How do you end up running a detention centre?

23 Aug

Most people don’t wake up one morning and think, ‘Instead of being a fireman, I’ve decided to run immigration detention centres’.

I fell into the job by accident. Having grown up in northern sydney in a relatively middle-class area with a low migrant population, I hadn’t ever really thought about Immigration.¬†

After school, I went overseas and came back to a job as a youth worker at a church down the NSW South Coast. While there, I started studying a diploma of theology. After a couple of years, I decided to upgrade the studies to the Bachelor level and left the job at the church to go and earn enough money to study the Bachelor of Theology full time. I took up a job with a bank, commencing the bachelors degree at night.

Fast forward a few years and I found myself working for a bank, having changed degrees from Theology to Business and living in Canberra, not on the coast.

I hated banking. I didn’t feel like it was a good fit for my skills or personality, even though I’d risen from a tellar to being in branch management and business banking in a relatively short time. I started looking around for something more meaningful.

Government had always appealed to me, but I didn’t really have strong enough views about anything to know where in the government I might want to work. So I did what many people do – I started spamming the public service with applications. The job at Immigration was just the first job I was offered…

The (professional) journey to detention

Initially, I took a job in Migration and Temporary Entry in a skilled visa policy team. We were looking at labour market shortages and how we could improve the regulation of the 457 (temporary) skilled visa. Throughout my first year in the department, we undertook a fairly big legislative change project, but by the end of it, I was bored.

I was then sent on a secondment to the Senate, working as a principal researcher for the Senate Economics, Climate Policy and Legal and Constiututional affairs committees. During this time, I was exposed to all sorts of sexy public policy areas, from same sex marriage, to banking competition policy, to foreign investment, to telecommunications policy, to climate change. At the end of the year-long secondment, I was buzzing with ideas.

The last thing I wanted to do was return to the Immigration Department into a boring skilled migration role. So I sent an email to some friends in the department, asking if they knew of any good jobs I could do. I wanted something interesting, challenging, a bit different.

They sent me to Christmas Island.

To be fair, living and working on Christmas Island was everything I’d asked for: interesting, challenging and a bit different. There wasn’t really anything about the job that was normal.

I initially went to the island as a community relations and media manager. That meant I spent most of my time talking about the operations, but had very little responsibility for the operations. However, in about April, I was asked whether I was enjoying the island and would consider applying to stay on for a full 12 months.

Christmas Island is an incredibly beautiful place

Christmas Island is an incredibly beautiful place

The money was good, the snorkelling was better and I didn’t really have anything else to do, so I decided to apply. On the one page Expression of Interest form they had asked us to fill out, there were boxes that you could tick for what public service levels you were interested in applying for. Because I wouldn’t have to submit separate applications for the different levels (just tick a few extra boxes), I decided to tick them all – including the job as Director.

A few weeks later, I was promoted to the Director of Centre Operations.

Of course, the story doesn’t finish there. After my time on Christmas Island, I was sent to the Western Cape (Cape York) as the Qld Regional Manager and director of the detention centre at Scherger, near Weipa. I spent 6 months there before returning to Canberra into a role in Ministerial and Executive Services, where I had staff working in the Immigration Minister’s office, staff dealing with immigration-related inquiries from MPs around the country and where we worked with State Government’s to discuss resettlement arrangements for new migrants and refugees. It was during this time that the then Government announced the Malaysia solution and decided to re-establish offshore processing.

In August 2012, I was asked to take up a new role as Director of Offshore Transfers and Processing. The role, I was told, involved coordinating the set-up of Manus and Nauru and setting in place all the management and operational proceedures and structures to make them work. In addition, I was to coordinate all the transfer flights to Manus and Nauru, as well as the flights used to return people who arrived by boat but were ‘screened out’ of the refugee assessment process using ‘enhanced screening’.

Later in that year, having seen both the Manus and Nauru detention centres become operational and having transferred nearly 1,000 people back to Sri Lanka under the ‘enhanced screening’ process, I was sent to Curtin as Centre Manager and with a special project (to review the staffing model for detention centres). I spend just a couple of months in that role before being sent to Nauru¬†to be the Director.

Why I Left

It seems sensible to give a brief explanation of why I left at this point, just to wrap the whole story up. 

I first went to Christmas Island in January 2010. At the time, the Labor Government were celebrating having fully implemented their election promise to dismantle the Howard Government’s pacific solution. In the 12 months before I arrived, the number of boats had started to slowly increase.


The 4WD they gave me in Cape York – there were some perks in the job for sure

By early 2010, the centre was full and issues of overcrowding was becoming a real problem.¬†The Government begun looking for ways to slow the boats down. In April, they announced the suspension of processing for Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers with a view to reviewing the country information used to assess their claims for refugee status. This was the first of a series of ‘knee-jerk’ policy reactions to the ever-increasing boat arrivals (and political pressure).

Over the next few years, the Labor government basically re-introduced every aspect of the Pacific Solution they were elected to unpick. They stopped processing refugee applications, they introduced temporary visas (BVEs), they maintained a strong mandatory detention policy and, eventually, re-opened the Manus and Nauru detention centres.

Not only did they realised their policies weren’t working and that the boats were still coming, but the political pressure was getting more powerful. With a number of high-profile maritime incidents (like the boat crash in December 2010 and the riots on Christmas Island and at Villawood in March 2011), the electorate were beginning to question Labor’s ability to manage the borders.¬†

When the boats kept coming, even after re-establishing Manus and Nauru, the government went all out. They implemented a policy called the ‘no advantage’ policy – designed to act as a deterrent to people coming to Australia by boat.

That policy marked the end of a long and depressing shift in policy. Initially, when I first arrived on Christmas Island, it was all about the welfare of people in detention. We would do everything to process people’s applications fast and look after them in the meantime.

By the end, the intention was just the opposite. The government were trying to deter people from coming to Australia, which mean doing everything we could (within the law) to make it not worth coming to Australia. In other words, we were trying to make things so bad that it was actually better to stay where they were.

As a public servant, my job required me to implement this policy. I was the one who was told not to provide information to detainees about when they would be allowed to lodge their claims for refugee status (the withholding of information). Rather than providing a case-management service and information about their immigration status, the asylum seekers on Nauru were given very little official information, other than how they could return home. They were told they would never be settled in Australia, that they would be in detention for a long time (probably more than 5 years) and that there was no guarantee that they would be able to be reunified with their family. They were living in an environment where ever aspect of their life (when they eat, sleep, exercise etc) was controlled, removing self-agency. They were routinely referred to by their file number, rather than their name (the effect being that, if you walk into a detention centre today and ask the detainees for their name, they’ll give you a number in reply).

The net effect was a strategic and deliberate dehumanising of a group of people who were incredibly vulnerable and broken to begin with.

As someone who believes that people, individuals, are inherently valuable, I didn’t want to work in an environment like that. I didn’t want my profession to involved me in those sorts of strategies. While I could justify the job at the beginning (when it was all about making things ‘as good as they can be’), I couldn’t justify it anymore.

So in April 2013, I resigned.

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