Doing Time for No Crime

By Tracey Barnett ©2012


Looking back now, maybe this was the most unsettling thing; the room felt like it could have been some stripped-out McDonald’s Playland, but filled with prisoners instead of children. People milled around talking during visiting hours like they had just been plucked out of a mall, crowded into florescent-lit booths with dead-flat white corporate surfaces, injected with Happy Meal-colored Formica. So this was Australia’s twenty-year bad idea, Immigration McPrison. Or, as Australians call it more palatably—‘Detention’. As if these 300-odd trapped lives had simply forgotten to hand in their homework.  Already I wanted to leave—and I had just arrived.

At the entry counter, a guard fastened what looked like a plastic hospital bracelet onto my wrist and wrote his initials on my arm, “AB”, in invisible ink that only shows up under ultraviolet light.  “Makes me feel powerful,” he joked. “Nah,” I replied, uncomfortable with the truth of it, “it stands for ‘All Blacks’,” handing him my Kiwi I.D.

As they buzzed me anonymously through the first mirrored glass bolted door of several, the metal detector’s LED display behind me kept blinking out, “Have a nice day” in a continuous loop, like some middle-fingered Kubrick satire the uniformed staff had never registered.

This prison, that no one calls a prison, was never going to sit right with me. New Zealand allows asylum seekers to wait in the community for their cases to be heard, with few exceptions. We’re the country that got it right. Along with Sweden and Belgium, we have been seen as a world leader in the treatment of asylum cases by humanitarian advocates—that is, until now. Our government has proposed flipping current policy on its head by instituting a part of Australia’s asylum seeker detention for ourselves.

I wanted to see what John Key’s big, new ‘DO NOT ENTER’ sign might look like from the hindsight of two decades of Aussie experience.  Under Key’s proposed law, we will begin renewable, six-month detention, targeted especially for boat-arriving asylum seekers landing in groups over 10 people.  There is only one small, confounding detail; New Zealand has never had a boat arrival of asylum seekers in modern history.  Ever.  I’m wondering what’s next—punitive legislation against an onslaught of squirrels?

Merely arriving unscheduled in a group over ten people [presumably by boat] will be treated differently than those with the resources to arrive singly by plane. These ‘mass’ arrivals will have to be tested again three years later before they can gain permanent residence, leaving lives in flux, not knowing if they can put down real roots.  Punitively, they will never be able to bring in extended family, even after gaining residency.

I didn’t exactly expect Villawood, Sydney’s detention centre, to be Guantanamo South, planted unnoticed in its milquetoast suburban industrial park. Despite the ‘energized’ [electric] fence and diggers reconstructing huge swaths of the prison burned in protests last year, there wasn’t a whiff of anything so crass as orange jumpsuits.  This was corporate imprisonment.  People get locked up from the inside first. Every evening the line of detainees waiting to take their anti-depressants snakes across the room and out the door.

M, a tall, thin, 28-year-old history-loving Iraqi greets me with milky tea in Styrofoam cups as we slide into our own Formica booth.  Among the din of conversation, handshakes, and the packet of biscuits offered like a good host, M’s words are matter-of-fact. He’s said this all before. There are suicide attempts about every 15-20 days here, he tells me.  Only four have actually died. Most detainees check on each other and are stopped by friends before attempts go too far.

The irony is, he says, all these people left their home to escape death, but now choose to bring death to themselves.

He should know. M has spent 18 of 27 months detained at Villawood since his boat arrived to Christmas Island over two years ago.  At first, I don’t notice the very faint dots along his lips where he and ten others sewed them together in protest after a detainee committed suicide last year. Another 160 others joined a hunger strike. They wanted this bitterly divided country to notice that real lives hang indefinitely, locked shut behind policy.

With his case still unresolved over two years later, M’s desperate act sits like a stale footnote in a small war both sides are still losing. He says, “In Iraq they kill you with bullets, in Australia they kill you with a signature.”

