New Year in detention

It’s New Year’s Day, and the Broadmeadows detention centre is in lockdown. We’re told to wait. Eventually, a guard comes to the car park to tell us that all visits are off.

She won’t say why. But after a few calls at our end, word has it that a couple of visa overstayers awaiting deportation escaped while staff let their guards down with some festive season frivolity.

Whatever the exact story, everyone is being punished. It’s a punitive new year.

“They often stuff you around”, one visitor says. “Sometimes it’s a random rule change; sometimes you just get a guard with a beef making things difficult.”

We reschedule for another day.

This time we’re in, passing high mesh-metal fences through a remotely operated security gate. You can’t just visit. Everything must be cleared in advance. Like a prison.

Inside, staff are friendly. I can’t help but note that they are conspicuously multicultural. Perhaps it’s HR’s ploy to deflect criticisms of the whole set-up being racist. Perhaps I’m over-thinking it.

We’re here to see Tamil refugees. I’m told that a few guards are Sinhalese. Exasperation dissipates with reassurance that these are not the chauvinist types these men had fled; they understand the detainees’ predicament.

At the sign-in desk, we provide identification and fill out forms outlining our reasons for coming. The guards issue wrist bands with table numbers and draw the number on our hands in ultraviolet-visible texta.

The forms are a real piece of work. There are 29 conditions of entry. One is that “physical contact … is restricted to a greeting and farewell hug and/or kiss”.

After depositing our belongings in a locker, we enter the visiting room. Posters say no thongs allowed – the joint believes its standards are higher than the Hilton.

I’ve been assigned a table with people who don’t know me. And I’ve never heard of them. My friends inside have a different number, but there can be no cross-table jaunts.

This is one of those arbitrary and restrictive rule changes further tightening the noose to get people to “voluntarily” give up their right to asylum. (Since the visit, the centre has ruled that bookings must be made five days in advance.)

As people try to shift between tables to greet old and new friends, the guard instructs each to get back to their designated place. She is apologetic – but it’s her arse that will be roasted by management if the rules aren’t followed.

The man I sit with describes a life running and hiding. As a teenager, he left Jaffna, Sri Lanka, for the capital, Colombo. There he spent several years at his uncle’s house, rarely going out, fearing the Sinhalese Buddhist thugs who had led pogroms against his people. What did he do? Nothing really. Stayed safe.

He then went to Germany, spending most of six years there as an “illegal”. Tired of being an exile, he returned to Jaffna. Then came the outbreak of the fourth Eelam war, which began in 2006 and culminated in the massacres of 2009. The Tamil Tigers were routed, tens of thousands of civilians were killed and too much else to mention.

He wasn’t involved in the struggle, spending the time overseas like any other young person on an adventure. But the security forces targeted him several years later. He fled, leaving his wife and children with family. Now he is here, in this prison.

He can Skype home, but says this place blocks the video feed from this end. His children haven’t seen his face in half a decade.

“This is my life”, he says philosophically. But it’s taken a toll.

“Sometimes I can’t take visitors … I take English [courses], but my memory has become very bad. I can do half an hour. I was a good student, but now it is all difficult. I watch movies to learn, but still I stop after half an hour. My head I don’t think will be the same.”

We sit for 90 minutes, but long silences punctuate the time. Perhaps here is something to share: the value of sometimes being still and noiseless in a world either incomprehensible in its lottery of punitive schemes, or understandable, but leaving you incapable of vocalising its cruelty.