Australia likes to portray itself to the world as a fairly civilised and amiable sort of a place, filled with kangaroos and "fair–dinkum Aussies" who pass the time holding barbecues in quiet suburbs. But in the dead heart of Australia, far from civilisation, there exists a place of legend and unsung heroism. Picture a modern—day Alcatraz in the middle of the desert, surrounded by double steel fences and razor wire. This was Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing centre.

Hundreds of people, including children, languished inside — many of whom had been imprisoned by the Australian state for several years. This state, carrying on the great traditions of concentration camp life, saw fit to replace their captives names with numbers and subject them to physical and psychological abuse at the hands of prison guard contractors.

What was the crime these people committed, so heinous as to warrant imprisonment in the "hottest place this side of hell" (as described by one Woomera guard) in conditions far worse than those endured by white Australian prisoners? They dared to flee their countries to claim asylum in Australia, in accordance with the UN convention on refugees of 1951.

Contrary to the way the Australian government wants us to see refugees – as "queue–jumpers" and "illegals", we must recognise these people as victims. But they are also heroes. Escaping life—threatening situations in their home countries, where many dared to stand up for what they believe in against injustice and oppression, is just the beginning of their heroism. Following their arrival in a place that they were led to believe was the 'free world', refugees must keep their spirit unbroken against what is called the "slow death" of years behind razor—wire, and the cynical and racist bureaucratic manoevres of a state that sees anyone of middle eastern origin as a potential terrorist. All the while knowing that they are in constant danger of being sent back to face the horror from which they fled…

It is ironic that Australia is currently engaged in congratulating itself for its role in 'liberating' Iraq from a tyrannical regime, given its attitude towards many of the victims of this regime who have sought refuge in Australia. Iraqi nationals remain imprisoned in the Australian desert (some for over 5 years) on account of their claims for asylum being rejected by Australia, who insists that they are 'illegal immigrants' from Iraq, not 'genuine' refugees. It is no surprise given these conditions that refugees in detention, like many others unjustly imprisoned before them throughout history, routinely stage heroic and sometimes very successful breakouts from captivity in their fight for freedom.

Woomera, the most publicised of the Australian detention camps, was closed down in April 2003. But Port Hedland , Maribyrnong, Villawood (known to detainees as "the Villawood Ritz") and Baxter remain. Baxter was built to resist escape with its high—tech surveillance systems and electrified fences, and noone has yet staged a successful breakout…


How to work out what you detainee 'number' would be if you were an asylum-seeker:

You would be given a name consisting of a three letter prefix that represents the boat you came to Australia on and then a number to distinguish you among other asylum-seekers from that boat. If you didn't arrive by boat your prefix would be 'NBP - Non Boat Person'.

"A younger generation of artists are coming of age who have always played games and reject the barrier imposed between fine art and games."
– Anne–Marie Schleiner, art curator and academic quoted in the New York Times in August 2001