16 June 2002
On the morning of our visit to Curtin Immigration Detention Centre we all donned clean clothes and I shaved my beard off. We pulled out of Derby Caravan Park, refueled, and set out along the highway towards Broome.
We stopped at the Prison Tree just outside of Derby. This unhappy monument is a giant old Boab Tree that has been hollowed out by time. It was formerly used as a temporary prison for Indigenous men en route from their traditional lands in the Kimberley to Derby. Most had been charged with cattle stealing and were going to work off their sentences in Derby Prison.
We also learned that the local pastoralists colluded with “black-birders” who kidnapped young black men to work in the pearling industry on the Dampier Peninsula. The pastoralists hoped that the loss of the young men would “send a message” to the tribal elders to respect the white law. This strategy of using human misery to “send a message” would turn out to be the theme of the day. It has been a phrase favoured by Australian politicians who aim to “send a message” to would-be asylum seekers by incarcerating them in detention camps like Curtin when they arrive in Australia by boat.
About 40 km down the highway, we took the turnoff to the Air Force base and travelled along a straight stretch of bitumen for 10 km with officious signs along the way to discourage anyone from venturing further. There was nothing to suggest that there was a detention centre there until we reached the gate at the perimeter of the base.
The detention centre announced its presence with 12 foot high double cyclone wire fences topped with razor wire. The fence bore an ironic welcome message. Behind it lay a jumble of demountable buildings. We walked to the gate and found a small reception office.
The officer behind the counter was expecting us. He took us through the formalities, which included handing over our driver’s licenses and Medicare cards. We were directed to read a sign that prohibited any photographic or recording equipment inside the camp.
While Susan filled out a form that recorded our particulars, I was struck by another sign over the door opposite the entrance which led to the interior compound. It said ‘Think quality – our goal is customer satisfaction’. I wondered who they understood their customers to be and what ‘quality’ might mean in an establishment that was supposed to send a message by means of human misery.
Lex, who I had spoken to on the phone the day before, appeared through the door and escorted us into the compound. We passed a gaggle of guards wearing khaki uniforms and dark sunglasses. They looked like they had just stepped off the set of Ghosts of the Civil Dead. They ignored my greeting and stared at us as we passed, as if we had just dropped in from outer space.
We were led into a yard enclosed by demountable buildings. There was a table with a piece of tan shade cloth strung over the top of it. It was surrounded by six chairs, three on either side.
The demountable buildings were decorated with murals. One depicted a dolphin leaping from the water and impaling a large fish with its snout. Blood was spurting from a wound in the fish’s back.
Lex sat down and chatted with us as we waited for Zebba and her family (I have changed their names here to protect their privacy). He searched the bags we had brought with us, which were filled with sweets, as he had suggested, and toys for the children.
Lex never referred to the asylum seekers as individuals. He repeated the observation he had made on the phone that “they” consumed vast quantities of sweets, and tended to sleep in during the mornings—as if having a sweet tooth and sleeping in were moral failings. “They” were most active at night, playing soccer in the exercise yard. Although this was offered as further evidence of “their” weirdness, it struck us as a sensible policy in a place where there was no shade and the daytime temperature can exceed 50°C.
I can’t complain too much about Lex, however, because he helped to enable our visit, and he was an affable guy even if he was a screw from Queensland.
When the Iranian family showed up, it was clear that they had spent some time attending to their appearance. It was hard to tell the exact ages of the parents. Perhaps they were in their early 30s. We introduced ourselves. At first I thought the mother, Yara, had freckles on her face but I later learned that she was two months pregnant, so I may have been observing the mask of pregnancy. She wore jeans and a blouse with no headscarf. Her husband, Awat, wore a moustache, and he had just shaved.
Yara was effusive and kissed the children on both cheeks. I shook Awat’s hand and greeted the children in the same way. The meeting began awkwardly because of the language gap, and also because we were two chairs short. To help break the ice, Ruby gave Zebba her doll, Harley, which was the only toy that Ruby had brought on the trip.
Despite what Lex had said, the family showed little interest in the sweets, and I wished that we had bought healthy food instead. We spent the next hour and a half talking. At first the kids sat with us, but they gradually drifted away from the table and played with each other.
During the entire visit there was a guard sitting nearby, just within earshot. This clearly made Yara uncomfortable, so we sat in a huddle and spoke quietly. Awat had limited English, but like many migrants, he underestimated his ability to communicate. Yara spoke even less English, and relied on her husband to do most of the talking.
