Migrants, students, and detainees at Maribyrnong

Maribyrnong immigration detention centre is a discreet sort of place. It’s in a nondescript part of Maribyrnong, a suburb about five miles northwest of central Melbourne. The road it’s on is long and straight: it carries a lot of traffic, but mostly through traffic. As you walk out from the nearest tram stop you pass some warehouse-type retail units and a softplay on the left (‘Funtopia’), and a disused student village on the right. There’s no sign to mark the IDC on the road, a wedge-shaped white concrete wall bearing the number 53 on both side between a couple of small car-parks, and a driveway that’s shared with one of them. As I got there, a small delivery was pulling confusedly out of one car-park and straight into the next.

1 Number 53

The driveway itself, though not very long, kinks to the left behind the corner of a building. You can’t see round that, but you notice a surveillance camera on a high post, and if you walk up the driveway under the camera and round the bend you’re immediately exposed to the unsmiling face of the Australian immigration enforcement bureaucracy. A high metal security gate blocks the drive, while the footpath leads up to a dull institutional building, a securitized version of the reception building at a caravan site or a 1970s roadside hotel. Signs on the wall give instructions to visitors, and warn you, as if you didn’t already know, that the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. I didn’t hang around, and I didn’t take a photograph: the detention system doesn’t like you looking at it, and you really feel it. 6 MapAt the end of the driveway as I walked back out, the delivery van pulled up by the kerb near me in the car-park next door. The driver wound down the window and asked if I knew where the detention centre was. ‘It’s just up there’, I said, pointing. He was a first-generation African immigrant.

Like Villawood in Sydney, the detention centre at Maribyrnong (the stress in on the short first syllable, maribbernong) was build on the site of a postwar migrant hostel that was itself built on the site of a munitions factory. Maribyrnong was centre for weapons manufacture for most of the twentieth century, ‘the arsenal of Australia’, as the nearby street names Cordite Avenue and Ordnance Reserve still attest. In 1942 the main explosives factory was expanded with a New Pyrotechnic Section ‘to produce fuses, flares, tracers and smoke grenades’—this was the area that was taken over for the hostel. (It was also the headquarters of Commonwealth Hostels Ltd, the private company set up by the government to accommodate migrants, which operated 64 hostels around the country.)

The Maribyrnong hostel wasMaribyrnong, Victoria, 1965 originally made up of Nissen huts, like the ones in this picture. Few of these corrugated iron military huts were used in Australia during the war: instead, thousands were bought from the British government in the late 1940s, though hardly any survive. They provided basic accommodation for the postwar migrants—at first, mostly displaced persons from European camps. As in other hostels, the quality of accommodation was improved later, partly in response to protests from residents.

An architectural historian I spoke to in Melbourne, Renée Miller-Yeaman, makes an important point [PDF] about the standard of accommodation in these hostels. There was a shortage of housing in Australia after the second world war, and the government faced pressure from its people to provide better homes—pressure that was partly coming from returned servicemen, and hard to resist. But at the same time, Australian policymakers were committed to increasing the country’s population (and therefore its pool of future conscripts) through state-supported mass immigration. That support included providing accommodation to immigrants on arrival. But the wider Australian population—extremely homogeneous in those years—was more ambivalent about immigration, especially in the early postwar years when the newcomers were largely ‘reffos’ from DP camps, many of them Jewish. To keep a lid on anti-immigrant sentiment, the government had to ensure that migrant housing was visibly inferior to the houses of the existing population.

Nissen huts fitted the bill, though the people living in them weren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, especially as the sources of migration shifted from the DP camps to the countries of central and southern Europe. It was only later that metal huts at Maribyrnong were replaced with two-storey apartment blocks for families (the Midway Centre), and a ring of smaller buildings for single men (the Phillip Centre). As Renée argues, at sites like Villawood and Maribyrnong the history of immigration to Australia intersects with the history of home in Australia and what it means.

By the early 1980s Australia’s ‘assisted passage’ scheme was being phased out. ‘From that time’, a state heritage service report [PDF] on Maribyrnong says, ‘migrant centres focused on providing arrival accommodation and settlement services to refugees and humanitarian program entrants’. This is true, but the report doesn’t mention that by 1983 a section of the site was already being used as a detention centre. By the late 1980s only this part was active, and the rest of the former hostel was redeveloped as student accommodation for several local universities. As far as I can tell, the same buildings were reused. A plaque on a stubby obelisk at the angle of Williamson St and Hampstead Rd commemorates the opening of The Student Village on 2 Mar 1990.  This is the disused student village I mentioned earlier: after hosting undergraduates for quarter of a century, it was closed in 2016 and is currently awaiting redevelopment. Victoria University, which now owns the site, is trying to lease out five of its non-residential buildings, though it’s hard to see who’d want them when they’re surrounded by empty student flats.

The village is an eerie sort of place, though it’s only a year and a half since the last students left. That’s long enough for the windows to be dusty on the inside, and their curtains, tied in a knot, to look grubby: the whole site, understandably, has an air of neglect. But most of the site feels abandoned rather than derelict. A few blocks that were evidently emptied earlier are fenced off (‘Warning Buildings Contain Asbestos’), and their gaping windows reveal interiors richly redecorated with graffiti. But otherwise the windows are dusty but unbroken: the lawns are tufty but not overgrown. At the volleyball court the floodlights have been left on, bulbs glaring irrelevantly in the daytime. The lights are still on around the verandah of the academic centre, too, but that’s probably deliberate: it’s one of the buildings the university wants to lease, and the lights may be intended to persuade the frightening local children not to smash the windows. As you walk around a site that’s empty but for magpies and the odd rabbit, you half expect the zombies to lurch into view.

There are still a Nissen hut and a Romney hut on the site (I saw them both but I don’t know how to tell the difference), and these are now heritage listed. I heard from Renée that the ones at Villawood have been relocated to a specific part of the site, supposedly to be turned into a heritage attraction, while the detention centre there is expanded and upgraded as the only onshore detention centre in Australia. At that point the Maribyrnong centre will apparently be closed. But for the moment it’s still open, its high security fences backing onto the student village that was once a migrant hostel. A contact in Melbourne who used to visit detainees there told me about a Vietnamese man awaiting deportation who’d cheerfully pointed out the buildings where he and his uncle had lived when they arrived in Australia as refugees.

The fences at the back and side of the detention centre are just as heavily surveilled as the gate at the front, and signs say ‘Commonwealth land – keep out’. Here, I did take a couple of photos. There weren’t many people around. In the corner of the compound a Teeth On Wheels van was parked up, the sign on its side promising ‘a positive dental experience’ to the detainees. There can’t be much else that’s positive about being held in a detention centre whose authorities won’t even let you out to visit the dentist.

7 Teeth on Wheels

Thanks to Juliet Flesch for talking to me about Maribyrnong,
and Renée Miller-Yeaman for telling me about her work on Villawood

Historical information about the site is sourced from
the linked report by Heritage Council Victoria 

All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0), except the Google Map
and the archive photo of a family arriving at Maribyrnong:
National Archives of Australia, series A12111,
‘control symbol’ 1/1965/22/25

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