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Desperate circumstances

Interview: Neil King / se
June 20, 2013

A new website exposes the conditions inside Australia's controversial immigration detention centers. More than 5,000 people are currently biding their time in the country's IDCs.

The Australian immigration detention center on Christmas Island. (Photo: Paula Bronstein)
Image: Getty Images/Paula Bronstein

An estimated 25,000 people have tried to reach Australian territory by boat in the past 12 months, mostly seeking asylum. The journey is perilous with hundreds confirmed to have drowned en route. But those who make it to shore are often confronted with a new ordeal: They end up in closely-guarded Australian immigration detention centers (IDCs).

What goes on inside these facilities is the focus of a new website called Detention Logs, launched last week. It shows that hunger strikes and self-harm incidents in IDCs have soared in recent years. The project's co-founder Paul Farrell says the aim is to investigate these facilities and get the public involved.

A small wooden boat with asylum seekers on board floats in the sea near Christmas Island
Asylum seekers face a treacherous journeyImage: AP

DW: Why did you decide to launch this website and what is the project about?

Paul Farrell: In Australia, immigration detention is an extremely controversial issue. It's very difficult to know what's going on from the inside, because the government is very unwilling to release information. We saw an opportunity in some documents that we'd obtained under freedom of information laws, and we took that opportunity to develop a site using some of that data. Essentially the premise behind the site is to increase transparency and accountability in Australia's immigration detention centers and to help the public find out what's going on inside these facilities.

Detention Logs has just published records of more than 7,000 incidents ranging from self-harm to voluntary starvation in Australian IDCs. Were you surprised by the findings?

I was extremely shocked reading some of the details behind these self-harm incidents and the hunger strikes. The data we obtained has never really been seen by a lot people and it's extremely confronting when you read quite graphic descriptions of people cutting themselves with razor blades or placing razor blades in their mouths or eating washing powder or overdosing on pills. We think it's important that the public is confronted with this because that is the reality of what's going on in these facilities.

You've personally been to several of these detention centers; what are they like?

The facilities vary in terms of the quality of the accommodation, but a facility I've frequented many times is Villawood detention center in Sydney. This is quite a stark compound: You walk up the driveway and there are wire fences all around it, some of those fences are electrified, there are alarms and guards patrolling. As you walk into the facility you have to go through very heavy security procedures. It is effectively very much like a prison. And that's the reality of many of the facilities. Some are even worse than that. The facilities on Nauru, an island in the Pacific where Australia also places detainees, until recently were just a series of tents.

A group of Sri Lankan refugees (Photo: M Lakshman)
Refugees from Sri Lanka's civil war are among those arriving in AustraliaImage: AP

What about the people in these detention centers? How did they end up there and how long are they there for?

Australiahas a policy of mandatory detention for what is described as irregular maritime arrivals. Often this means the most common types of people in these facilities are asylum seekers and often they've arrived here by boat. These are people fleeing the recent civil war in Sri Lanka or they've come from Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. These are often people that are genuine refugees, and the period of time they spend in these facilities can be enormous, sometimes years. In some cases people are there for an indefinite period of time. This all contributes to the nature of the incidents that happen inside these facilities. People don't know how long they're going to be in these places, an incredibly frightening thought for anyone. I think this is part of the reason why so many horrific things happen there.

One of the key features on the Detention Logs website is the "Adopt an Incident" campaign. What happens there?

The Adopt an Incident campaign is about encouraging the public to become involved to make detention centers more transparent. For every incident log we've obtained there's a much more detailed report which can often reveal substantial information about the event, and it can lead to further investigative reporting. We've tried to involve members of the public by teaming up with the Right to Know website, which is a freedom of information lodging site, and making it extremely easy for the public to browse through these incidents, choose which ones they want and lodge those freedom of information requests with the Department of Immigration.

Has your campaign and the release of this data changed anything yet? What has been the reaction from the authorities?

As I understand, the Department of Immigration is not particularly happy with the campaign because in their eyes it will place more pressure on their freedom of information department. But we think it's important that the department publishes this sort of information proactively; that's a big part of what this campaign is about. We want to compel them to publish this sort of information of their own volition. Until they start doing that, we're happy to give them a bit of a push.

The island of Nauru
Detainees on the island of Nauru have harmed themselves and gone on hunger strikesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Recently there's been an important change to Australia's asylum policy. The mainland has been excised from the so-called migration zone. What does this mean? And what is a migration zone?

What the excision of the migration zone means is that it's extremely difficult for anyone to make asylum claims in Australia, and that is the case irrespective of where individuals land, irrespective of whether they've come here by boat or by plane. It makes it much harder, and it means people can be in detention for much longer periods of time.

What is the next step for the Detention Logs project?

We aim to publish the logs going onwards from 2011 until 2013. But we're not limiting ourselves to that data: We're going to start publishing many other documents. Beyond that we're doing our own investigations. We're going to continue both running stories and publishing data because we think this is a really important issue and Australians should know more about what happens in immigration detention centers.

Detention Logs was launched in collaboration with the news organizations Guardian Australia, New Matilda and The Global Mail.