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.
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.
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.
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.