Conditions in detention: promises vs. performance

The preamble to the Refugees Convention includes the following statements of principle and aspiration:

Considering that the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved on 10 December 1948 by the General Assembly have affirmed the principle that human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination,

Considering that the United Nations has, on various occasions, manifested its profound concern for refugees and endeavoured to assure refugees the widest possible exercise of these fundamental rights and freedoms,

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) website contains a document which sets out the standards which must be maintained at detention centres by Australian Correctional Services, a commercial operation, which is paid to run them. Consider the image which the Department conveys, with statements by refugees currently housed in these facilities:

(The operating standards) ensure that the needs of detainees are met in a culturally appropriate way, while at the same time providing safe and secure detention. They focus on areas such as dignity, social interaction, safety, security, staff training, health, accommodation, food, religion, education, and individual care needs.

Here is an eye-witness account of conditions at Woomera detention centre from an Adelaide solicitor:

· · two working toilets for 700 people, both leaking, sand on the floor to "mop up" the leaking effluent

· · four working showers, for 700 people, hot water only available after midnight

· · not allowed to take food from dining room for children or sick adults

· · no coffee/tea/food between meals, only water

· · no air conditioning, fly screens, or heating. Temperatures during the day reach 45 degrees, at night it falls below freezing; there are millions of flies

· · inmates have to queue for meals, medical attention, phones (two for 1300 people) for up to two hours. Persons seeking medical attention (including painkillers for broken leg, raging fever, tonsillitis, etc) each have to queue in the open for up to 1 1/2 hours to obtain their medication in front of the nurse.

· · nails may only be cut by the nurse, who will do ONE person per day

· · women must queue each day for their ration of tampons/disposable nappies

· · there is no baby food or formula, one woman with a six month old baby who was struggling to maintain breast feeding was advised to feed the baby powdered chicken stock mixed with water (no sterile equipement of course)

· · food is beyond description; many will not eat it

Here is a portion of an affidavit of an Iraqi woman in a detention centre. The names have been anglicised for security:

1. 1. The adults were handcuffed. I asked to have my handcuffs removed so I could hold Robin, my 2-year old son. The guard did so but two other officers came up. One of he officers dragged me by my hair and pushed me against the wall. They searched my body in a humiliating way after pushing Robin into the corner. He continuously screamed and cried. The guard handcuffed me again and tried to legcuff my child. Two other officers prevented him from legcuffing my son.

2. 2. We arrived in Port Hedland late in the afternoon but were given nothing to eat or drink until the following morning at 8.00am. For around 32 hours the children had no food. We were held in a small room with no toilet or water facilities whatsoever. I repeatedly asked to take my child to the toilet but often had to wait for up to an hour before being escorted to the toilet. A child of two cannot wait and I had to allow my son to relieve himself on to a bundle of clothes in the corner of the room. Later I washed these clothes out when I was taken to the toilet on one of the twice daily toilet breaks.

These are the conditions in which thousands of asylum seekers are being held. We must do better for them.

*Spare Rooms for Refugees