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Blog: Visiting Villawood

Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

When I heard that another mother had been imprisoned at Villawood with her two children I went out to meet them. I regularly visit this detention centre, in Sydney's western suburbs, and have come to know quite a few of the detainees in there

I find most of my visits to Villawood are distressing, but this time it was especially difficult. There are now three mothers locked up indefinitely with no reason as to why and with a debilitating fear of what the future holds for their children.

We have heard Ranjini's very sad story, as well as the story of the Ragavan family and their beautiful children, but not many people know there is a third mother - Manokala  who is there with her son who turned five last Saturday.

Like Ranjini, Manokala was deported from Melbourne where she had her support networks. Since November she and her little boy have been suffering thier fate in Villawood.  Her husband is no longer alive.

It is an absolute disgrace that this is happening in Australia and that children have to celebrate their birthdays in detention prisons.  The Ragavan family's youngest son - Vaheson - was born in detention. I was with the family in Villawood for Vaheson's first birthday. Their second son has lived in detention all his life, in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and now in Villawood. If these children have one more birthday in detention - we have failed as a society and as human beings.

The heightened level of trauma, anxiety, depression, hopelessness at Villawood is impossible to ignore.

I ran into a young man there that I had met previously, who had a glazed look on his face - he couldn't even remember his own name. When I spoke to him, I learnt that he had been bashed a few months back by about 10-15 officials one night for no reason. This young man had already been suffering from mental illness as a result of his detention and now he is very vulnerable. He was extremely polite and friendly with me and everyone in the centre. But the impact of the attack on him was so apparent. It was heartbreaking to see what the government's policy of detention has done to someone who had otherwise been healthy and sane.

I am hopeful the High Court challenge against the Government and ASIO being run by David Manne, if successful, could put an end to detaining refugees indefinitely.

My colleague Senator Hanson-Young will be moving a private members bill which would also see changes to the ASIO Act.  

While I was at Villawood on this most recent visit I also learnt of the intimidating and manipulative behaviour of some officials. The detainees told me that in order to stop them from having visitors or limiting how long visitors can stay, last minute medical appointments would suddenly be created for them - so they would have to leave the housing complex.

I experienced this myself when I was called out to the front office when I wanted to speak to a detainee who is suffering from severe depression. There is much fear within his support networks that as he approaches his third year in detention he could cause self-harm in utter desperation and hopelessness.

At the front office I was told that I needed 24 hour clearance to see anyone inside and that the young man I wanted to see had an appointment. Only five minutes earlier the young man had approached me, wanting to talk. So you can imagine that I had reason to disbelieve this so called sudden appointment. I got told by the officials that our visits are inconveniencing the detainees because of their so called  appointments.  This is both ridiculous and insulting.  Their imprisonment is what is harming them - not their friends and family who want to visit them.

I was not allowed back in.  I hear that this has also happened to other activists. There is an obvious attempt by the officials to stop us from going in to speak to detainees to learn about the truth of their imprisonment.  This has to end and it has to end NOW.

Later that night I was at a Tamil community vigil to mark the three year end of the war.  It was a very very moving event, as it is each year. The continuing pain and grief of the community is heartbreaking. However, amongst all that sadness, I was able to feel some hope when a young man with a huge grin came towards me and shook my hand and I realised that it was one of the men I had regularly met in Villawood, who was now living in the community while his application was being processed. He had only been out of Villawood for a day, but already it was obvious that he had been freed of so much fear and pain.  

I hope that for all the refugees suffering a harrowing future of imprisonment in our detention centers, that one day soon they too will have huge grins on their faces because we have ended mandatory sentencing, opened our arms and our communities to them and their children.

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