The other side of the story

18 05 2011

What happens in those off-shore compounds is rarely told from the perspective of those living in them.  More often than not, it’s the large commercial media organisations and various politicians attempting to appeal to base national sentiments.  The ABC have recently published a statement on what occurred recent on Christmas Island written by a refugee.  It is a must read for anyone look for the other side of the story.

Around four or five months ago there was a protest on Christmas Island, which around 250 detainees took part in, in the form of a hunger strike. They were protesting against the unfair system of claim processing by the immigration department.

The protest went on for a week, and after a week some people from the Ombudsman came to listen to detainees’ complaints. They came and sat down with clients’ representatives, and promised that they would pass on detainees’ concerns to the Department of Immigration. However, after a couple of months no one noticed even a slight change in Immigration’s way of processing the cases. Instead of implementing a change, they started to promise detainees that everything would be better in March, and that there would be a lot of noticeable changes, such as a speed up in the processing time for cases, and many other promises.

When March came, however, not only had nothing special happened, but also many people started to get rejected for a second time. For the first 10 days of March many rejections were handed out. This caused even more anger and frustration for detainees, because of the false promises from Immigration, and vows that were never fully met.

Finally, the tension and dissatisfaction boiled over, and around one month ago some detainees broke out of the centre. Around six or seven hundred asylum seekers, in a sign of protest, headed towards the Christmas Island airport in a desperate hope that someone might hear their voices. For two days, from March 11, after bringing down fences, hundreds of asylum seekers freely came and went from the detention centre. Immigration Department spokespeople repeatedly described the events as peaceful. However on Sunday afternoon, Serco decided there had to be a “show of force”. A “snatch and grab” operation was approved by the Department of Immigration, and eventually they captured twenty people, whom they named as ringleaders of a peaceful protest.

This not only did not help to calm the situation down, but created more anger and frustration among other detainees, as when they asked their friends from Serco staff, the staff flagrantly lied to them and told them that all 20 people had been transferred off the island.

However they had in reality gone nowhere but inside a high security compound called Red Compound. Not surprisingly, other detainees responded to the arbitrary arrests, and broke into the high security Red Compound in an attempt to free the 20 people who had been taken away in handcuffs. It was then that the police used tear gas and fired beanbag rounds. Such was the brutality of the police action that some three asylum seekers were trapped inside the Red Compound as they were shooting tear gas, and because their window was half broken the smoke got in and they were about to suffocate inside before one of the Serco staff managed to let them out just in time. Another asylum seeker’s leg was broken by the police beanbag rounds. When we talked to him and asked him what had happened, he said it was a real bullet that caused it, since he could see a hole the size of a 10-cent coin in his foot. Beanbag round bullets are not capable of causing such severe injuries.

The very next day, government decided to send an independent group to listen to detainees’ concerns. The group consisted of three people. During a meeting they had with around 200 detainees, they promised to pass on asylum seekers’ concerns to the minister of immigration via phone while they were on the island. They asked detainees to be calm while they were negotiating with the minister. All detainees agreed, but they stated that they would continue their peaceful protest whilst the negotiations were happening.

The next night, asylum seekers assembled in peaceful protest. They carried white sheets and strips of toilet paper as white flags. They even had flowers to give to the police, but the protest was again met with tear gas. Events escalated from there. This behaviour from the police enraged the crowd, and some lost their control and started to cause property damage by setting some tents and canteens on fire and smashing CCTV cameras.

Fires destroyed the tents and some canteens in the Aqua and Lilac compounds, while police flooded the detention centre with more tear gas and fired more beanbag rounds. All this vandalism was strongly condemned by most of the protesters, and some fights even broke out between peaceful protesters and those who were damaging the place. The protest was condemned and violent, however no one from Serco, the police or the detainees were injured. It is the asylum seekers who were victims of police violence. One asylum seeker had his chin torn up after being shot in the chin by a beanbag round. There were many more who got shot in their face and arms.

Around two or three days after the riot, police decided to retaliate by intimidating and humiliating Iranian detainees by locking up about 200 of them in the centre gym on their new year’s eve. They even threw firecrackers inside the gym, and after doing so police and Serco staff started laughing at detainees’ fright caused by the blast. After locking the detainees in the gym for the night, the next day some of the Serco officers, with a group of around 60 police guards, came to the gym and picked different people according to a book that Serco had provided. The book was designed by Serco which in it they had detainees’ photos who they believed were the rebels and rioters. The way they took people, handcuffed, with another police guard filming the whole scene, was so downgrading and humiliating that the pain felt was much more painful than even the pain caused by bean bag rounds. Any physical scar will eventually go away, but a scar on a person’s mind and spirit will stay for a long time, and the effect of it will likely cause all sorts of psychological disorders and traumas.

The same story of humiliating detainees was happening in other compounds also. Police guards, with the help of Serco, went to the rooms of people whose names were in their book. Police raided the rooms very early in the morning with guns in their hands, pointing at people and asking them to go with them. They even smashed the table that Iranian detainees had decorated for their new year’s day, and threw away the things on the table.

By selecting about 100 detainees and taking them to a compound called White 1, they (Serco and Police) wanted to demonstrate to other detainees that they were the troublemakers who caused all the damage. Around six to 700 detainees were involved in the protest, however because of lack of management by Serco and police, and also lacking a system to track people who had caused the damage (despite all the sophisticated security systems and CCTV cameras), they took the dignity of some innocents away without any solid evidence, and proof based solely on Serco’s fantasy and assumptions. They locked them up inside White 1, and did not give them their personal possessions. They didn’t provide people with any blankets or sleeping sheets. They used every way they could to provoke the people inside White 1 Compound to take some desperate action. In this case, they could easily stick the label of troublemakers and rebels much more easily to them, and prove to other detainees and to the government that they had caught the right people.

After keeping the people inside that compound for 15 days, without proving their crimes, and without any individual approaching them and telling them why they were being locked up, the tension rose to the point that one Kuwaiti detainee tried to hang himself inside the toilet but was very lucky to be noticed by his mates and they saved him.

Another some 50 decided to do a mass self harm.  Having heard the news, a representative from Serco and DIAC came to talk to detainees in White 1 Compound, bringing with them a list with the names of 10 people who were to be transferred to the mainland. Some of those were the representatives of the people in White 1. Again, the way they transferred them out of the island was another example of character assassination and humiliation for a crime and offence that was not proven. They were escorted by about 30 Serco officers ad some 20 AFP undercover police. When they were boarding the plane, some people were filming the whole scene in order to show to the Australian public that the main instigators of the riot were transferred away from the island. When they arrived in the Sydney detention centre, they were forced to sign a paper by Serco staff stating that “We are alleged to be the main instigators of the disturbances on the island”. When some people said that they needed to talk to their agents about it, Serco staff didn’t allow them, explaining that if they did not sign the paper they would be taken to a worse place.

Is this called justice here in Australia? Is this the way people get treated in a country that boasts about its humanitarian efforts? Accusing people of an offence that they haven’t committed, without any solid proof or evidence, is something that happens in dictatorship governments. Does this country follow the same dictatorship system as our own countries?

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