Escape tunnel found under Western Australia immigration detention centre

By Ben Doherty

A 20-metre-long unfinished escape tunnel has been discovered at an immigration detention centre in Western Australia, refugee advocates say.

The nascent tunnel – dug three metres underground – was found on Monday morning, built underneath an accommodation block in Falcon compound of the Yongah Hill detention centre.

The tunnel ran from underneath the floor of room 6F, underneath two inner fences to within five metres of the outer perimeter fence. The tunnel had been built “over several months”, advocates told the Guardian. It is not known who dug the tunnel or with what.

Footage of the tunnel under construction shows it being dug, apparently by hand. Lined with earth, it is just high enough for a person to crouch in.

Reminiscent of world war two efforts by prisoners of war seeking to escape, it is not the first time attempts have been made to breach detention centre compounds.

Nearly 20 years ago, 23 asylum seekers escaped by tunnelling out of the Villawood detention centre in suburban Sydney. In 2002, about 40 refugees escaped from the Woomera detention centre during a protest.

Refugees have also escaped from Christmas Island detention centre by scaling fences.

Australian Border Force statistics show about 315 men were being held in Yongah Hill: approximately 175 non-citizens who have had their visas cancelled by the government, and 140 asylum seekers. There were no women or children in the centre.

The average length of time spent in Australian immigration detention is now 627 days. Yongah Hill is often used to detain people for extended periods of time. Seventy-three people in immigration detention have been held more than five years, and the Guardian is aware of several who have been held more than nine years.

“The systematic abuse of long-term detention is hidden behind the fences of Australia’s detention regime. With almost none of the oversight that applies to prisoners of the judicial system, asylum seekers are systematically being deprived of their liberty and mental health,” Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, said.

“The government, for example, is vindictively holding Iranian asylum seekers for years, even though it knows that they cannot be returned to Iran. Indefinite detention is pointless and destructive. Visa cancellation powers allow asylum seekers and refugees to be punished twice, first by the judicial system and then by immigration detention.”

The Guardian has approached the Department of Home Affairs seeking comment.