Friday, July 20, 2007

Days 6-8: Port Pirie – Port Augusta

The first serious paddle for the project. And it has been truly magnificent. The Spencer Gulf has been kind to us. Although this is not the excised zone, it was good to get on the water. We had been told that the wind can pick up in the Gulf and when it does, it sets off a nasty chop. But apart from an hour-long northerly just before lunch on Thursday, the conditions were perfect. I was interviewed on the water by ABC Radio North and West on the third morning of the paddle and the day was beaming. On the final leg, we passed the power station on the outskirts of Port Augusta just as the sky turned pink and red and the water was a mirror (see above).

Even though the Spencer Gulf is a long way from the excised zone, I had been keen to paddle to Port Augusta because it is the location of the Baxter immigration detention centre – an important part of the story of Australia’s response to asylum seekers. Baxter had been purpose built as a high tech detention centre to house asylum seekers who had arrived without prior official authorisation. When the notoriously brutal Woomera detention centre was closed down, the asylum seekers remaining there were transferred to Baxter. They were joined by others from other remote detention centres. Despite being more modern, the Baxter centre did not ease the suffering of asylum seekers detained there. Men, women and children continued to suffer terribly in what is a high-tech prison.

I visited asylum seekers detained at Baxter on a number of occasions over my years as research associate at La Trobe. To visit, you first had to get onto the ‘visitor list’ of a particular detainee. Then you had to apply to visit at least 72 hours before visiting for permission from the detention centre authorities. Once there, you had to empty your pockets of coins, keys, mobile phones etc. and leave them in a locker. You were given a plastic bracelet with a number on it and then escorted to the front of the detention centre. There, the guard accompanying you pushed a button at the front gate. The guard was asked by central control to state their purpose. Central control then unlocked the gate. All the while, you were subjected to CCTV surveillance. You then walked down a caged corridor to the next door where the same procedure occurred again. This time, you entered a small room. Any food you were bringing to share with the people you were visiting was passed through an x-ray machine. You were then required to walk through an x-ray machine before being passed over by a metal-detecting ‘wand’. Having passed through this, you would wait for the guard to push the button at the next door, before being permitted by central control to exit and walk to the visitors section. The same process took place before you entered the ‘office’ of the visitors’ centre. Once inside, you were stamped on the hand with an ‘invisible’ stamp that could be viewed under a violet light. This meant that you could not trade places with detainees at the end of the visit: only people with a teddy-bear stamp (or whatever it was on that particular occasion) could leave the visitor centre through that exit. Suitably tagged and stamped, central control allowed you into a sort of airlock. When the door was locked behind you, the door in front would be unlocked so that you could walk into the visitors’ section. There, you waited while the people you were visiting went through whatever indignities they were subjected to before they were brought over to the visitors’ centre. Sometimes, this wait took an hour and a half or longer.

This level of control in order to visit people whose only ‘crime’ was to come to Australia in search of protection seems merely indicative of the control over the minutiae of the every day lives of asylum seekers in detention. Asylum seekers were subject to a behaviour control regime where, as if they were insane or criminals or children, they were rewarded or punished according to whether their behaviour was deemed appropriate to detention centre authorities. Punishment included being kept in isolation and subjected to constant surveillance in what was known as ‘management.’

When I conducted fieldwork with returned asylum seekers in Iran, I met one man who had been returned from Baxter to Tehran. This man explained to me that his life had become so tightly controlled in detention that he no longer was able to make decisions. The decision to leave Australia was eventually made for him and he was forcibly removed.

I hadn’t returned to Port Augusta or to Baxter for some years. Now, as the sun set in crimson and gold, the lights of the detention centre behind us came on. We will come back to Baxter in a day or two to see it close up.


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