By most international measures, Australia’s choice to detain asylum seekers has been a failure. Unlike New Zealand, Australia prefers to lock away asylum seekers in remote camps, including women and children, deeming them immediate prisoners just for having the bad luck of having to run for their lives. The issue has become a huge, nasty, socially divisive thorn in Australia’s side, particularly at the mere whiff of an election when someone needs a political pawn.

Internationally, the P.R. fallout hasn’t been pretty either. Australian detention is the policy cited not to emulate among Western countries, largely because it just hasn’t worked.

Research shows detention does not act as a deterrent to arrivals, confirmed by multiple international studies from Canada, the UK and even Australia. Arrival numbers are more directly correlated to war and conflict.

Studies show that asylum seekers have little choice over the destination country chosen by their traffickers and even less of its detention policy beforehand, according to LaTrobe University. Traffickers certainly won’t advertise imprisonment to potential clients either.

But it is the human cost of Australia’s detention policy that has been downright ugly. Among those locked in razor wire camps, suicides rates soar up to 41 times the national average, 86 percent suffer from depression, according to an Australia Psychological Society review. Detainees stuck for years have resorted to self-harm, hunger strikes, burning their own camps or tying themselves in a crucifix position against fences in despair.

Even if you ignore the human cost, the financial cost hasn’t made sense.

Alternatives to detention, as we currently use in this country, are much cheaper. Savings are as much as 69 percent [Australia] to 93 percent [Canada] over detention, according to UNHCR reports.

So where is our own refugee onslaught? Kiwi lawmakers may have forgotten one salient point. We are not Australia geographically.  People are dying just to sail 500km to get to Christmas Island, let alone attempt the 4500km in seriously mean seas it would take to reach these shores.

Indeed, the number of asylum seekers coming to this country is actually down fivefold from 2000.  Today, New Zealand accepts a tiny number, only about 125 asylum seekers a year, of about 300 that apply. To put that trickle in perspective, last year France received about 89,000 asylum applicants, the US about 60,000, and Australia about 15,000, according to UNHCR reports.

Even if boat arrivals are Australia’s problem and not ours, what has started to land on our shores are racially loaded ‘dog whistle’ labels not often heard in this country.

Both John Key and Immigration Minister Nathan Guy have recently peppered news reports with “queue jumper”, a derogative Australian phrase that refugee experts dismiss as a fallacy.

There is simply no queue to jump.  Only 1 percent of the world’s refugees ever get resettled.  The other 99 percent never get the chance to even apply.  Unlike ‘economic migrants’ who come by choice, the luxury of waiting for safety disappears when your house is burning around you, advocates argue.

Key and Guy have also taken up the misnomer, ‘illegals’, when referring to asylum seekers. In fact, asking for asylum once on shore is the legal, “standard and correct procedure” to apply for protection, under UN Refugee Conventions that New Zealand has signed. The method of arrival doesn’t matter.

What I know I will hear in the coming weeks is that New Zealand will do ‘detention’ better, smarter, more humane.  But I will put good money on the odds that no one will use its’ real name—prison.

We are about to legislate locking up people who have done no crime, for a problem that will affect us less than almost any western country in the world. If research has shown that detention does not protect our borders by failing to act as a deterrent, what exactly are we accomplishing by punishing the world’s most desperate? Political alignment to a neighbour whose failed policy has cost them millions—especially in damaged lives?

M refuses to think about the future. He says, “I used to dream.” To dream is a kind of torture to him now.

I ask if there is anything he would like me to say on his behalf for this article. He laughs and tells me to get another profession.  Mine won’t do anything to change things. Taking his fingernail and slowly denting it clockwise into the rim around his Styrofoam cup, his reply stops me short. It’s hard to remember this man is only 28-years-old.  “I don’t believe in humanity anymore,” he said, looking up directly at me, “No more.”

3 Responses to “Doing Time for No Crime”

  1. Laila says:

    Hi Tracey,

    thank you very much for raising awareness for this important issue. I was wondering if it would be worthwhile to start a petition about it on Avaaz? The more pressure we can generate, the better!

    Kind regards,


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