center is strategic: it distances the asylum seekers from the public”. Frankly when the sorts of facilities required under successive governments’ policies (mandatory detention for all irregular maritime arrivals, ie, boat people seeking asylum) are not readily available, and cannot be constructed in a short space of time, it is often that existing government property (such as Defence bases or Defence housing) in rural and regional areas is all that is readily available. Hence, immigration detention facilities have been established in both rural/regional areas of Western Australia and Queensland, while other facilities have been/are being established in metropolitan areas of Adelaide (Inverbrackie), Hobart (Pontville), Darwin (Northam) and Perth (Northam). It is certainly not about keeping detainees away from the public; we encourage public visits to our centres as these are often very important for the health and wellbeing of detainees while their claims for protection are processed. We are also host to a vast array of government agency inspections (Ombudsman, Human Rights Commissioner etc) as well as those from non-government organisations (Amnesty International, Red Cross) and our own inspection committees.

    And finally, let’s be clear: immigration detention is not jailing. It is detention based on administrative law, and not punishment or incarceration based on judicial sentencing. Hence, we have a duty of care to our detainee clients to ensure: their health needs are addressed; that there are activities (English classes, physical education and sport, skills training etc) to keep their minds and bodies active and healthy; that there are visiting opportunities; and that there are off-site opportunities which enable the detainees to interact with their local communities, whether it be playing in a game of soccer or cricket, attending an art exhibition to which they’ve contributed their artwork, or even in the case of children, to attend school every day along with local kids in their communities.

    Australia has a long and proud record as a resttlement destination for more than 750 000 refugees since the end of WWII, and to this day is one of the top three nations in the world with a refugee resettlement program which, in 2010-2011 will see 13 750 humanitarian arrivals make Australia their new home. At the same time however, our migration program and border protection strategies respectively target orderly migration of especially, skilled migrants from abroad, while seeking to discourage people from engaging with people smugglers who care only about exploiting vulnerable people, their life savings, and their hopes. That’s why we put so much work into our No To People Smuggling efforts (check out our channel on YouTube, by that name).

    • Marissa Ram says:

      One of the cleverest ways to turn the tide of public sympathy against asylum seekers is to convince the public that they are living in luxury at taxpayers’ expense. Those of us that know detainees in Villawood and visit the facilities regularly will recognize these as PR talking points, carefully constructed, and sadly far from the realities on the ground.

      Villawood is not a vacation resort – it’s a maximum-security compound where management of detainees, including legally recognized refugees, is outsourced to Serco, a multinational private company whose business is primarily correction facilities. Much of refugee artwork referenced in the initial comment is created with limited resources: pictures drawn with leftover coffee grounds since many of the artists are not allowed pencils and sharpeners. Many of these artists have painted very different images of their life at Villawood: pictures of barbed wire fences, men with their lips sewn shut, a face superimposed on a map of Australia with one eye closed, one averted, looking away from a man pleading for recognition, picture upon picture of suicides the detainees have witnessed while in detention. Lastly, not only have many of these asylum seeker artists not seen their creations exhibited, they cannot even access the website that contains their refugee artwork. It’s been blocked, as are most websites at Villawood containing “suspicious” material (this includes recognized human rights and refugee websites).

      The men and women I see at Villawood do not have healthy minds and bodies. Several have scars on their wrists from repeated self-harm attempts. Many have post-traumatic stress from seeing their peers commit suicide rather than wait indefinitely for answers. Most are lonely. Others have trouble sleeping. Many have lost all hope. The detainees I work with have never been outside the walls of the detention center while in Australia. Over 300 children remain in detention. Placement of the detention centers in remote areas or at the outskirts of cities is indeed strategic, and a deliberate aspect of the deterrent; offshore centers allowed the past governments to sidestep application of mainland law. Psychologically, it increases the perception that asylum seekers are “other people,” different from you and me.

      DIAC is well aware of these issues, of course. In 2009, Amnesty International commented that, “the UN Human Rights Committee has consistently found the mandatory detention regime to breach basic human rights standards. Other international and Australian agencies and authorities have also consistently expressed grave concern about a number of aspects of Australia’s mandatory detention scheme.” Various human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have soundly criticized the practice, characterized by indefiniteness and lack of procedural fairness.

