Gina NicGabhann reports from Australia.
Australia’s immigration policy and treatment of people seeking asylum were thrown in the spotlight again this week following an uprising at the Christmas Island Detention Centre which [This] was sparked by the death of Iranian refugee, Fazel Chegeni, allegedly at the hands of Serco guards at the centre.
Christmas Island is located in the Indian Ocean some 1500 kilometres north west of Australia, and has been used by Australia to detain people seeking asylum by boat intermittently since 2001. The island houses a purpose built detention centre currently used to detain not only people seeking asylum, but also individuals from various countries who have had their visas revoked by the Australian government and have not agreed to voluntary deportation.
The Australian government has always had the ability under the Migration Act to cancel the visas of people who are deemed to be undesirable. However, recent changes to the Migration Act now allow for the cancellation of the visa of a person who “does not satisfy the minister that the person passes the character test”. This test is broad and very subjective – people can have their visas cancelled if the minister “reasonably suspects” that they may be involved with a person or group that has committed a crime, even if the individual themselves has not done so. Any person who has spent a year in prison, including cumulative shorter stays will automatically have their visa revoked, even if the crime is historical. Some of the people caught up in this first came to Australia as children and have spent the majority of their lives in Australia, with few, if any links to their country of birth. New Zealanders have been particularly affected with about 10% of deportees(known as 501s from the section of the Migration Act they are being deported under) believed to be New Zealanders by birth. At present there are around 75 New Zealanders held in detention on Christmas Island. This has lead to strained diplomatic relations between Australia and New Zealand.
All of this has made the already fraught situation on Christmas Island more complex due to tensions between 501s and asylum seekers. It is alleged that some 501s have been involved in beating up asylum seekers, theft and intimidation of asylum seekers, while guards from Serco, who run the centre, look the other way.
This was the situation that Fazel found himself in when he was transferred to Christmas Island about 10 weeks ago. Fazel was a stateless Iranian Kurd, who had sought asylum in Australia in 2010, and was subsequently granted refugee status in 2012 while in detention in Western Australia. He had been charged with assault on a fellow detainee, but had been allowed out to live in the community. Despite being cleared of the charges, he was rearrested and taken back into detention, which almost certainly worsened his frail mental health. Fazel had previously attempted suicide by jumping from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) roof, and had been sent to Christmas Island as punishment for another failed suicide attempt, this time in the Brisbane ITA. Two days before his death, h
e had escaped and run into the rainforest, before returning, crying for help on the morning of his death. Friends report that he was taken behind the medical centre by guards and beaten until he was silent. When they saw his body, his face has been smashed.
Fazel’s death sparked two days of rioting in the detention centre. Serco quickly lost control of the centre and abandoned it, leaving inmates with inadequate food and water, even after the riot squad gained control a few days later. Inmates were held in cages, forced to urinate on the ground inside the cages and only released after agreeing to be strip searched.
Rallies have been held across Australia to protest this latest needless death of an asylum seeker in detention. On Friday night, a rally in Sydney outside the Department of Immigration headquarters drew around 100 people in pouring rain.
The government stated earlier this year that they were trying to scale down the detention centre on Christmas Island, but it has continued to grow, with billions of dollars being given to companies like Serco,who have dubious human rights records, to manage the centre. It is time Australia closes these concentration camps, ends off shore processing and processes asylum seekers quickly and humanely in the community.