My Villawood experience


Darren Hassen reflects on his visit to the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre;

On Monday the 18th of March I was lucky enough to be invited to visit 3 Iraqi men detained in Villawood Detention Centre whilst accompanying the Iraqi hosts we stayed with during the filming of 'Go Back'. News crews from around the globe have been able to enter war zones and even Guantanamo Bay, but have been denied access into our taxpayer funded detention centres. How is this acceptable? Whilst I maintain many of my views on immigration and asylum seekers, it must be pointed out that the veil of secrecy on detention needs to be lifted. Given that I don't belong to any media outlet I am happy to share my recollections of that few hours spent at the VDC. It has been almost 5 months since the visit, and my diary notes from the documentary are minimal, but I will do my best to walk you through the visit as best as I can.

After we walk the lengthy driveway to the Reception we enter the Visitor's Office which resembles a grubby bus station waiting area. Metal lockers line the walls, rows of chairs and pamphlets sit on a bench much resembling your typical government building waiting area. One could be mistaken for being in a Centrelink office or something similar.

The guards are friendly enough and we wait a short time in line with other decidedly foreign visitors. Our Iraqi friends bring bags of gifts in the form of food and soft drinks to share with their detainee friends which are casually searched by the Guards. We are asked to remove our belts, phones, wallets and anything that may be dangerous and are given a key to secure them in the lockers.

We go through a metal detector much like an airport and are told to wait just near the door through to the actual detention area. I feel a little nervous, wondering what lies ahead.

The guard opens the entry door and we proceed to a cyclone fenced gate which is opened by another guard. So far, none of the guards seem intimidating and are certainly not armed. There are no burly thug looking Officers to be seen anywhere, which is a relief.

In the outdoors area on the way to the Visitors Common Room are several gazebos designed to offer privacy and they are spaced reasonably well apart. I see no razor wire although there is a double fence clearly designed to minimize escape attempts. 

Having served in the Army, I almost feel that I am in a Barracks and not a detention facility. I had visited people in prison years before and Villawood did not have that same ominous feeling that jails tend to have.

I see groups of different ethnicities sitting at tables in the gazebos and on benches scattered throughout the outdoor area. They seem relatively relaxed and no guards are looming over them although the gate guard mans his post throughout .

We reach the Visitor room which has maybe 30 people which include detainees and guests. People speak softly and openly, an Asian group are enjoying a bucket of KFC and soft drink, 2 young Middle Eastern men sit on in a corner on the floor and are engaged in a gloomy looking discussion. Another Asian group eat Soup Noodles whilst talking to their loved one who is detained. The room itself is of reasonable size and surprisingly quite modern. A huge plasma TV sits in the middle of the room and is playing news of the Christmas Island Riots (more on that later!) Modern couches are at either end and there are tables and chairs which we sit at.A disinterested Guard sits behing a desk, much like any other reception area. The door between the visiting room is locked but I can see the accomodation building through the the windows. 2 African men casually chat outside a room and others are walking around quite casually.
We meet our hosts who are 'M', 'R' and 'H'- all Iraqi boat people who have been in detention longer than a year.I am introduced to the men and sit down with 'H' while Adam Hartup & Gleny Rae speak with the other men via translation from our Iraqi hosts.

H tells me that he has been in detention for more than a year and once held a TPV which allowed him to work, own a car and gave him freedom. He left Australia to visit his family and upon his return by boat was re interred in detention and had to go through the claims process again. There are only a couple of years difference between us, but he looks much older. His demeanour is that of a tired and beaten man. I feel for him and we talk openly about his case and his family. We share quips about our children and our lives in general. He tells me the food is OK and that they are given 50 credits (equivalent to $50) per week for things like cigarettes, phone cards etc. They are allowed an hour of internet use daily and although I understand they are prohibited in detention, he has a cell phone that he uses to call the outside world. 'H' is a nice man and we exchange email addresses, vowing to keep in touch. I have since found out that he has now been granted a visa and is in the community. Good on him.

We chat with the men several hours and during the discussion one of the men notices the News report on Christmas Island & indicates that it will occur there quite soon. I feel uncomfortable about this and politely point out that it may affect their processing. 'H' agrees and changes the subject.During our time there people were free to move around in or out of the visit room.

