A. Loewenstein Online Newsletter


At least somebody is talking about how Murdoch infects the US body politic

Posted: 02 Dec 2011

Visit msnbc.com for breaking newsworld news, and news about the economy

Serco-run prison on isolated Australian island

Posted: 02 Dec 2011


My following investigation appeared in Crikey this week:

It was a Saturday night community event and could have been in any small Australian town. A fund-raiser was being held for the Thai floods victims and proceedings began with local boys and girls playing short classical pieces on an electric piano. The room was colourful with red tablecloths and a predominantly Chinese, Thai and Malay audience, with a smattering of white Anglos.

This was Christmas Island in November and I was there to visit the large detention centre run by British multinational Serco and the Immigration Department. With a population of about 1500, situated three-and-a-half hours from Perth and serviced by only one airline, Virgin, as an Australian satellite, the island should be a tourist Mecca. Warm weather, Buddhist temples on the coast, palm trees, beautiful vistas across the Indian Ocean, lush rainforests, coconuts falling from trees and unique birds all contribute to a tropical oasis.

But these facts ignore what the Australian government has created out of sight and out of mind. “Everybody thinks of us as a prison island,” a United Christmas Island Workers union member told me. “I travel to Australia or Asia and that’s all they say.”

Gordon Thomson, head of the United Christmas Island Workers union — currently leading a fight against CI’s phosphate mine owners over higher wage demands — said: “We shouldn’t lock people up; it’s like a prison here.”

Christmas Island is full of contradictions. One night I attended, with hundreds of others, an annual event at a Buddhist temple. Two shamans were flown in from Malaysia to bless the community. One, with detailed tattoos on his back and arms, sucked two dummies for five hours while handing out sweets to children. He and his colleague were apparently in a trance and kept the crowd transfixed while the Malay community provided massive helpings of rice, meat, water and beer for the assembled crowd. Large, colourful incense rockets lit the night sky with wisps of jumping fire.

During the evening, I spoke to a young teacher who worked with small children in detention on the island. He had arrived with high hopes of being able to change the system from within. He said Serco staff were friendly enough but told a revealing anecdote. His school had put together an induction manual and gave it to Serco to examine. The response was that some Serco staff were unable to complete the task because they couldn’t read or write.

The island’s biggest employer is now Serco, with most of the workers housed in ’70s style, low-rise apartment blocks. The island’s infrastructure, despite periodic Australian government funding, is lacking, and resentment towards Canberra was palpable. As more boats arrive — I saw two carrying 100 asylum seekers come into shallow waters — many residents told me they couldn’t understand why asylum seekers were being so well housed while they still waited on better and more affordable housing and job opportunities.

The Labor government’s island administrator, Brian Lacy, said he regularly asked Canberra for more resources and had hired a consultant to assist designing a tourist campaign to reframe the island as more than just a prison.

The detention centre is situated on the far side of the island, a long way from any habitation; my visits there required navigating around various road closures due to the current crab migration. During the March riots, footage of a burning detention centre shocked Australia and the world. Viewing that vantage point requires a short hike up a hill. Road access is now blocked, I was told, to deny media easy accessibility.

The vista was expansive and revealing. The amount of resources required to maintain such a centre — when prices on the island for even the most basic products grow exponentially — is extraordinary. Currently holding about 700 asylum seekers, from a peak of more than 3000 earlier this year, an Immigration Department spokeswoman told me the instruction from Canberra was now to maintain relatively low numbers to avoid over-crowding and rising tensions. Nobody sleeps in tents at the centre any more, a common occurrence in the past.

The feeling of isolation, similar to the Curtin detention centre, is key to the soaring mental health problems of staff and detainees. Sister Joan Kelleher, who lives on the island and daily visits detainees, told me she was against mandatory detention because she saw the effects it was having on the men she was seeing.

