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Letters From Christmas Island

My Last Hours on Christmas Island

When they closed the detention centre I was on one of the last flights out. The sights and emotions I experienced will never leave me.

by Leo Jai
25 November 2018, 11:55pm

A photo by the author inside the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation

Leo Jai is currently detained in the Melbourne ImmigrationTransit Accommodation. Previously, he had been held at Australia's Christmas Island detention centre. He writes a dispatch for VICE from the inside. You can read his others here.

On October 1, the Christmas Island immigration detention centre quietly closed its doors with little fuss or fanfare. Until then, it had formed part of Australia’s “onshore detention” program, and held a mix of asylum seekers and those detained on character grounds. At the time of the closure, newly appointed Minister for Immigration Citizenship & Multicultural Affairs, the Hon. David Coleman, lauded the move in parliament—describing it as an action to “fix Labor's mess.”

His statement couldn’t be further from the truth.

To start with, the 2014 changes to section 501 that resulted in the mass detention of non-citizens—including long-term permanent residents—on Christmas Island were made under the Abbott government and signed off by then Immigration minister Scott Morrison.

But more importantly, the “mess” of Christmas Island wasn't fixed—it was simply moved onto existing detention centres on the mainland. Away from prying eyes, Perth's Yongah Hill IDC, Sydney's Villawood IDC, and Melbourne's MITA are all now being hurriedly expanded to accommodate the 300-odd detainees displaced by the Christmas Island closure.

I was among those on the last flights out of Christmas Island, and the sights and emotions I experienced will never leave me.

When the day finally came to leave, we were given 45 minutes' notice to pack up and prepare. This is always how it works. Everything is a clandestine game of “security,” detainees are never told in advance when they are leaving or where they are being taken to. Of course given the impending closure of the facility we knew the knock at the door could occur at any time. For someone like me, who is on the Aspergers spectrum and very reliant on routine, it added to my gnawing anxiety.

Weathering the anxiety of indefinite detention takes a great reserve of mental and emotional strength. The sheer numbers of self-harm incidents, suicide attempts, and management's liberal doling out of antidepressants and sleeping pills stands testament to this. Serco officers dressed in para-military garb watch you all day as you’re trooped back and forth from one carefully locked compound to another for meals, medical support, and recreational activities. In detention you are routinely reminded that immigration detention is not a prison and you are not prisoners. But the regular room searches and pat-down body searches say otherwise. So do the restraints.

During my detention, the one thing that terrified me above all was the prospect of being placed in handcuffs. This may strike you as trivial, but I always feared that one symbolic act of humiliation and subjugation may be the thing that would break my spirit. So with a coach standing by to take us to the airport to meet our flight, I was crestfallen when my name was called and I became the first of our group to be processed and placed in a heavy set of cuffs.

Fighting the urge to panic, I found my way clumsily onto the bus and struggled to put the seatbelt on. The trip to the island's airport was short; I grappled with the crushing reality I would suffer the long flight to Australia in restraints.

Disembarking the bus on the tarmac, I was surprised when my cuffs were removed in front of a ridiculously large contingent of Serco escort officers. Of the 30-odd detainees being transported, I was one of just six who were assessed as “low security” and not required to be restrained during the flight. The majority of my companions weren't so fortunate: they were forced to endure the long overwater flight to Perth, and then across the continent to the east coast, continuously handcuffed.

We were ushered aboard the flight at 8 PM, exhausted from a long day of waiting which had started at 5.30 AM. My emotions shifted from humiliation to guilt. Eating my meal freely I wondered how it could be possible to negotiate the act with wrists strapped tightly together, let alone manage toileting and hygiene. Despite the short coach ride being only 30 or 40 minutes, my own wrist was already bruised from where the manacle had rubbed against bone. By the time we flew from Perth, to Brisbane, and then onto Sydney and Melbourne 16 hours had passed.

One plaintive memory from that arduous trip in particular will never leave me. As those in cuffs began to de-plane in Sydney I watched them call out Abdi, an older gentleman of African descent who had been seated ahead of me. I had looked out for old Abdi on Christmas Island. Frail and physically unfit, he had trouble walking at the best of times. Yet here he was in handcuffs, being lifted to his feet by two Serco escorts. As he turned toward me, I saw that his face was contorted in a mask of pain. He struggled to his feet awkwardly before losing his balance and falling forward onto his manacled hands against the seat back.

I could only watch on impotently, tears welling in my eyes. What danger could a frail old man possibly represent on a plane where Serco escort officers outnumbered detainees almost three to one? And what have we become, that we can enact these cruel acts of inhumanity without a vestige of compassion or moral compromise? What does it say of those who disagree, yet stand by passively and allow it? This is not the Australia I know and love. Having lived in this country for over half a century, I do not believe that these are Aussie values.

Just days after my experience, Christmas Island closed its doors. But the problem wasn’t “fixed,” it had been surreptitiously moved to hastily expanded onshore detention centres which were already full to bursting.

I spent the next three weeks in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre, before I was again given the instruction to pack up for removal. This time I was headed for Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, which sounds transient and temporary. Yet there is nothing temporary for its “inmates”—many of whom have been in detention for four, five, and six years. Have you heard of anybody sitting in the transit lounge of an airport for six years, waiting for a flight?

Follow Leo on Twitter, and read the rest of this series here

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