I had forgotten that I was at a detention centre until it was time to leave. We said our goodbyes and head back to the gate guard who lets us out back into the Reception area. During the 5 minute walk back down to the front gate my mind is spinning about what had just occurred. The waiting film crew immediately ask for our reactions and I decide to hold out and process a little longer whilst Adam & Gleny speak on camera.

My impression of Villawood is not one of a Gulag nor a concentration camp although I believe that the length of time people spend there is what is having psychological effects on them. Yes they lack the freedom to be in the wider community, but they are safe, fed, housed, clothed and have access to health care which is better than many Australians doing it tough. It is a lot better than any UN camp, Jordanian slum, Malaysian refugee dwelling or homeless squat here in our own country. 

My thoughts are that whilst we should have mandatory detention to conduct character health & security checks particularly for undocumented arrivals, it should definitely be limited to no more than say 6 months with one appeal process then immediate action whether that be release or deportation. I don't condone the method in which these people have come here whether by boat or overstaying etc, but I also don't think we need to drag the process out. Immigration detention should have no chance of permanence, ever!

Darren Hassan was a participant in SBS' 'Go Back' series and has an interest in Politics. He is currently studying a Masters of Business Administration. 


A real solution to illegal immigration


Darren Hassen, a participant in the SBS documentary 'Go Back To Where You Came From' explores the immigration debate: 

Giving an opinion on National TV doesn’t make anyone an expert, but my recent experiences on the SBS documentary ‘Go Back To Where You Came From’ have certainly given more of an insight into this divisive ‘energizer bunny’ issue yet it seems to be constantly going round in circles.

My stance on the issue is clear and remains the same- come through UN channels or don’t come here. Sounds harsh? Absolutely! But lets call a spade a spade.

My reasoning is one of firstly principle and then practicality.  We agreed to the UN’s mandate on refugees and although I believe we could be doing more to get people out of the camps/transit areas and resettled sooner, I believe also that we truly need to prevent boats arriving on our shores. The same tired accusations of racism & xenophobia can be thrown at anyone who thinks in this way but those same accusers rarely offer a tangible alternative. It’s time to come up with an answer instead of personal attacks, people!

One of the main arguments is that ‘it is not illegal to seek asylum etc’, but it IS illegal to forum shop according to the same UN that sets the rules on refugees.

One thing we hear very little about from the refugee advocates is the ‘Safe Third Country Rule’. Simply put, refugees are not permitted to pass through a country deemed as safe in order to get to another country. A safe country is one that affords protections from persecution and does not need to be a signatory to the UN Charter. Refugees that reside in said countries for more than 7 days aren’t allowed to move on to another country. This is referred to as ‘forum shopping’.

See the article by Monash University, which details the clauses relevant to this

Most Australians are in fact welcoming when it comes to refugees but take a harder line on those that have been labelled ‘queue jumpers’. Yes, we all know that there is no existing ‘queue’ as such, but there is a systematic agreement that we are signatory to and these people who bypass safe countries are abusing our sovereignty, creating a class system for refugees, as well as putting their lives and the lives of Australian people (Navy, Customs, Coast Guard etc) at risk. Even the genuine resettled refugees I know agree that this is the case, but not one bleeding heart would dare to label them as racist!

My thoughts are that these people that self select Australia know that they are more likely to force an immigration outcome on our weak, insipid government and will keep doing so until our border protection policies return to the Howard era’s tough yet more humane Pacific Solution. Christmas Island would not have occurred and those lives wouldn’t have been lost. Anyone who supports the current ALP policy are effectively advocating that people should engage in people smugglers and take that risk even if it means death on the rocks of a remote island. YOU who oppose the Liberal Party’s border security policies heart must share responsibility for those deaths. You wanted it, you got it!

The Pacific Solution must be reinstated if we are to get a hold of this situation and stop unnecessary deaths. It sent a clear message and that message was never clearer in the mind’s of those low life people smugglers- you have no business here!

Darren Hassan was a participant in SBS' 'Go Back' series and has an interest in Politics. He is currently studying a Masters of Business Administration.