      In 2011, the Australian Human Rights Commission, which reports directly to the Australian Attorney General, published a scathing report on the Government’s treatment of detainees at Villawood. DIAC continues to ignore these recommendations (HRC report; DIAC response

      Pictures are not allowed in Villawood — and for good reason. If the Australian public were to see the facilities and the faces of those in detention, the tide of public sympathy might shift. As the SBS series, “Go Back To Where You Came From,” poignantly illustrated, refugees in Australia are men, women, and children are fleeing war, torture, rape, and certain death. According to various human rights groups, including Amnesty International, imposing a penalty on a refugee for unlawful entry or presence in a country party to the Refugee Convention, such as Australia, is illegal.

      Detention is not prison. After all, in prison you have some idea of how long you will serve your sentence and when you’ll be released. You also know why you’ve been sentenced. There are many legally recognized refugees that have been assigned adverse security assessments by ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organization) that are now serving time in immigration detention centers — indefinitely. These refugees cannot return to their countries of origin due to their well-founded fear of persecution, but have not been released to community detention. Therefore at present, they are indefinitely detained in immigration detention centers. What’s particularly important to note is that these legally recognized refugees have not been given any reasons for the adverse security assessments and are unable to effectively challenge their ASIO assessments. (ASIO can withhold all relevant documents on grounds of national security).

      The men and women in Villawood are not privy to the same sort of information that convicted criminals would receive from the Government. They will wait indefinitely, often without any idea why.

  2. lyn clark says:

    The refugees who have been in detention centres for long periods of time are appealing the decision of our Government. When rejected, they appeal again. Their lawyers are paid for by us. So, get the real story. Don’t keep writing these tear jerking articles.

    • Natalie Incledon says:

      Isn’t that the point of Marissa’s blog? The system to release refugees is prolonged, causing the need for appeals, more living facilitation and other costly necessities that allow a human to breathe. Don’t forget the mental health problems that can arise after several years of being in detention and how much that costs the government years after release.

      • Natalie Incledon says:

        Sometimes we need to take a step back from ecconomics and consider common morality.

  3. Frederika Steen says:

    Shame on the Government of Australia that it denies human beings their freedom for no substantial reason and shame on all the citizens who know and do not speak up about these abuses of human rights. Out of sight detention works, does it not? Citizens are spared the reality of innocent people locked up like criminals, when they have not been charged, tried or sentenced for a crime. WAKE UP AUSTRALIA ! This Immigration indefinite and longterm deprivation of liberty is wrong and must stop. We have lost tyhe “rule of law”. Thank you Marissa for a fresh outsider’s insight into our tragedy.

  4. mohsen manochehry says:

    thanks and appreciation for marissa who deal with our problem here and is going to help us for passing this hard time as easy as possible despite we need more notice from immigration about our proccess also here i m going to ask immigration department to finalize our proccess as soon as possible,however how much the proccess should be late our mental problem come to the horrible point.

  5. Nick Wood says:

    Sandi Logan claims that ‘we encourage public visits to our centres’. I have visited Villawood twice this year, once in January and once in April, although I cannot say that I had received any encouragement to do so from the Immigration Department. I was welcomed by the inmates whose names I had been given, but all of them expressed a lack of optimism about a future about which there was no certainty and found the present inexorably boring.

    I would like to take issue with Sandi Logan’s distinction between immigration detention and jailing. Having made the tendentious claim that immigration detention is not based on ‘incarceration’, she proceeds to list a number of features shared by Australian immigration detention centres and Australian jails, namely that clients’ ‘health needs are addressed; that there are activities (English classes, physical education and sport, skills training etc) to keep their minds and bodies active and healthy; that there are visiting opportunities.’ Moreover if one adds the boredom factor and the security procedures for visitors to the above, one might conclude that the two systems are in practice remarkably similar. Inmates are unlikely to be comforted by the thought that they are locked up on account of administrative law as opposed to judicial sentencing. Indeed they may even wish that they had been incarcerated for breaking the law, on the grounds that they would at least have a release date.

    On my second visit to Villawood in April I was not allowed to enter . The facility was in lock down because of a demonstration. The guard who informed me of this was not an Australian citizen: he was an Irish national who had experienced years of unemployment in his own country before being granted a visa to work for SERCO here. I wonder how long his security assesment took.

