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Woomera+ABC « Previous | |Next »
May 20, 2003

I watched the 4 Corners programme on the Woomera Detention Centre on the ABC last night. It was classic investigative journalism by Debbie Whitmont which uncovered what was previously hidden behind the razor at Woomera. That a lot of what happened was publicly hidden can be seen the response here

What suprised me from the expose was not the background government policy to treat the asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan harshly. We already knew that. It was the way Australian Correctional Management (ACM), a subsidiary of the US Wackenhut Corporation, shortchanged the Federal Government on the contractural services provided in order to make a profit. Profit was the bottomline here. 4 Corners argued that ACM left the Woomera Detention Centre dangerously understaffed to maximise profits, and that the senior management of ACM covered up the shortchanging of services with various kinds of falsehoods.

What also suprised me was that the Department of Immigration knew that it was being shortchanged in terms of staffing numbers and the contractural services provided, but it went along with it. As did the Minister presumably.

What the program suggests is that we have a new system of governance that didn't really care about the wellbeing of the asylum seekers. It was a penal system designed to make life miserable and to degrade and dehumanize the asylum seekers inside the razor wire prison in the desert.

This mode of governance backfired because the politics could not be managed. Woomera was in the headlines and became synonymous with riots, protests and breakouts by desperate detainees plus claims that mental illness, self-harm and attempted suicide were rife.

The impression given by 4 Corners was that the rough-house treatment of asylum seekers by ACM was standard operating procedure. No doubt Philip Ruddock, the Immigration Minister, will make light of the staff claims: ----no doubt something along the lines that there is no need for any inquiry because all that happened was just a few management hiccups in difficult circumstances. That message will be wrapped up in a lot of legalese.

Woomera may be closed. Baxter is now open and running

Addition. On the 7.30 Report Minister Ruddock whitewashes ACM:

KERRY O'BRIEN: "But we're talking about conditions that were still applying up to last year.Eighty per cent of all Woomera's inmates were ultimately granted visas.In other words, most on the face of it were genuine refugees who had already suffered God knows what in humanity, who had put their lives at risk in leaky boats to get here.

Did they deserve to be treated like that like that?To be driven to that level of desperation? If the evidence of these carers is accurate?"

PHILIP RUDDOCK: "Well, the point I would make is that we were obliged by law to detain people who arrived without lawful authority, to deal with a number of issues."

KERRY O'BRIEN: "Humanely?"

PHILIP RUDDOCK: "Humanely, yes. And we endeavour to deal with them as humanely as possible. The inhumanity that you speak of is as a result of behaviour of the detainees themselves."

Read that last line again. The inhumanity at Woomera had nothing to do with actions of ACM. Nothing

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:20 PM | | Comments (3)


The only good out of the whole sorry saga is that people like Ruddock and Howard will be held to account by history if as it now seems there are people willing to dob them in. Small comfort for their victims but hopefully damaging in the long-run to far right politics in this country. What is Henry Bolte remembered for? The last hanging in Victoria while ignoring a groundswell of opinion for clemency. What will Ruddock be remembered for? Collecting the stamps off letters and ignoring the begging pleas for justice within.

A Royal Commission. Including Tampa, SIEV-X, political interference in the bureaucracy, contract with ACM; it's legality and company's violations of it, specific allegations of abuse etc.

Flowing from it, apart from particular recommendations of criminal charges or changes to policy - a national discourse on how we tackle these problems in future. How our actions have diminished our reputation and more importantly the quality of our democracy. Of our freedom itself... how free are we really if we feel have to treat refugees like this? Ignorance and fear are not the sort of soil freedom thrives in.

Watching the Asian guy try to explain and break down in the attempt was a shaming moment for Australians with compassion and a sense of fairness. It reminded me of an equally dispiriting doco on the ABC last year which profiled some of the 'evil' people smugglers, who turned out to be poor fishermen whose livelihoods had been ruined by Australia's decision to extend it's sea boundary by some few hundred kilometers recently. The poor buggers, in leaky old boats, would be pulled in by the coast guard and put into detention at some godforsaken place on the WA coast and brought to trial. Of course, they have no money to defend themselves and once found guilty can spend five years in this isolated hellhole. Meanwhile their desperate wives take up with someone else who may be able to better suport them. Some of them figure, if I'm going to spend five years in Aust and lose my boat over a few fish, I might as well take a real risk for a far greater reward. Who can blame them?

At about this time, Lord Downer of Baghdad (Mike Carlton's moniker for him) was chuntering on about these 'evil masterminds', braying about 'this scum of the earth', having realised that demonising the refugees themselves was starting to backfire. But they too were poor people, people without resources thanks to us. And this is how we recompense them for their loss - arrest 'em, lock 'em up for five years and call 'em scum.

Charming, aren't we?

I have to say that i cried. But then, i'm just a bleeding heart who somehow grew up working class and despite a reasonably low income, cannot be one of 'the battlers'. Of course, those refugees are all bloody good actors as well, we can't forget that, they've had years to practice their Stanislausky.