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The Villawood detention centre in Sydney
Villawood began as our oldest and most innocent Migrant & Immigration Reception Centre. Now it's one of the much-hated detention centres surrounded by endless razor wire.

The Five-Star Asylum journo comes around

High-profile Daily Telegraph reporter visits Villawood, changes his scathing anti-refugee tune

David Penberthy, the Editor of Sydney's Daily Telegraph, shuns no controversy. After all, he worked under hard-crust right-wing reporter Piers Akerman at the Adelaide Advertiser during his formative years.

But in February 2003 a furore amongst human rights advocates unleashed when he wrote a report in The Tele under the title “Illegals live in five-star style”.

In the article, Penberty alleged that detained asylum seekers had DVD players, that they were provided with all the mod-cons ordinary people could barely afford, and that they - note his use of the term “illegals” - were living it out in luxury.

Almost a year later Mr Penberty went and visited the Villawood detention centre to find out for himself how wrong he had been to merely rely on the spin magicians of the Immigration Department, who - under the Ministership of Phil Ruddock - had crafted a flyer about the detention centre appraising the wares and aspects of the good life for asylum seekers in the centre.

That brochure had been the single source of the entire article, and Penberty had not taken the trouble to check the pamphlet against the reality of life inside the refugee jail.

This page is about the “conversion” of David Penberthy, who, guided by reporter and advocate Ngareta Rossell, went and visited Villawood. First though, the debunking of his first article by the ABC's Mediawatch. The page comes with apologies for the somewhat glaring absence of his original piece “Illegals live in five-star style”. We could not locate it any longer online.

Media Watch: 5 Star Beat Up :: 17/02/2003

What did David Penberthy do before writing this spread in the Tele?

‘Revealed: The truth about how inmates are treated inside Australia's detention centres.’ ‘Five Star Asylums’ ‘Exclusive. By David Penberthy.’

The Daily Telegraph, 17 December 2002

Not so exclusive - because as David Penberthy explained a few days later, all he did was take -

‘a 32-page document from the Federal Department of Immigration forwarded to a bi-partisan parliamentary committee’

The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2002

And then give it -

‘a deliberately provocative treatment’

The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2002

That, at least, was true.

‘Condemned by their critics as concentration camps, Australia's detention centres are providing asylum seekers with everything from DVDs and Pay-TV to classes in yoga, flower-arranging and driver education.’
The Daily Telegraph, 17 December 2002

Three pages of the paper were devoted to showing just how wonderful life is behind the wire with pool tables, Foxtel, medical services, musical instruments, library books and copies of the Daily Telegraph. Apart from excursions for the kids, it's all pretty standard stuff for any prison in Australia and falls a bit short of the tourist industry's definition of five star accommodation:

‘outstanding ... furnishing and décor ... choice of dining facilities ... 24-hour room service, housekeeping and valet parking ... porterage and concierge services ... a dedicated business centre and conference facilities.’
AAA definition of five star

The Tele's story was not only grossly exaggerated but much of it was simply untrue.

‘Special Facilities at Villawood, Western Sydney.' ‘Mini swimming pool for children.'
The Daily Telegraph 17 December 2002

We can’t find anyone who has seen it. The Department of Immigration won’t confirm its existence to us and Catholic welfare group told Media Watch what the so called pool is really about -

‘A couple of volunteers, following considerable requests were given approval to enter the Centre to provide some "water activities". These consisted of the stretching of a length of plastic along the ground and turning on some sprinklers on either side of the plastic surface thus creating a sliding water game. This activity has occurred infrequently and only when volunteers were present.’
Welfare agency

According to the welfare agency, there are question marks over a good many of the supposed five star facilities on Penberthy's list like -

Daily Telegraph: ‘Electric guitars’

Welfare agency: ‘No one detainee is aware about the existence of electric guitars at the Centre.’