Yara had worked as a make-up artist on a film that had offended the moral sensibilities of the Islamic regime back home. The penalty for simply owning a copy of the film was 120 lashes. Those involved in making the film had to go into hiding when the regime came into power for fear of imprisonment or possibly death by hanging.
Awat recounted his family’s flight from Iran, through Pakistan, and then by boat to Indonesia, where they boarded another boat that took them through the islands of Indonesia to Lombok, and finally to Ashmore Reef off the coast of Western Australia where they were picked up by an Australian Customs patrol. They were taken from there to Broome, and then overland to Derby. Awat traced the final stages of their epic journey on a map that Susan and I had brought, which also showed the route we had followed across Australia.
The flight from Iran was clearly arduous; they had lost documentation en route to Ashmore Reef. The ship was leaking and they were instructed, along with other passengers, to jettison their bags to reduce the weight on board. They had cut contact with Yara’s family, as they were fearful that any phone conversations or mail would be intercepted by state police, and then her family would be further persecuted. So much for sending a message to other would-be asylum seekers!
The family had been locked up in detention for nineteen months. Their three year-old son, Payam, had developed a stammer which his parents attributed to trauma as the result of witnessing some terrible violence in the centre. He had been seen by a speech pathologist in Derby who recommended that the boy see a counsellor on a daily basis for some period, but this was not happening.
Awat told us that the area we were sitting in was for the use of the administrative staff and was not part of the area to which the asylum seekers were confined. He described the living conditions as dirty and cramped, and on a scrap of paper he wrote down the dimensions of the space that the four of them inhabited: 2.08m x 2.50m. Whilst some children were allowed to attend school in Derby, Zebba was not, and he and Yara had no idea why.
Zebba, who came across as a serious and unhappy child, didn’t say much during our visit. She appeared to be reluctant to speak English even though she seemed to understand it. When I asked her what she thought of the place, she made a dreadful face. Ruby told me later that she had said she disliked both Iran and Curtin.
I was struck by Yara’s mood. Awat kept describing her condition as ‘nervous’. Although she perked up during our visit, she had the demeanor of someone who was deeply depressed, and many of their responses to my questions were consistent with this. I was concerned about their well-being as much as by that of their children, and asked if we could send them anything. They repeatedly declined this request. We asked if they needed any reading material, either in their own language, Farsi, or in English. Yara made it clear through her husband that her state of mind made her disinclined to pursue any pastimes, including reading.
Awat was disparaging about ACM (the company the government had contracted to run the camp), and said that the money that the company received from Australian taxpayers was not buying them much comfort. Awat worked in the centre when he could, but work was rationed and there was little incentive because it paid only $1.00 per hour.
Yara had previously engaged in what Awat described as welfare work within the camp but her growing “nervousness” now precluded this. Awat described the company store where they could front up to a hole in the wall and buy biscuits and tobacco. When I asked about other visitors to the centre, the couple was incredulous and said they were amazed that we had been allowed in. Awat described a previous visit by a journalist who was not allowed into the grounds of the detention centre. Awat was taken to the RAAF airstrip where he was permitted to talk to the journalist, but the journalist was not allowed to film or record.
At noon the guard sitting nearby announced that our time was up so we rounded up the children to say our farewells. Susan and I told the family that many Australians were, like us, appalled at the way our government treated asylum seekers and did not agree with the policy of mandatory detention. Awat was aware of the controversy from TV and radio reports. I was glad he had seen these, lest he think we’re a nation of punitive bastards.
As we pulled out of the car park, I remember seeing a red plastic chair between the inner and outer fence and wondered how it had got there. Then Yara suddenly appeared behind the razor wire, waving to us with both of her arms. This was a haunting image. Later we wondered whether it was a wave of farewell or of distress. Was she calling us back, or just saying goodbye? We’ll never know. I was filled with sorrow to think of her there in the camp, pregnant, depressed and worried about her children. And my heart went out to Awat. As a father you try and do what you can to make your family safe and happy. He had to manage in this dreadful predicament where neither was possible. Stateless, they are horribly vulnerable; and now they were at the mercy of a state that responds to that vulnerability with incarceration, and by using people as a means to “send a message”.
Curtin Detention Centre was closed down by the government following a violent riot in 2002. The Iranian family we visited has since settled in Australia. We hope they have found the safety, security and happiness that they were looking for.