On the day that I encountered Sister Kelleher on the foreshore, she was accompanied by four Afghan Hazara men, ranging in age from 30s to 40s, who were allowed a few hours with the woman, wading in the ocean and cooking a barbecue of sausages, onions and bread rolls. They had all been in detention, in Darwin and on Christmas Island, for more than 20 months and were awaiting judicial reviews of their claims. They were all on anti-depressant medication and keen to tell me their stories about repression in the Pakistani town of Quetta, where their wives and children still lived in constant danger.

The following day, a few hours before I left, I was finally granted access inside the detention centre to see one Hazara Afghan (after initially being rejected by bureaucrats on the mainland and negotiating with the facility’s departmental manager). I was introduced to the head case manager, Sally, after being ushered through what she acknowledged was “a maximum security prison”. She later added: “If it was built more recently it would be different, softer, less like a jail.”

After passing through heavy security doors, we arrived in a compound of clinical meeting rooms. Sally said Mohammed (not his real name) would arrive shortly. In the meantime she said she was happy to answer any of my questions (by this stage I knew I was getting red-carpet treatment, if such a thing was possible.)

I asked if she believed privatised detention, companies designed to make a profit from asylum seekers, was preferable. Although Sally said there were problems, she said Serco was an essential partner because the public service simply wasn’t capable of handling security, “intel gathering” and other services unless “we hire many more people”.

It reflected something I saw in other centres across the country, the symbiotic relationship between DIAC and Serco: they can’t live without the other and support each other’s secretive culture.

Mohammed arrived and through a Farsi translator — who told me he was from Afghanistan and came by boat in 1999 — explained that he was very depressed after 22 months in detention. He barely made eye contact and looked down at his hands during our time together. He couldn’t go back to Pakistan for safety reasons but he said DIAC never gave any concrete details about his upcoming judicial review. He took six different anti-depressants daily.

*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist currently working on a book about disaster capitalism

What Australia is doing to refugees in the middle of the steamy desert

Posted: 02 Dec 2011

My following investigation appeared in Crikey this week:

The drive from Broome in Western Australia to Derby, the town closest to the remote Curtin detention centre in the Kimberley, is two-and-a-half hours through endless, surprisingly green desert. Mobile phone reception soon dies after the journey begins and from there you see few people or cars for as far as the eye can see.

The roadhouse at Willare, a red, dusty stop close to Derby, has a BBQ, swimming pool and little else. There is overpriced water and food sitting in a bain-marie that looks like it has survived the apocalypse. This is where many Serco staff stay while working at the Curtin detention centre around an hour away — but there is little for them to do except drink and sleep between 12-hour shifts.

Derby has a population of around 3000 people. It is a depressing place, with temperatures close to 35 degrees and Aboriginal men and women catatonic and drunk at all hours of the day lying in parks. There is an indigenous suicide every fortnight in the town. I spent time with an Aboriginal man, living in an abandoned and dirty house on the outskirts of Derby, who told me through alcohol breath that he wasn’t aware refugees were imprisoned down the road but “I don’t like that they’re locked up”.

I recently stayed in the town for four days to visit detainees in Curtin and investigate the role of Serco and the Immigration Department in maintaining mandatory detention. Very few people visit Curtin due to its isolation so the detainees were pleased to see a friendly face and hear news from the outside world.

The federal government’s latest softening of long-term detention should alleviate some of this suffering though the relationship between DIAC and Serco will continue.

Curtin is situated inside an Australian Airforce Base, around 30 minutes drive from Derby, and can only be accessed by prior arrangement with Serco. Each day that I visited the heat reached 40 degrees and the humidity caused everybody to scurry under fans or air-conditioners. The former African refugee who manned the checkpoint into the centre — he worked for MSS, sub-contracted by Serco, and wore khaki shorts, shirt and felt khaki hat — checked our IDs, used a walkie-talkie to call his Serco superiors inside and soon waved us through.