Daily Telegraph: ‘Barber and hairdressing facilities’

Welfare agency: ‘These facilities do not exist. The cutting of hair is usually done by a fellow detainee with a stool and hair clippers.’

The Daily Telegraph, 17 December 2002
and welfare agency

So how could the Tele have got so much so wrong in their three-page expose? David Penberthy explained he was deliberately setting out to attack the centres' critics.

‘It is a question of balance - balance here in the form of, we thought, a long overdue counter-attack on the concentration camp line.’
The Daily Telegraph, 20 December 2002

It’s an argument that left Penberthy’s colleagues at the Tele cringing. By all means expose the exaggerations of the critics but do it as a journalist not a mouthpiece for the Department of Immigration. Check out the claims and give us the truth. We asked Penberthy -

Did you visit a detention centre to see for yourself the state of conditions in detention centres? ... If not why not?
Media Watch letter to David Penberthy

In reply Penberthy gave me and this program a terrific spray in his column last Friday but he did not answer that question. It seems he never even took a taxi to the Villawood Detention Centre in suburban Sydney. Penberthy's regurgitation of the Department’s line was greeted with disbelief inside the detention centres.

‘The media all the time saying we are in five star accommodation ... I am talking with officer. “Where is Foxtel? Where is internet access? Where is swimming pool?” ACM officer agree. It is all bullshit.
Asylum Seeker, Refugee Action Collective

While giving us a blast, Penberthy declared -

‘I have nothing to contribute to the bourgeois dinner party you pass off as a TV program.’
The Daily Telegraph, 14 February 2003


Ngareta Rossell, my hero

by Mary D Davies
25 November 2003

Not many of you have heard of Ngareta Rossell: she doesn't blow her own trumpet, but she has worked quietly behind the scenes for almost four years - preparing material and research for journalists, activists, doctors and lawyers. Many of us would not have known what was going on in detention or have become personally involved had it not been for her work.

I went to school with Ngareta and have known her since I was 10 but she still surprises me. She really surprised me and turned my life upside down when she rang me and told me to watch a particular Four Corners episode some three years ago. I was not really interested. She didn't push me but said in effect,

'Mary believe me this is the biggest story in Australia and it is only the tip of the iceberg'.

That Four Corners episode was about a little boy called Shayan Bedraie ... it was the result of months of careful background work and consultation that Ngareta with a couple of others had undertaken.

From the moment I saw little Shayan I was hooked. Ngareta suprised me again on Saturday when she rang and asked if I had read The Daily Telegraph. I got the paper and I was astonished. For the first time Ngareta was mentioned, there was even a photograph, she was a little embarrassed by that but nothing was more fitting.

Anyone who read the frontpage story on luxury detention in the 17 December 2002 Daily Telegraph and then opened The Telegraph last Saturday would have realised this women who has received no prizes or funding, few accolades and little acknowledgement had performed a miracle. She did not push, condemn, lecture or attempt to influence - she simply trusted in a journalist's training and humanity and knew if he was shown the truth he may well feel compelled to write the truth. Congratulations Ngareta you were a good kid but you grew up to be a fantastic woman.

Last Saturday The Daily Telegraph ran an important two page article on detention "Learning to play the waiting game" by David Penberthy - it was not included in the online edition. But the punters read John Howard's favourite paper in its print edition and on Saturday November 22, 2003 a heap more punters than usual bought the Tele, 'cos it was grand final day for the Rugby World cup and the print run was extended by 60,000. Congratulations to the Editor of The Daily Telegraph for publishing this important feature on an important day. And congratulations to all the other editors who have been prepared to show the human face of asylum. They deserve our letters of thanks.

Congratulations to David Penberthy who showed that when a fine journalist is aware of the facts they will be courageous and write the full story what a journey of discovery. And congratulations to all the fine journalists who continue to report on life behind the razorwire and terror at sea. We must write to them in appreciation of their work.