  6. K says:

    Article 14 of the 1948 Universal declaration of human right states that everyone has the right to seek asylum. The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ if they come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened, yet when these people arrive in Australia after their often treacherous journey they are put straight into immigration detention centres, imprisoned for a crime they have not committed. I am confused about the comment that immigration detention is not jailing. The Human Rights Commission Report into Immigration Detention at Villawood, 2011 stated that ‘Australia continues to have one of the strictest immigration detention systems in the world…. The Commission has for many years called for an end to this system because it leads to breaches of Australia’s human rights obligations, including obligations to refrain from subjecting anyone to arbitrary detention.’ The Commission has repeatedly raised concerns about the detrimental impacts that prolonged and indefinite detention has on a person’s mental health, and has repeatedly recommended reforms to bring the immigration detention system into line with Australia’s international obligations.

    In relation to the conditions of the immigration detention centres, The Australian Human Rights Commission has raised concerns about the physical conditions at centres such as Villawood Immigration Detention Centre for many years. In its 2008 Immigration detention report, the Commission raised a number of serious concerns including the prison-like nature of the compounds. The inappropriate nature of the detention centre conditions is highlighted by the high rates of self-harm across the detention network.

    Australia is one of the only countries to exercise a policy of mandatory detention- a policy, which is in violation of article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Following the example of other countries such as Sweden and the United States, Australia should be able to manage security risks in the community, just as it manages security risks posed by individuals other than refugees. Asylum seekers should be assessed in relation to the security risk they pose quickly upon arrival in Australia and, if declared a low risk, they should be allowed to reside in the community pending approval of their visa application. The Australian Human Rights Commission has recommended that if a person must be taken into immigration detention, the most appropriate form of detention will be Community Detention which will allow a detainee to reside at a specified address in the community, if necessary with conditions such as reporting requirements imposed upon them

  7. Alex Evas says:

    Thank you Marissa .

  8. Josh says:

    One of the underlying issues with the detention centers in Australia is transparency.

    In the United States, we dealt with a similar situation with respect to the treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay. For years the U.S. Government painted an incomplete image (to say the least) of the conditions, physical treatment, and legal resources/processes available to detainees. It is clear today that this was indisputably strategic and it is no coincidence that the American people (myself included) were far too slow to demand reform and accountability.

    I have no doubt that the Australian people are committed to human rights and will ultimately demand the same of their government. Like America’s experience with Guantanamo, it starts with a demand for transparency and an honest look at the many reports/criticisms of Australian detention centers put forth by international human rights organizations.

  9. Tom McLoughlin says:

    Methinks Sandi Logan (we often see on tv here, a tubby middle aged male govt PR guy) just met a “a perfumed steamroller” on this sensitive topic, to borrow a descriptor from Australian media history. (Refers to the presenter of our version of 60 Minutes here in OZ for a lady called Jana Wendt during that tv show’s halcyon days in the 1980ies –

    Fact is the refugees are freedom loving people, fleeing oppression, who have human rights, and determination, that any western country might be lucky to have as citizens. We have labour shortages here too. How ironic.

    A right wing satirist P.J. O’Rourke was here in 2009 and said we should let the refugees in:

    To quote the transcript (2009): at

    “TONY JONES: But just to finish your point, PJ O’Rourke, I mean, are the conservatives getting this wrong in Australia?

    PJ O’ROURKE: Oh, I think conservatives are getting this wrong all over the world, I really do. I think one of the things that, to me, makes the difference between my kind of libertarian conservatism and the left is that I think my side of this, the right, my side of the right, believes people are assets. That’s what pro-life really means. It isn’t really about abortion. We believe people are assets. The left tends very much to think that people are nuisances; that they need more stimulation; they need more education; they need more welfare; you know, they’re a bother; they’re an expense. You know: people, what are we going to do with them? Oh, more people? Oh, no. Oh, no, you know. So I think people work hard, make things, you know build stuff. May of them are quite cute, you know. I mean…”

    Putting aside PJ’s veiws on Roe v Wade, there are plenty of Irish diaspora like PJ O’Rourke here in Australia – like me – (and the USA) after 1.5M fled a “guided” famine in 1845 -1852 all on miserable boats. Makes you wonder if the Irish Australian’s know their history really.

  10. Josh, as an Australian well-versed in public opinin, I do have doubts that the Australian people are committed to human rights and will ultimately demand the same of their government. There just isn’t that level of political involvement here.

  11. Josh L says:

    Sandi Logan, Govt PR spokesperson for the inhumane incarceration of asylum seekers, has HIMSELF described Villawood as a jail when it suited his spin:

    “Villawood has a high-security unit for just these sorts of detainees,” Mr Logan said.
    “The unit is essentially a jail.”

    — from the Couriermail, Dec. 6, 2010

  12. luke weyland says:

    Refugees are welcome
    But send Abbott and Gillard back!