Part 3: Mandatory detention centres greet those seeking asylum in Australia

The Yongah Hill Detention Centre sits amid the farmland and bush of the Avon Valley, about 80 kilometres east of Perth in Western Australia.

Inside the electric fence of the imposing steel and concrete structure are 521 asylum seekers who travelled to Australia by boat. The men, most of whom are Hazara, Tamil or Bangladeshi, have been transferred here from remote Christmas Island, the initial processing centre for boat migrants.

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For many, this $125-million facility — Australia's newest immigration detention centre, opened in June — is their first experience of mainland Australia.

At lunchtime, the men walk down a path heading toward the cafeteria, horsing around and laughing.

The centre of the compound has soccer pitches, basketball and volleyball courts, an outdoor gym and an herb garden.

Australia's Department of Citizenship and Immigration goes to great lengths to distinguish immigration detention centres from prisons, touting volunteer opportunities for detainees, excursions outside the compound and soccer games with community groups.

"Let's be really clear, they are not prisons," said Sandi Logan, national communications manager for Australia's Department of Immigration and Citizenship. "These people are not being punished. They are being detained under the Migration Act. While they are being detained, they are cared for, they are fed, they are provided with activities."

Literature from the Department of Immigration illustrates the struggle to make the distinction clear.

Asylum-seekers are called detainees. Staff hired to manage the facility are referred to as client service officers, not guards.

Australia wants to maintain its image as a generous nation for refugees. Nonetheless, it has been dogged by criticism for the way asylum-seekers are treated if they don't arrive via "proper" channels, registering as a refugee at an Australian embassy overseas or with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in transit countries such as Indonesia or Thailand.

In August, two months after this centre opened, the Refugee Rights Action Network organized a protest outside Yongah Hill, piping in a pirate radio broadcast.

Some detainees stood near the gates in quiet solidarity, while others sat in their rooms and listened to the chant of "End mandatory detention."

Aspects of Australia's system, including mandatory detention, are being adopted by Canada under Bill C-31. Instead of building immigration detention centres, however, the Conservative government says asylum-seekers who arrive en masse will be held in provincial jails, which Canadian refugee lawyers say violates the UN Refugee Convention.

"It's unconscionable for refugees and asylum-seekers to be placed in prison," said Paris Aristotle, head of Australia's Foundation House: The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, which provides counselling and other services to refugees. Aristotle said many are dealing with post-traumatic stress from incidents that caused them to flee their home countries.

"I don't think it's reasonable to expect people who have been through traumatic circumstances to be able to cope in prison populations, or that those environments are in any way geared toward dealing with the types of need those people have."

The 568 asylum-seekers who arrived on the Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea in October 2009 and August 2010, respectively, were held in jails across B.C.'s Lower Mainland, which drew protests from human-rights groups.

Men were kept in the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre while single women were held in the Burnaby detention centre, despite warnings from union officials representing B.C. correctional workers that conditions were already dangerously overcrowded.

Mothers and 49 children were in a separate wing of the Burnaby Youth Services Centre, which is run by the Ministry of Children and Family Development.

The Canada Border Services Agency stressed that the asylum-seekers were separated from the general criminal population, adding that families were provided recreational and education opportunities and were granted regular visits with the fathers.

Asylum-seekers who arrived by boat were held in detention much longer than most. In the case of the Ocean Lady, they were detained for just over three months. After the MV Sun Sea arrival, asylum-seekers were held on average for four and a half months. Two of the men from the MV Sun Sea remain in detention, with their cases reviewed every 30 days by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Last year, more than 6,600 people arrived at Canada's airports seeking asylum. They were held in "immigration holding facilities" in Laval, Quebec, or Toronto for an average of 19 days. A 24-bed facility in Vancouver can accommodate stays of less than three days.

The CBSA said provincial jails are used to detain higher-risk individuals — for example, those with a criminal background — and in situations where the CBSA does not have an immigration holding centre.

Delphine Nakache, a University of Ottawa professor who specializes in migration and refugee law, wrote a report on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that condemned Canada's use of prisons to hold asylum-seekers. Would-be refugees were forced to wear prison uniforms, including communal underwear, which Nakache said "tends to stigmatize them as criminals."

They were escorted around the facility by guards and could only make calls when inmates were in the common area. Nakache also reported asylum seekers did not have access to the Internet or email, which limits communication with their family and friends and their ability to get information to help their refugee claims and learn about their rights under Canada's refugee process.

The report said the detention of migrants in locations such as police stations or prisons may contribute to violations of their right to "freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." The UN body stressed that asylum-seekers should not be detained in prison, or, at a minimum, that they should be kept separate from the prison population. International law requires that if children are detained, they should be in "facilities and conditions appropriate to their age."

Australia's immigration detention system has been plagued with controversies, from suicides and suicide attempts to incidents of self-harm and complaints of psychological damage from long-term detention.

This year, a parliamentary committee investigating the effects of immigration detention heard major concerns about how the facilities are run. Serco, the international security company that holds the $756-million contract to manage Australia's immigration detention centres, has been the subject of much of the criticism.

There's no officer-to-detainee ratio, which means overcrowded centres are at times severely understaffed. Stories are told of detainees being kept in solitary confinement, guards referring to asylum seekers by number and barring visitors without explanation.

There have been abuse-of-force allegations and stories of inappropriate sexual relationships with detainees. Serco made headlines for arbitrarily banning children from using crayons and coloured pencils in their rooms.

But the most common criticism is that the guards aren't adequately trained to deal with the complex mental-health problems that can lead to self-harm and suicide attempts.

"How do you have any company [with a law-and order-background] skilled enough to respond when people are in extreme distress?" asked Louise Newman, a leading psychiatrist at Monash University in Melbourne. "The focus that they have is much more on behaviour management, maintaining discipline across the system and not having the training to recognize when people are suffering from mental disorders."

In a statement, a Serco spokesperson said staff undergo a four-week training program that includes onsite, supervised training, and are coached in mental-health and suicide awareness.

Marcus Roberts, a spokesman for the Refugee Rights Action Network, said Australia's system should serve as a warning for Canada, particularly if the plan is to hold people in prisons.

"Australia takes people who are victims of torture, victims of rape, victims of war, and they imprison them, innocent people who have committed no crime ... for an indefinite period of time without charge or trial," Roberts said. "They imprison them in conditions Australia knows leads to mental illness, will cause them to self-harm and will cause people to take their own lives."

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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DEFINITION OF A REFUGEE

Refugees are people within or outside Canada who fear persecution and going back to their home country.

Citizenship and Immigration Canada relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), other referral organizations and private sponsorship groups to find and refer refugees to be resettled in Canada.

Canadian citizens and permanent residents can also sponsor refugees from abroad who qualify to come to Canada.

In 2011, of the 34,227 refugee claims processed, about 38 per cent were accepted, 46 per cent were rejected, five per cent were abandoned by the applicant and 10 per cent were withdrawn because the person was excluded from making a refugee claim.

Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada

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