And congratulations to all those other men and women who like Ngareta work so hard for justice and human rights but whose names are seldom mentioned. They deserve our continued respect.

Other side of the wire

Daily Telegraph
Edition 1 / State
Saturday November 22, 2003

Almost 12 months ago, The Daily Telegraph published a provocative page-one story headed "Five-star asylums" about conditions inside Australia's seven detention centres.

The article was based on an official Immigration Department inventory of services and amenities at centres such as Villawood, in western Sydney, and the now-defunct Woomera in the South Australian desert.

It showed how, since the riots at Port Hedland and Woomera early last year, the department had tried to improve conditions to make life more bearable for detainees.

While many if not most Daily Telegraph readers welcomed the report, opponents of mandatory detention labelled it a disgrace, bombarding the newspaper with letters of condemnation.

In its defence, this newspaper argued that the article provided a long-overdue counterbalance to the argument put so frequently and aggressively in much of the media that these centres were akin to concentration camps.

We also noted that opponents of mandatory detention - abundant under the Howard Government but silent when the Hawke Labor Government introduced the policy - were quick to condemn these centres as a modern-day gulag, regardless of whether they had visited them.

As such, we took the departmental inventory at face value - in the same way that journalists who have never entered a centre will freely report the most savage criticism of the Government and, by dint, the majority of voters, over their treatment of refugees.

None of this silenced our critics - one of whom, Ngareta Russell, rang this newspaper in April with an invitation.

"I was wondering if you would like to come to Villawood. No strings attached, just come out, meet some of the detainees, see what it's like. I go out every week. I can pick you up from your office on Wednesday about 2pm."

Hmm. Pause. OK. Yeah, yeah, that would be good. See you then.

Since making the first visit six months ago, the author of today's piece, and the original "Five-star" article, David Penberthy, has buddied up with Ngareta Russell and visited Villawood 10 times. These are his impressions.

Learning to play the waiting game

Daily Telegraph
Edition 1 / State
Saturday November 22, 2003
page 032/033
By David Penberthy

Welcome to the Villawood Detention Centre, where humour helps relieve the depression of the longest wait. David Penberthy gets to know those inside.

We are sitting in the visitor's yard at the Villawood Detention Centre, not far off the M4 in Sydney's west, where suburbia gives way to what first looks like a park or a school, only to be given up by the border of razor wire on its perimeter.

"When whales beach themselves," he says, "people come from everywhere to keep them wet."

"They try to push them out to sea and, when they die, people cry. They show it on the television.

"I turned up on a beach. I once asked an Australian woman why people didn't care about me but cared about the whales and she said: 'Because the whales aren't going to hurt us'."

The visitors' yard at Villawood is the venue for Australia's longest conversation. It is like soap opera -- and that isn't meant to sound trivial - in that you can turn up today, in a month, next April, and most of the characters will still be there. And when you see them they'll say:

"Now where were we?"

We were outside doing what we do. They were inside, waiting. Waiting to hear from the department or their lawyer. Waiting for their next day in court, maybe six months from now.

Waiting for relatives and friends, including the refugee advocates, who arrive from 2pm for the daily five-hour visiting bloc.

The people waiting include the guy at the start of this conversation, an Iranian, who, if you met him, you would let out tomorrow and invite him over to stay. He has been waiting for three years and he still has no idea if or when he'll ever get out.

Join the queue

The first thing you notice at Villawood is the trouble they have taken to make it almost impossible to put a human face on the people inside. The sign says:

"No cameras, no video recorders, no mobile phones, no tape recorders."

And they mean business. One lady, a refugee advocate, hid a mobile phone up a roast chicken's bum and was caught and banned from entering for a year.

Entering can take forever. Refugee advocate Ngareta Russell and I have waited up to 45 minutes, as the visitors are processed in pairs.

Like opening a bank account, you need 100 points of ID to get in - a driver's licence or passport is 100. After that, it's a bit like going to a bad nightclub. They scan you, strap a plastic band around your wrist, and print an invisible stamp on the back of your hand, which is read as you enter and leave.

