FEATURE-Lost hope in Australia's detention centres
By Michael Perry
SYDNEY, May 23 (Reuters) - Hassan Jamshidi fled Iran for a better life and the hope that one day he would be reunited with his wife and family in a new homeland, free of persecution.
Today Jamshidi sits behind bars in a Sydney migrant detention centre, his left wrist bandaged after he slashed it with a razor blade in a bid to end his life.
Thousands of refugee seekers like Jamshidi land by boat on Australia's remote shores each year clinging to a few personal belongings and the dream of a new life.
But a policy of mandatory detention of illegal arrivals quickly replaces hope with despair.
Despite the fact that more than 90 percent of detainees are granted asylum, some spend years in detention camps -- most in remote outback Australia, cut off from the rest of the world.
"There are people who have been in the detention centre for three years and they don't give them an answer. Everybody is going crazy and they deal with each other in crazy ways," said Jamshidi, who has been in two detention camps in two years.
"I am very fearful of returning to Iran, but I have suffered so much here that I think it is harder to tolerate things here than in Iran," the 55-year-old Jamshidi said in an interview from a Sydney hospital where he was being treated.
"If I knew that they (Australians) were so inhuman and did not value a human being, I would never have come," he said.
Australia is the only western country with a policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. It is a policy criticised as a breach of human rights by Amnesty International, refugee groups, churches and the United Nations.
Critics say the prison-like conditions, isolation and uncertainty of indefinite detention torments asylum seekers who have committed no crime except enter Australia illegally.
"Until you actually get that protection visa in your hand the fear is always there that you will be sent back...to a situation where your life will be endangered," said Margaret Piper, executive director of the Australian Refugee Council.
In protest at their detention, desperate detains have in the past year sewn their lips together, slashed their bodies with razors and starved themselves on hunger strikes.
Australia says initial detention is necessary for identity, security and health checks. Detention is also supposed to serve as a deterrent.
Some countries like the United States detain for initial checks and then release asylum cases into the community under monetary bond to await a case in court -- a model refugee groups want Australia to adopt.
Recently there has been a series of violent protests with detains hurling rocks at guards who responded with tear gas.
Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley has called for a judicial inquiry into the centres, but the Australian government remains unapologetic, defending mandatory detention, which will cost A$90 million (US$46 million) in 2000-01, as a legitimate deterrent.
"Detention facilities are for the purpose of detention, they are not holiday camps. I don't see any good reason to change that policy," says Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.
Still they come in flimsy boats which barely survive the ocean voyage from Asia and the Middle East. In 1999-2000, 4,175 boatpeople landed in Australia, compared with 926 in 1998-97 and 157 in 1997-98. The three main groups fled Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
VOICES FROM BEHIND THE RAZOR-WIRE
Apart from the occasional, escorted tour, the media are barred from Australia's razor-wire crowned detention centres and from talking to detainees.
With the three largest (Port Hedland, Curtin and Woomera) located in the outback, there is little public scrutiny. News from inside trickles out through a clandestine refugee pipeline.
"Dear Australian people, we are human (sic)," read a smuggled letter from Woomera pleading for better treatment.
Bangladeshi journalist Maqsood Alshams knows firsthand the despair of life in Australia's detention centres, having spend 475 days in a Sydney centre for overstaying his visa.
"Every morning I woke up with a feeling of being physically intimidated, harassed, facing a punishment without committing any crime," Alshams told Reuters.
"I can understand why people want to commit suicide. Many people who have faced torture and trauma in the past, in the detention centres they lose their faith."
Alshams said centres are ruled by fear, the threat of being denied a visa was wielded as a weapon and the identification of detainees by numbers made them feel like prisoners in a jail.
An Australian Ombudsman report in March said detainees appeared to have fewer rights than convicted prisoners, were subjected to racial abuse and intimidation and there were "cultural or attitudinal problems" with detention centre staff.
Australia's six detention centres are run by Australasian Correctional Management, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the big U.S. prison operator Wackenhut Corrections Corp.
The ombudsman questioned whether the use of prison-trained staff in migrant detention centres was appropriate, adding detainees lived in fear of retribution if they complained.
But the ombudsman was also critical of detainees, saying there were reports of fighting between different ethnic groups and reports of sexual assaults against women and children.
FIRST DEATH IN DETENTION
A medical study recently in the British journal the Lancet warned the detention of people who had suffered torture and abuse in their homelands could exacerbate their traumatic stress.
"The cruel irony is that instead of providing special care for the most traumatised individuals fleeing persecution, Western countries may be subjecting them to the very conditions that are likely to hinder psychological recovery," it said.
A tinsel covered-cross and a short epitaph in a Melbourne detention centre commemorated Tongan Villiami Tanginoa's death -- the first in an Australian migrant detention centre.
The 52-year-old Tongan was not a refugee, but a visa overstayer, who jumped or fell from a basketball backboard during a protest last December.
"Better to die proudly when there is no possibility to live proudly. Every refugee here will never forget and every refugee in the world knows how he felt before he jumped. Brother Tanginoa," read the epitaph.
Refugee groups say Tanginoa's death reflects the desperation of detainees, regardless of where they come from, and Maqsood Alshams fears the death may not be the last.
"When people do not have any place to go they choose 'I will go back to God.' Death can happen at any time, there are so many suicide attempts, it can happen anytime, anywhere," he said.