The Commonwealth Ombudsman has been investigating complaints of Vietnamese detainees being verbally abused during "interrogations" by their country's secret police at Yongah Hill detention centre, leading to their families in Vietnam being beaten up and arrested.
Vietnamese community leader Nam Pham, who regularly visits detainees in the Northam centre, said asylum seekers feared being confronted by Vietnam's hardline officials and this was partly driving the current spate of escapes at the Serco-run centre.
The detention centre has had four breakouts, involving 14 detainees, in the past five months.
The latest escape of four detainees on Tuesday prompted Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to express his dissatisfaction with contractor Serco and decide to move detainees deemed high-risk to more secure facilities.
Central Wheatbelt MLC Mia Davies said yesterday she was concerned about the repeated breaches of security at the detention centre.
"It's important for the community to have confidence that the facility is being managed appropriately," she said.
Federal member for Pearce Christian Porter said he had spoken to Mr Morrison yesterday about the "inadequacies" of the centre and moving high-risk detainees was a "good commonsense first step".
Last year the Vietnamese Community in Australia WA president Anh Nguyen wrote to the Commonwealth Ombudsman about the "A18 Vietnamese secret police force" being allowed into Yongah Hill, apparently to check the identity of detainees to be repatriated.
Instead, Dr Nguyen said, "the Vietnamese police actually interrogated them like criminals, verbally abused them".
Mr Pham said most of the Vietnamese detainees were young men from Catholic backgrounds who were being persecuted by Vietnamese authorities after the Government put restrictions on the Catholic Church in Vietnam.
He said the detainees would not try to escape if they were given support, information about their future and community contact.
United Voice WA assistant secretary Kelly Shay said the Yongah Hill centre was chronically understaffed, with only one or two guards monitoring 150 detainees in each compound.
But locals have found positives in having the centre in the town.
Northam Central Newsagency manager Cheryl Lawrence said there was no doubt the Yongah Hill centre had brought valuable employment opportunities to the Avon Valley town.
Frank Delanotte has redeveloped one of Northam's historic pubs into a hotel, rebranding it the Duke's Inn, with a sign reading "luxury accommodation".
He said the hotel would not be doing as well without the detention centre, with Federal Government employees making up a large portion of his guests.