Around 900 men are currently housed at Curtin and there are signs of the mental trauma many doctors and former detainees warned would occur if the Labor government re-opened under Serco management (as interviewees predicted to me in Crikey in May last year).

A recent report about Curtin released by Curtin University human rights academics Caroline Fleay and Linda Briskman,The Hidden Men, details countless examples of asylum seeker suffering mental trauma due to mandatory detention, contractor IHMS not providing adequate medical care and CCTV cameras recording counselling sessions, violating asylum seeker privacy.

The overwhelming sense of futility and bureaucratic ineptitude permeates Curtin. The Serco contract with the Australian government — recently revealed with colleague Paul Farrell in New Matilda  — explained the lack of training required by Serco staff. The profit motive of Serco ensures that the barest minimum of training is given to prospective workers. The company was fined nearly $15 million this month for failing to properly care for asylum seekers.

I saw evidence of this constantly during my time in Curtin. I had requested to visit, with plenty of notice, a number of detainees from a range of countries, including Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Many have received refugee status by the Australian government but are waiting indefinitely for security clearance from ASIO (a process without transparency or appeal).

One afternoon a Serco employee advised me that it would be possible to see more requested asylum seekers the next day but by morning, speaking to a different Serco staff, I was informed that it was impossible due to “security” reasons. “You should have given us more warning and it could have been arranged,” the manager said. Such stories are legendary, especially in remote centres, and often DIAC and Serco seemingly aim to refuse visitor requests to deliberately upset the isolated detainees. Such refusals, in such a remote location that sees barely any new or familiar faces, are against Serco and DIAC rules.

Curtin is a wind-swept centre with electrified fences and red dirt that seeps into your eyes, ears and shoes. Expansion plans appear imminent, with empty spaces for more compounds on the way. During the heat of the day, it’s virtually impossible to see anybody outside but by late afternoon, as the sun is setting and a cooler breeze hits the dirt, men start playing football and running around a make-shift, dirt mini-oval.

I was told throughout my visit that Serco staff were too busy to find other requested detainees in the various compounds and yet I saw Serco employees sitting around strumming a guitar and sitting in a large air-conditioned mess room, watching quietly with the asylum seekers while I spoke to them for hours daily.

Occasional excursions outside the centre take the asylum seekers to Derby but one Tamil told me that he found it grimly amusing that a proposed location was the Derby jail, hardly an appropriate place for people who are already in jail.

Most of the Serco staff are fly in, fly out — though as one local told me, “fit in or f-ck pff”, such is the feeling towards those who contribute little to the community and force prices up — and the attitude to asylum seekers is very mixed. One man, Brian, said that he had worked in Curtin during the Howard years, lived in Perth and now came to Curtin for short stints of well-paid work. As he walked me to a compound on the far side of the centre to see the asylum seekers, dubbed the “Sandpit”, he told me that: “We treat them better than many people on the outside. We feed them and give them lawyers. It’s us, the staff, who have it tough, having to sometimes be abused and assaulted by the ‘clients’.” This attitude was pervasive inside Curtin.

I spent time with two Tamil asylum seekers, both in their 20s, both proficient in English and both remarkably aware of Australian culture and history. When they arrived on Christmas Island, volunteers taught them about the White Australia policy, Ned Kelly, multiculturalism, Australia Day, the Stolen Generations and the Kevin Rudd apology to indigenous people. One had even seen and loved the Rolf De Heer film set in Arnhem Land, 10 Canoes, while still in Colombo.

Both men told me that every day somebody inside detention tried to self-harm or kill themselves and the mental state of many friends was troubling. They were given no time-line for final decisions on security clearances though in the last few days had both just received bridging visas.

Boredom was an enemy that was fought by going to the gym, downloading movies from the internet or calling home, though this was one of the major factors, one Tamil said, for men to break down because families simply couldn’t understand why their sons and husbands seeking asylum were locked up for endless months.

*Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist currently working on a book about disaster capitalism

Guess how many Israelis really think there’s equality between Jews and Arabs?

Posted: 02 Dec 2011

Interesting figures about the Israeli and Palestinian communities (via IPS) that prove how few Jews living there actually have any interest in true equality between the peoples:

A clear majority of Israeli Jews would support a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, even if it meant that Israel too would have to give up its stockpile of nuclear weapons.

This was the most surprising result to come out of a pair of polls conducted separately on Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. The polls, conducted in November by Professor Shibley Telhami and presented Thursday at the Brookings Institution, covered a range of topics, from the Arab Spring to perceptions of the United States and hopes for the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

While 90 percent of Israeli Jews believe Iran will develop a nuclear weapon, 63 percent prefer that neither country possess nuclear weaponry, while only 19 percent would prefer they both do, if those are the only two choices.

By a narrow margin of 43 to 41 percent, Israeli Jews support the idea of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Sixty-eight percent of Arab Israelis oppose such an attack, with only four percent saying they support it.

The poll also revealed that most Israeli Jews believe that the Arab Spring will negatively impact their own country, largely because they do not believe it will bring democracy to the Arab world.

When asked how the Arab Spring will affect Israel, 51 percent responded “mostly for the worse”, with only 15 percent saying it would change things for the better. Twenty-one percent said it would make no difference.

Yet, when asked “If the Arab Spring does, in fact, lead to more democracy in the Arab world…” 44 percent thought this would be better for Israel, with only 22 percent saying it would be worse and 28 percent saying it would make no difference.

Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea, responding to the presentation of Telhami’s polls, noted that, “The Israeli people are made more fearful of the Arab Spring” by government and media warnings that it will increase hostility toward Israel.

The poll of Palestinian citizens of Israel revealed some sharp changes on key issues from only a year ago.

When asked if they would “accept the transfer of some Arab/Palestinian towns currently in Israel to a new Palestinian state”, 78 percent responded that they would not accept such a transfer, with only 17 percent saying they would. That is a clear shift from 2010, when 58 percent said they would oppose such a transfer while 36 percent would accept it.

There was also a strong shift toward compromise on the question of Palestinian refugees’ right to return to the lands from which they were exiled. In 2010, 57 percent of Arab Israelis said the right of return “could not be compromised away”, while 28 percent said it was “important, but a compromise should be found” and 11 percent said it was “not too important”.

In the current poll, the plurality shifted and now 57 percent are in favour of compromise, 34 percent say it cannot be compromised and only five percent say it is not too important.

Telhami was unsure about the reasons for the drastic shift in opinion on this issue. He did say, however that, “Those who had refugees in their families were much more inclined not to compromise than those who did not.”

The polls also showed a stark contrast between Arab and Jewish citizens in the perceptions of the status of Arabs in Israel. While majorities in both groups (52 percent of Jews, 57 percent of Arabs) believe that, “There is legal equality but institutional and societal discrimination” against the Arab minority, 36 percent of Arabs believe that the relationship between Jews and Arab in Israel “is an apartheid relationship”.

While only seven percent of Jews subscribe to that view, 33 percent of Jews believe there is “full equality between Arab and Jewish citizens” in Israel, but a mere three percent of Arabs share that view.

Jewish Israelis hold little hope for a resolution of the conflict in the near future, with only six percent saying it will be resolved in the next five years. Forty-nine percent believe it will never be resolved, while 42 percent say that it eventually will be, but it will take more than five years.

There is a widespread consensus among Israeli Jews that Israel must be recognised as a Jewish state, something the Palestinian Authority has adamantly refused to do. Thirty-nine percent insist such recognition must be a precondition of negotiations or a settlement freeze, while 40 percent are willing to accept that recognition as part of a final peace agreement. Only 17 percent do not support the demand for recognition as a Jewish state.

The real financial contagion explained

Posted: 02 Dec 2011 06:25 AM PST

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