Social networking essential link for asylum seekers

IN THE RECREATION ROOM at Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne there are four computer terminals. Teenage asylum seekers, dressed in tracksuit pants and jumpers, sit in front of screens browsing Facebook. But for these boys, the social networking site is more than just a place for sharing gossip and posting flattering profile portraits — it is an essential link to the outside world.

Last Monday Crikey reported that three asylum seekers at this centre, which houses detainees under 18, had sewn their lips together and posted the photos on Facebook. The images were taken with a mobile phone camera. Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator at Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said the incident is the first time detainees in Australia have posted pictures of their self-harm on the social networking site.

But it’s certainly not the first time asylum seekers in detention have used Facebook to share their situation with the outside world. “It is the communications tool of choice because the phone systems in the isolated detention centres are so bad,” said Curr.

Curr said that phone communication is a particular problem at Christmas Island, Darwin and Scherger detention centres and that asylum seekers who arrive by boat are denied mobile phones. A spokesperson for the Department of Immigration confirmed that “irregular maritime arrivals” held in detention are not allowed access to mobile phones. “The detention services provider conducts targeted and random searches to find and remove contraband,” said the spokesperson.

As a result, Facebook has become a key form of communication for detainees. According to the spokesperson, internet access has been available in detention centres for more than five years.

Curr said the best access is at detention centres with fewer detainees, such as Maribyrnong and Broadmeadows, which has “four computers for 45 kids”. In Scherger detention centre in far north Queensland, detainees “are allowed 30 minutes every two days, and they use that time on Facebook to make communications”. A volunteer, who asked not to be named, said asylum seekers at Curtin have access for a maximum of an hour a day and at Christmas Island “people had to race to the internet room in the morning to ensure they got a spot”.

Facebook has become a vital tool for informing outsiders about crisis situations in detention. “It’s the mode of communication, so if something happens then it’s not unusual to get that information on Facebook. If someone has hurt themselves or they are worried about someone who’s sick, needing care but not getting it, or there’s an incident,” said Curr.

Recently, asylum seekers have used Facebook to send a plea to the federal government and to communicate with the media. However, Curr and the volunteer claimed that on Christmas Island detention centre computers are closed down and some asylum seekers are denied access to the internet during protests, such as the recent riots in March.

A spokesperson said if the Department of Immigration becomes aware of “inappropriate use of the internet or posting or dissemination of inappropriate content” then it “acts quickly to remedy the situation”. The spokesperson could not provide a precise definition of “inappropriate content” other than to say it was decided on a “case-by-case basis”.

This morning the photos of the Broadmeadows asylum seekers with their lips sewed together had been removed from Facebook. A spokesperson said the department advises detainees of the potential personal and security ramifications of releasing photos and other personal material into the public domain, however “in this case we had no involvement in the photos being removed”.

The importance of Facebook for sharing information about asylum seekers takes on new meaning in light of detention centre media access policies. SERCO, the contractor that runs many detention centres, considers the unauthorised presence of journalists as a “critical” threat and bans them from taking cameras and recording devices inside. In July this year, The Media Alliance wrote to the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, and the Minister for Home Affairs, Brendan O’Connor, asking them to re-examine the guidelines governing journalists’ access to detention centres.

Perhaps Facebook’s most essential function is to help asylum seekers gather emotional support. Community activists use the social networking site to organise visits to detention centres and to offer encouragement and hope. A message on the Facebook page of a Christmas Island detainee reads: “I hope u always fine n ur family too take care of ur self”.

This emotional support could be critical considering the epidemic of self-harm across the detention network. Last Friday, Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher announced an inquiry into suicide and self-harm in Australian immigration detention facilities. There were more than 1100 reported incidents of threatened or actual self-harm across the network in 2010-11, with 54 incidents of self-harm reported during the first week of July 2011 alone.

“My investigation will assess the extent of this tragic problem, examine the root causes, and consider practical steps that the department and its service providers SERCO and IHMS should take to identify and manage those at risk of suicide and self-harm,” said Asher.

The ombudsman hopes to release findings by the end of the year.