A journey from and back to the free world
We contacted the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation centre over a week in advance to set up a visit but, despite follow up calls, we didn’t know whether we would be allowed in through the steel grills and the forbidding wall of barbed wire. We were assigned a time slot for Friday evening.
As I make my way by train to the last stop on the line, I feel I am moving far away from what has been billed as ‘the most liveable city in the world’. Not easily accessible by public transport, we finally arrive at the asylum seeker detention centre in Broadmeadows and are relieved to be allowed in through the double doors. A screen in the reception area displays quotes on “human rights”, “healthy living”, “being outdoors” and “recreational activities” for detainees, with pictures of a happy, summer day. We fill out a four-page form. The receptionist checks our IDs several times over. We are not allowed to take anything inside.
We are closely watched as we proceed through another set of doors. We are here to visit people living in detention. Three doors down I still don’t know where the residents are. My friend, who has been here before, tells me to use the toilet now, as I may not be allowed out of the room again. More likely, if I go out, I am not sure I’d be let back in.
After a fourth set of doors, we finally step into the ‘meeting hall’. There’s a heaviness in the air. I’m told I should sit down at one of the tables; standing around is not considered proper here. We wait for our detained friend to be informed that we had arrived. He can only come to this room when he has visitors.
Rafi* is from Bangladesh. He speaks to me in fluent Hindi: “Sab theek-thaak?” “Is everything ok?” Other residents start trickling in. I find two asylum seekers from Nepal. They tell me Rafi is helping them with their English. One of them tells me he’s very happy about his bruised wrists because Friday is the day they get to play Volleyball outdoors. “It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or if it’s sunny, it’s our only time outside.”
A young Sudanese man joins us. He is excited to discuss Bollywood cinema with me. His favourite actor is “Suliman (Salman) Khan”. The conversation shifts. Life is difficult as a vegetarian in detention, they say. An older Tamil from Sri Lanka, who has decided to play host tonight, overhears some of this. In true South Asian tradition, he decides that the solution is to get everyone to eat, only too familiar to me; this is a way of showing affection. He brings us veggie pizza brought in by a regular visitor. We join a few others at the next table playing Rummy. We need the distraction. They’re all beating me!
An Iranian inmate strums a guitar, and another sings along. I recall a recent documentary on the underground music scene in Iran, a growing form of protest. Some people dance half-heartedly, others hum along, or eat and chat. Residents and visitors alike try to momentarily forget the jail that indefinite detention is.
I’m curious about what specific circumstances caused these men to flee their homes. But I am reluctant to ask. Before I’ve had a chance to introduce myself to anyone else, or finish the next game of Rummy, the guards tell us to wind up. Time is up! As if we haven’t understood that it’s time to leave, a loud siren goes off almost immediately. Visiting hours are strictly limited. For the inmates there is no free access to the outside world. They are treated like criminals. Surely, there is a more humane way!
We exit quietly. Someone says something about oranges, how it was a good idea to bring something healthy. I feel too tired to respond. I make my way to the train station to head back to the free world.