World's best practice detention

Most companies get by with one fatuous mission statement but the firm which runs Villawood, Australasian Correctional Management, has seven, including this amusing pledge on financial administration:

"To cheerfully meet the financial targets established by our stakeholders".

Broadly, ACM pledges,

"To help detainees in a condition of security, safety and respect in accordance with contractual requirements ..."

Tell that to the refugees. Harder still, tell that to the advocates.

Almost all the advocates are women, aged in their 40s and 50s. They are middle class, educated, artsy, and live in well-to-do suburbs.

They are some of the nicest people you could wish to meet as they are motivated by the belief that detainees, regardless of their backgrounds, need human contact. Rather than embracing that sentiment as an idle dinner-party motif, they do it. About 30 or 40 of them visit at least once a week.

And outside these visits, advocates like Ngareta probably do a 50-hour week -- assisting lawyers and psychiatrists and getting reports from groups such as Amnesty to boost the claims of detainees.

Cinnamon tea? Pistachio nuts?

Let the conversation begin. We are in the visitors' yard and it's like a smart-casual session of the United Nations. There are Iranians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Georgians, Cambodians, Thais, Indonesians, Colombians, Chinese ...

There are two modestly sized shelters, a playground for the kids and stacks of plastic chairs that people put in circles. On the tables, there are pistachio nuts, bananas, biscuits, little cartons of juice, brought in by advocates.

Many detainees carry a thermos and, as they do the rounds, insist on making you a drink, usually something from their homeland such as mint tea from Palestine, cinnamon tea from Lebanon, syrupy black coffee. The detainees are as friendly as all get out.

On my second visit they say,

"Thank you for coming back", and they say it every time you return.

A misnomer - many of the detainees make no claim to being refugees. They aren't. They have overstayed their tourist or work visas and are awaiting deportation. They include criminal non-citizens in the top-security stage one, whereas asylum seekers are housed in stage two. The New Year's Eve riot at Villawood was started by three Poms and a Spaniard who overstayed their tourist visas.

I am going to die

Like interviewing ex-servicemen - who, mid-sentence, will lose composure on recalling some horror of war - talking to detainees is fraught. Their stories are often so horrible you feel embarrassed to press them for details of anything, save for making fatuous chit-chat about what a nice day it is.

(It's rarely a nice day at Villawood. It is equally the hottest and coldest place in western Sydney. And there is a dead rainbow lorikeet which flew head-first into a hole in the perimeter wire permanently stuck in the fence.) So what do you talk about? Ngareta says that, initially, you sort of let yourself be talked at, rather than pressing people as to their predicament. As you become friendly, you try to talk about lots of stuff. But all roads lead back to detention, and their infernal battle to have their claims processed or even acknowledged. A Cambodian detainee, a journalist, received a letter in Phnom Penh written in red ink.

When he went to the Refugee Review Tribunal he had the devil's job explaining what it meant - first because his translator couldn't speak Khmer, second because the tribunal couldn't see the cultural significance of a red-inked letter.

"I tell them it mean I am going to die," the man says, as his wife looks at the ground.

"Death threat. They kill me."

For every chatty conversation you have, look over your shoulder and there is some poor bastard who you have never met, never seen talking to anybody, staring into space as if they have been clubbed over the head.

Where is my baby?

Pharmaceutically, they may well have been clubbed over the head. In the course of two visits, you can see the same person twice and it's like meeting two people.

"I am taking 12 pills a day," says Kristina, a Russian mother who has been in detention for 18 months, separated from her baby son, who was born here and is an Australian citizen. She is estranged from the father and hasn't seen her boy for several weeks. If she wasn't so dosed up she'd be totally hysterical. Read this, from about six pages of notes:

"I am taking valium, Panadeine Forte, another one for my stomach ... I don't remember. I can't eat. They give me pills to level me out. If they didn't I probably would hang myself by now. Mothers can't go a day without seeing their child and I haven't seen my little boy for six weeks. Six weeks. Six weeks, what is that in days? 42 days.

