Feature image of factory by Joost Markerink from flickr

Previously: In 1995, Suthan’s mother sent him away from Jaffna to try to keep him alive. He was only seventeen. Suthan was put in the care of others – first his uncle, and then people smugglers. After months of being shifted from place to place in Indonesia, Suthan flew to Australia. He landed at the Perth International Airport without a valid visa.

Image by Soon Koon from Flickr: Perth International Airport

At the airport, big men with handcuffs and guns searched Suthan. Officers questioned him through an interpreter. Then they put him in a car and drove a short distance to another building.

In this new place, no one spoke to Suthan, apart from one interviewer, who asked him about food. But food could not be received as a blessing when its consumption forced him to use the open toilet in the cell, that most private of acts, possibly witnessed by people monitoring security footage.

‘I had no idea I would come to this. I have lost everything,’ thought Suthan as he lay on the concrete bed. The clinical barrenness of his holding cell seemed to amplify the all-seeing nature of the security camera. Delivery of food by uniformed guards in twos or threes marked the passing hours. Apart from them, he saw no one.

Around six o’clock on the morning of the third day, Suthan was escorted to another part of the building. A small group of Sri Lankan men congregated around him.

You have to be smart, they said. Being smart at the Perth Immigration Detention centre meant sleeping all day and watching movies all night. They woke to collect lunch, which they refrigerated and transformed into a small curry for dinner. Suthan was grateful for the protection afforded by the group. Their leader spoke English and stood up to the other detainees who accused the Sri Lankans of carrying infectious diseases.

One day, three guards as big as elephants handcuffed Suthan and transported him in a security van to a hospital for an X-ray and a medical check-up. The nurse was shocked that Suthan, aged twenty-four, weighed only forty-three kilograms. He had lost eight kilos since he left Sri Lanka.

After almost three months, Suthan’s small group was informed that some of them would be moved to Port Hedland. All night, the entire group kept vigil. Suthan didn’t want to lose his friends. To lose them would be to lose everything, again.

On the day of the transfer, Suthan was relieved to learn that he would be leaving along with some of his closest Tamil friends. Upon arrival at the Port Hedland Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, Suthan felt his spirits lift.

Perth detention had been like a prison, but here, he could see past the razor wire and admire the view. The centre used to accommodate BHP Billiton workers, many drawn by high wages to work in isolated mines despite its detrimental impact on social life. The Keating government had repurposed it for immigration detention in 1991. It had the dubious honour of housing the first asylum seekers – Indochinese boat people – held under new mandatory detention laws.

By the time Suthan arrived in 2002, the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) had sub-contracted the running of the centre to a private company, Australasian Correctional Management (ACM). But neither the government nor ACM altered the orientation of the buildings, which was probably why the windows still took advantage of the vista of red earth and blue green sea.

Port Hedland by Stu Rapley from flickr

In Perth, Suthan had been incarcerated with other men, only men. Here, he saw women and children, and it was like stumbling upon a rose bush growing out of a crack in the concrete floor of a factory, a place of rigid rules and repetitive rollcalls. The sights and sounds of women and children talking and playing gladdened his heart and softened the harsh reality of the place.

Here, detainees could work for pocket money, which was credited to their account. On shopping excursions, if Suthan saw something he wanted to buy, he pointed it out to an ACM guard, who bought it on his behalf, as if he, a twenty-four-year-old man, were a child asking his father for a toy.

About six months after his arrival in Australia, Suthan received a letter informing him that the situation in Sri Lanka had changed. It was very peaceful there now. Did he have anything to tell DIMIA? Suthan barely spoke English. What could he say? Three days later, DIMIA rejected his asylum claim.

Suthan appealed the decision. At his court appearance, he found his Indian interpreter difficult to understand and even more difficult to trust. The image of his father’s face, all smashed up by Indian peace keeping forces, was still vivid in his mind. Suthan barely spoke that day for fear that his interpreter would act against his interests.

A few months later, Suthan’s appeal was rejected. Despite this, he was still able to see a future for himself and felt that English would be useful to him wherever that future might be. Therefore, he and his friends continued to attend English lessons conducted by Catholic nuns in the centre.

With better English, Suthan and his friends were able to ask a Catholic sister if they could have visitors. They had seen people visiting other detainees. She arranged for a lady, a doctor, to visit Suthan every weekend. Each time, the doctor brought a curry dish and snacks. Her visits were fun, providing Suthan with something to look forward to, like the regular relief of cheerful advertisements slicing up a grim movie into manageable segments. But she was transferred away and there was no one else to be his link with the outside world, except the faithful Catholic sister.

As the weeks stretched into months, Suthan witnessed many crazy, crazy things – cutting, bleeding, crying – as if detention centres were factories producing peace of mind for Australians that their borders were tightly controlled and their immigration processes orderly. The by-product of these factories was a toxic mix of self-harm and mental illness among detainees.

As factory workers become accustomed to the smell and the noise of their workplace, so, aggression, depression, suicide attempts and self-harm became normalized. While some guards relished their positions of power, others were shocked, at least initially, but detention centres built in isolated places provided much needed jobs. Wages compensated for job conditions and it was always hard to question the methods of your paymasters.

Suthan saw an Afghan man shake the razor fence and cry out to DIMIA, ‘Let me out. I want to go home. I want to go home.’ Nothing happened, so the man climbed up a tree. Suthan looked up. The man looked down. Their gazes met, briefly. The man jumped. His blood turned the concrete red. ACM guards swiftly restrained other Afghans before their cries could take form and hurt people or damage property. The man survived and was eventually sent back to Afghanistan.

Suthan witnessed many big fights between guards and detainees. Even if he saw other detainees mistreated, he felt he could not help, or he would be subjected to the same mistreatment. All he could do was to watch.

After more than twenty months in Port Hedland, Suthan boarded a bus for transfer to another detention centre. An officer sat beside him. Each double seat on the bus was occupied by one detainee and one officer. Friends had gathered outside the fence, holding banners of support and waving goodbye.

As the bus pulled away, detainees tried to stand and wave to their friends but the guards pushed their heads down. Instead of a last friendly look, detainees were forced to look down at the grubby floor, the sound of the engine in their ears, removing them from the tenuous human links they had formed.

This is part of the serial online release of Refuge. To be published next Friday 19 July: Refuge #21 Windows Face Inwards. Subscribe for links to new instalments delivered to your inbox.