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A Fate Worse than Prison

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A fate worse than prison

The Australian government's culture of secrecy means the brutal conditions of asylum seekers are routinely covered up, writes David Fickling

Monday November 11, 2002

It was marketed to the Australian public as the last word in compassionate detention.

Freshly built, in the populous South Australian town of Port Arthur, Baxter was to be a different beast than Woomera and Curtin, the notorious desert and bush camps where Australia locks up its refugees and asylum seekers.

The immigration minister, Philip Ruddock, described the accommodation as "three-star", but even he was forced to admit the centre was not quite what Baedeker would expect.

"There are aspects of it that, in terms of what you or I might want at home, are very different," he conceded to journalists touring the camp in July.

Those aspects included the 9000-volt electric fence circling the camp's 2.8km perimeter, its closely guarded isolation block, and the CCTV cameras that monitor activity outside the bedrooms and bathrooms.

South Australia's premier, Mike Rann, was less circumspect than Mr Ruddock, calling for the camp to be closed and describing the conditions as demoralising and fire regulations as life threatening.

The camp was micro-designed with the attention to detail of a Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Beds, which in previous camp riots had been used as barricades and tools for breaking down razorwire fences, were now welded into the ground.

To prevent inmates communicating with each other, the population was separated into four discrete compounds comprised of circular buildings with windows facing inwards.

The department of immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs (Dimia) is keen to stress on paper that these people are detainees, not out-and-out criminals.

The conditions in Baxter would be more suited to a maximum-security prison than a holding camp for educated professionals and families, who make up the bulk of its population.

The few who have managed to visit the detainees describe entering through a succession of intercom gates and metal security cells, oddly reminiscent of the psychopaths' wing in The Silence of the Lambs.

Gates are operated from a central computer and only one can be opened at a time. The logjams as people wait for doors to close can last more than 10 minutes.

Since the inmates are forbidden to keep matches or lighters, anyone who wants a cigarette has to call a guard to light it for them, resulting in the opening and closing of more doors.

Anyone who wishes to meet up with a friend in a neighbouring compound must fill in a request form, and with permission granted, both will meet in a neutral area in one of the centre's five empty compounds.

It does not take a group psychologist to work out that such conditions are not conducive to a general feeling of wellbeing among inmates.

New arrivals to the camp begged guards to allow them to return to Curtin, the hot, humid and crowded detention camp in Australia's far north-west.

Matters came to a head last month when one of the detainees smashed a window after being denied medical treatment.

Australasian Correctional Management, the company that runs the centre, organised 30 guards in riot gear to deal with the disturbance.

Dimia says they were threatened with crudely-fashioned weapons, and inmates reported beatings and kicks to the head.

The government denied the claims when confronted with the allegations of guard brutality, said refugee advocate Marion Le.

"It's not enough for the government or for Mr Ruddock to keep saying that there are always going to be these kinds of allegations," she said.

"Unless you have an outside independent body overseeing a facility like Baxter, then these types of problems are inevitable."

ACM is a subsidiary of the US incarceration giant Wackenhut , which is itself owned by Group 4 Falck - the group that runs Britain's detention centres at Campsfield, Oakington and Yarl's Wood.

It enjoys a bizarre symbiotic relationship with Dimia.

Ask Dimia for any substantive information about the running of the camps and you will be told the issue is an ACM matter and can only be answered by ACM.

Ask ACM for the answer and you will be told all its public inquiries are handled by Dimia.

Western Australia's inspector of custodial services, Richard Harding, blamed this cosy culture for the endurance of problems at centres which he described as being "worse than prisons".

Dimia doesn't want to reveal the provider's faults, because in doing so it reveals its own faults. In reality, they want to keep this problem under control, to keep the problem out of sight, out of mind," he said.

An investigation into last month's events has now been set up by the Commonwealth ombudsman, but the grim details of Australia's detention system are so well known that even the most scathing of official reports is now met with bored indifference.

When it emerged last month that a former Australian defence minister had mislead the electorate during the run-up to last year's federal elections over the "children overboard" affair, the news provoked scarcely a ripple of debate.

Naturally, video of the incidents at Baxter last month - taken by the ever-present CCTV cameras - will not be released to the public.

Showing a sudden concern for the inmates, Dimia has declared that such an action would be an infringement of their rights to privacy.

Perhaps such solicitousness would be more believable if Dimia were not so keen to hush up what is going on inside its camps.

Inmates' rights, it seems, come into play onlywhen they can be used - without the inmates' consent - for Dimia's own interests.

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