By Aaron Roden
On September 15, Leela Krishna, a Tamil refugee in Villawood Detention Centre, was removed to Melbourne's Maribyrnong Detention Centre. Supporters of Leela protested and leafleted Sydney Airport's domestic terminal on the day.
Despite being recognised as a refugee by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in April, Leela is still being imprisoned while ASIO conducts “security checks”. A gay man, he has experienced sexual harassment, bullying and physical assault in detention and has attempted suicide several of times.
Socialist Alliance member and refugee rights activist Niko Leka visited Villawood on September 14. “We met Leela Krishna, who had prepared a wonderful Tamil lunch for us”, he told Green Left Weekly. “He was under threat of forced relocation to Melbourne, ‘some time next week’. As we were about to board the train home, five hours later, we heard the removal was to take place the next morning. It is reasonable to conclude that he was deceived regarding the timing.”
Leela was physically assaulted August 3, in the maximum security 'Stage 1' section of Villawood. On the same day, his lawyer told him he would be released into the community if housing was found. His supporters made several offers of accommodation. Instead, he was visited by an immigration department official and told he would be moved to Melbourne’s Maribynong Detention Centre. He told the department he did not want to move.
Queer rights group Community Action Against Homophobia have been campaigning for his release and opposed his removal.
CAAH spokesperson Ben Cooper said: “We can’t visit Leela in Melbourne — all his support networks are in Sydney. Instead of moving him and adding to Leela’s trauma, the department should release him. This latest move is a despicable act, highlighting how inhumane and barbaric the system of mandatory detention is. We demand he not be moved to Melbourne, and be released immediately.”
Refugee Action Coalition spokesperson Mark Goudkamp said: "Leela's case shows that the cruelty inherent in Australia's regime of mandatory detention remains … There are thousands of households in Australia who would willingly care for detainees, rather than see them rot behind the razor wire."
The government continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars detaining refugees in remote locations, away from community support. With detention centres full to capacity, new immigration minister Chris Bowen is on the lookout for an extra 2000 beds.
On September 16, he announced that the Curtin Detention Centre in Western Australia would be expanded by 600 beds, doubling its capacity. The Melbourne Immigration Transit Centre at Broadmeadows will also be expanded by 100.
He also announced the establishment of a new detention centre at Scherger air force base near Weipa, in Far North Queensland.
The Labor government has not abandoned its pre-election proposal to establish a regional refugee-processing centre in East Timor. PM Julia Gillard told the ABC’s Insiders on September 12: "That is the right thing to do under the auspices of the UNHCR, the High Commissioner for Refugees. It's the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective."
However, the point of Australia processing refugees “offshore” has always been to avoid doing "the right thing".
Rather than build a centre in East Timor, why not house refugees here, in Australia? There is no shortage of housing in the Australian community, and the government obviously has the money to spend on refugees. The 2006 census found there were 830,000 vacant houses in Australia, 122,000 in Sydney alone. Community based care costs taxpayers less and is more humane.
Leka, a trained psychiatric nurse, described the effect of prolonged detention on the mental health of refugees, many of whom were suffering post-traumatic stress before arriving in Australia.
“Three of them told me how all or most of their family had been killed [in Sri Lanka]”, he told GLW. Two of them said their whole lives they had moved from village to village as the villages were destroyed, one after the other. They all complained of not being able to sleep [in Villawood].
“They were on sleeping tablets — one of them pointed to the others and told me who was taking one, who was taking two tablets. He said that if the guards see you are not able to sleep, they make a note and it can mean being sent to ‘Level One’ (high security).
“[On Christmas Island] cigarettes were incredibly cheap — something like $18 or $22 a carton. They smoked, they said, because at least while you were smoking you were doing something other than thinking about detention, uncertainty, and anxiety about deportation … They were emphatic that there was no medical treatment — just blood tests and a chest x-ray when they arrived.
“They particularly stressed there was no mental health care at all. They said there was one doctor and one nurse. They said most of them had been put on sleeping pills [on Christmas Island].
“It seems that by providing cheap cigarettes, widespread prolonged prescrption of addictive drugs, and the absence of comprehensive medical and mental health care, the immigration department is breeching its Duty of Care.”