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Northam centre ready for clients
Bruce Needham, Regional Manager for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship at a volleyball court in one of the four accommodation blocks. Picture: Bill Hatto/The West Australian

It's eerily deserted at present but soon the controversial Northam detention centre will be home to its first "detainee clients".

On 10ha about 5km outside the town, 600 asylum seekers will enjoy two artificial turf soccer pitches, basketball courts, a library where they can read the Koran and the Bible, a computer room to surf the internet and a kitchen where they will be taught to cook the produce they'll be able to grow in the vegetable gardens.

The Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre, as the $125 million centre is officially called, would be unrecognisable to the post-World War II refugees who lived in basic huts on the same patch of Defence Department ground.

The sleeping units - for two and four men - boast bunk beds, a shower and toilet, and on a small desk, a clock, reading lamp and television. Free-to-air channels are available and so is the centre's own station, which can override all channels for announcements.

But while very civilised, with reverse-cycle air-conditioning and modern recreation facilities, there are also masses of bare concrete and unpainted metal.

And fencing. Yongah Hill's dominating feature is the preponderance of metal fence with very small links. At the entry gate, a 5m-high fence is topped with an electric fence.

Overseeing the 142 demountables (many from a Ravensthorpe construction camp) are 440 CCTV cameras which give the Serco contractors who run the camp an immediate handle on what's going on.

Yesterday media representatives were taken on a guided tour of the centre by Department of Immigration and Citizenship officials keen to promote a multifaceted message to the public, partly to assure nervous locals it was secure.

And to sceptics, that it was basic, not luxurious; and to address concerns that the mental welfare of the detainees was being addressed.

"It is about enforcing the administrative law, it is not about punishment," department spokesman Sandi Logan said.

"Our role is to keep the clients as safe and as healthy as possible . . . and to ensure that in the event they are granted a visa they are as well prepared to integrate into the community as quickly as possible."

Those who enrolled in cooking and English classes and the like would accrue points that could be cashed in for snacks such as Mars bars and potato chips and toiletries.

Mr Logan said the first asylum seekers would arrive "within days or weeks" but he would not be more specific for operational reasons.