Investigations

Exclusive: 'Ice' use in Australia’s largest immigration detention centre captured on video

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Detainees in Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre are seen smoking what is said to be crystal methamphetamine, along with other drugs.

Tall metal fences topped with sharp barbed wire surround Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, but detainees say drugs are easy to come by.

Visitors to the centre sometimes smuggle them in and, according to detainees, guards and staff bring them in to sell.

In a video obtained by SBS News, a detainee is seen in his room casually and openly constructing a makeshift pipe and smoking what he says is "ice" (crystal methamphetamine).

In other footage, detainees are filmed smoking what they say is marijuana and "bupe" (buprenorphine, a heroin substitute), with one man explaining on camera they usually inject bupe and at times share needles. 

A detainee inside Villawood prepares to smoke ice.
A detainee inside Villawood prepares to smoke what he says is ice.
SBS News

The videos were filmed by a detainee, who wanted to remain anonymous, over the last few months.

In the footage, one detainee explains he had no history of ice use but developed the habit in Villawood, he says, because of the stress caused by his visa situation.

Villawood is Australia’s largest detention centre (by population size) and mostly holds those awaiting deportation after having their visa cancelled due to committing a criminal offence. Some have lived in Australia for decades.

As of December 2018 there were 498 detainees; 463 men and 45 women.

Last year SBS News exposed the drug problem inside Villawood after documents obtained under Freedom of Information showed there were up to 126 drug seizures recorded in a year, more than two a week.

Villawood Immigration Detention Centre
Villawood Immigration Detention Centre
AAP Image/Jeremy Piper

Drug researcher Professor Maree Teesson, from Sydney University’s Matilda Centre, says she isn’t surprised those in “incredibly stressful situations” like detention, turn to drugs such as ice.

“Unfortunately they are also probably not getting help, they are seeking self-medication and they are not getting any help for the ice use,” she said.

Private company Serco runs onshore detention centres on behalf of the Australian government. When contacted by SBS News about drug rehabilitation programs inside Villawood and the allegation drugs were being brought in by staff, it declined to comment, referring all questions to Australian Border Force.

When told about the videos obtained by SBS News, a spokesperson for the Australian Border Force said it had “introduced new security checks for visitors to detention facilities to prevent the entry of contraband and reduce external criminal influence. This includes a requirement to declare criminal convictions and provide adequate identification”.

Melbourne-based drug policy consultant Jarryd Bartle said there was a “complex” link between criminal activity and drug use, but evidence had shown drug rehabilitation programs did reduce reoffending. 

“The relationship is quite complex between mental health, offending and substance use, so you don’t want to be making too simple a connection between all three,” he said.

Rob Peihopa died in Villawood in 2016.
Rob Peihopa died in Villawood in 2016.
Supplied

New Zealand man Robert Peihopa died inside Villawood in 2016, with the coroner later finding his death was caused by both smoking ice and getting in a fight.

In the coroner’s 2017 report into Mr Peihopa’s death recommendations were made around improving drug detection measures at the centre and also introducing drug rehabilitation programs to help those battling addiction.

There is no indication that Serco or the Department of Home Affairs have yet acted on the coroner’s recommendation to increase rehabilitation services on offer.

SBS News isn’t aware of any programs in Villawood to support those struggling with drug addiction.

Nicole Lee, from Curtin University’s National Drug Research Institute, said rehabilitation programs tailored to those in prison had proven extremely effective and would likely work in detention centre settings as well.

“We need to take a compassionate approach and we need to use the evidence,” she said.

“The evidence is that we should be providing treatment for people who have drug and alcohol problems regardless of where they are”.

Those in need of support can contact the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015.

Do you know more? Contact Jarni.Blakkarly@sbs.com.au

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