"Where is my baby? I only have to look at him to know what's wrong with him. We are one person. I know when he is thirsty and I know that if I give him a box of apple juice he does not like to drink from a straw, only from a bottle. Nobody else knows that. I am his mother."

Next visit, Kristina again. Her son's visits have resumed and she is playing with him in the yard. John Howard has reshuffled his Cabinet.

"I am not taking those pills any more they made me feel flat, like I was going along at the same speed. I just stopped. I stopped smoking too. I am superwoman. Who is this Amanda person anyway? I miss the nice Mr Ruddock already. Does Amanda have a son?"

Compassion fatigue

Despite the goodness of the advocates, detainees say they sometimes tire of telling their stories of woe to an ever-changing circle of visitors.

Ngareta is mindful:

"You have to keep it in perspective. You have to ask yourself whether you are getting more out of it than the detainees. This is not a zoo."

My Iranian mate often stays inside the residential compound reading or translating documents for detainees and skips the visitors' yard.

Kristina is blunt. We are chatting about nothing much and an earnest woman calls her wanting her to meet someone new.

Kristina grabs my arm and says loudly:

"David I need to talk to you," and we leave the group.

"It's nothing," she says. "I just don't want to talk. I have a rule - no new friends. I've told my story enough."

Two gin and tonics, two vodkas and a scotch ...

Detention centres are not meant to be funny but humour is a defence against misery, and the detainees do a good line in droll comedy.

"See you again," they say as you leave.

"I am here most days, 24/7."

For instance, the incarceration of terror suspect Willie Brigitte at Villawood prompted the wry observation that Australia welcomes terrorists as tourists and locks up refugees. Ruddock's shady chum, businessman Jimmy Foo, was there in August, offending detainees by refusing to bathe in a bid to pass himself off as a madman. "He stank, and he made out he was talking to himself," one detainee says uncharitably. But the detainee remembered with most affection is Brenda Lee-Doel, aka the Cougar Girl, the Canadian model in the bourbon commercial who overstayed her working visa.

Bearing in mind that most detainees are men, and almost all the advocates women, Villawood is short on the international language of dumb, sexist, blokey conversation such as this:

"One night all these girls from Thailand came in," my Iranian mate says. "They had been rounded up working in illegal brothels. They were gorgeous, my eyes fell out of my head. But the Cougar Girl was still the best."

Another detainee, who rarely says anything, pipes up.

"Cougar Girl?" He smiles and cups his hands in front of his chest.

"She had really great tits."

My best day

Beached whales. The Iranian guy at the start of this story landed on a beach in Torres Strait. He has been in Australia almost three years and has never seen it. He has seen Sydney only once, for an hour.

"I had to go to the Federal Court in the city. I have got to know the guards quite well, they trust me, and this day we were near Circular Quay, and they took the cuffs off me and we walked around, we went and had lunch together at a cafe. It was so good, really, I can't explain how I felt. It was my best day."

Terms such as "queue-jumper" do not do this bloke any justice. They are also factually wrong.

"People say we come through the back door but where is the front door? Where is the queue? You can't jump it because there isn't one. In Iran, the moment you tell the authorities you want to leave you become an enemy of the state."

But it remains an equal lie to describe places such as Villawood as concentration camps. Almost all of the facilities and amenities the department listed in our story last year do exist. This is not Belsen.

It is not the conditions but the duration of detention that is manifestly cruel. Even if that doesn't bother you, think about it in selfish taxpayer terms.

It's bloody expensive. The deliberate sloth in processing claims is part of a publicly funded warning to those who would deal with people smugglers - come to Australia illegally and you'll languish in detention, possibly for years.

Nice way to make the point.