Fatima Erfani: why did she die?
This is a page dedicated to Fatima Erfani, a 28-year old mother of three, who died as a result of what we see as medical neglect, compounded by extreme stress, and isolation on Christmas Island as a result of the abhorrent Australian asylum seeker policies.
The page is a collection of writings, most of them unpublished, by people who have been touched by the events surrounding Fatima's death. It starts with our Media release, which revealed more facts that the Minister of Immigration liked us to know or become aware of. We owe thanks to the person(s) who shared that information with us for our media release.
Photo below: The only known photo of Fatima Erfani
Murder by Negligence: Australian Government Responsible
Fatima came to Australia from Afghanistan on a boat [named SIEV-6 by the Australian people-smuggler deterrence troups, Operation Relex - see photo] from Indonesia in October 2001, during the federal election campaign and post Tampa and the September 11 terrorist attacks. By the time they arrived at Christmas Island, the Liberal Government had excised Christmas Island from Australia for the purposes of the Migration Act. This meant that Fatima and her family had little or no opportunity for making a new life in Australia. She travelled with her husband, Ali Reza and her three children aged 7, 6 and 3. The family are Hazara and had been persecuted by the Taliban.
During 2002, possibly in June, Fatima was diagnosed with and treated for high blood pressure. According to her husband, her blood pressure worsened during the year especially after the detention centre fire in November, and after their claims for asylum had been rejected making the reality of a return to war-torn Afghanistan inevitable.
On Saturday 11 January 2003, Fatima awoke during the night with severe headaches. She took panadol. She had headaches during Sunday and Monday and generally felt unwell. Her blood pressure was taken sometime during this time and the reading was 220 over 120. On Tuesday 14 January 2003, Fatima went to see a Doctor at the Christmas Island hospital to see about her headaches and blood pressure. She was given medication to treat her headaches and reassured that she was OK. On Wednesday 15 January, Fatima was very unwell all morning. She had difficulty getting out of bed and staying awake, and was unable to walk very small distances. At 11.30am she collapsed and was unconscious. She was taken to Christmas Island hospital.
It took until 11pm to get a plane to Christmas Island for Fatima to be evacuated to Perth. At 3.30am on 16 January Fatima arrived at SCGH. A brain scan was conducted immediately and the Doctor told Ali Reza that unless surgery occurred, Fatima would die within 24 hours. Ali Reza consented to surgery. At 8.30am he was told that Fatima's brain was too damaged and the bleeding in her brain was too extensive, and that she had very little time to live.
During Thursday Fatima was unconscious in the intensive care unit at SCGH with Ali Reza by her side. In the early afternoon I tried to see Ali Reza to offer some support and also to say goodbye to Fatima whom I had known for nearly 12 months. I was stopped at the doors of ICU by and ACM guard and told to phone a DIMIA official in Canberra to seek permission. I spent the next 10 minutes trying to find a public phone to make the call to Canberra, becoming more distressed and frustrated each minute. I explained that I did not want to intrude and that I would only stay for 5 minutes. My main aim was to let Ali know I was there and that he could telephone me if he wanted to. The DIMIA official was unequivocal in her refusal of allowing me to visit and assured me that Ali was getting all the support he needed. I stressed that I was the only person in Perth he knew, that I had known him, Fatima and their children for nearly a year, and that under the circumstances he may appreciate seeing my face. The DIMIA position had been set in concrete and it was clear I was not able to visit Ali and Fatima. I stumbled out of the hospital crying with rage and frustration and not being able to comprehend the indignity and inhumanity of our government's position.
On Friday 17 January, Ali Reza was told that Fatima's brain was dead and ask whether he consented to the life support system being turned off. He said he would wait until her heart had stopped beating. Fatima's heart stopped beating on Sunday 19 January.
Ali Reza and Fatima's children were sent to Perth from Christmas Island on Friday 17 January, pressumably to say goodbye to their mother. They were accomodated in a hotel with an ACM guard while their mother was dying in hospital. After Fatima died, Ali was told that he and the children were to return to Christmas Island the next day.
I have been speaking with Ali Reza every night by telephone. He told me that on the Friday he was by Fatima's ICU bed, he was told by the ACM guard that I was there outside ICU, but that he was forbidden to go outside to speak to me. He said he wanted me to be with him and Fatima, and when they forbade him to see me, his heart became so swollen he felt it would burst through his mouth. He still doesn't know what has happened to Fatima's body.
ALP's Carmen Lawrence on Fatima
Address at the ACT Labor Club
... where is Christmas Island? It's a very long way from the mainland. Are the media going to be there, watching what's happening on Christmas Island? Will they report when things go wrong, things like the fires that destroyed much of the existing facilities; events like the death a couple of weeks ago of a young Afghani mother of three, Fatima Erfani, had a brain haemorrhage and died after being transferred to a hospital in Perth.
Let me tell you a little of her story, one the government did not make public until the story was leaked by friends of Fatima and Ali Reza. The family were sent to Christmas Island, post Tampa.
Fatima had been treated for high blood pressure for about seven months before her death on Sunday 18 January. The week before her death she suffered terrible headaches and was given Panadol after seeing a nurse in the detention centre who took her blood pressure and recorded a level of 220/120, which is very high. A consistent blood pressure reading of 140/90 mm Hg or higher is considered high blood pressure, which increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. Careful monitoring and management are always recommended. At this time she was also under added stress because she and her husband were being pressured to sign documents agreeing to return to Afghanistan. They eventually did sign them, because they were very worried that they would be sent to Nauru, about which they had heard very bad reports.
When the headaches persisted, Fatima was taken to see a doctor in the hospital who gave her stronger pain medication for her headaches only. Ali Reza, who acted as interpreter (there are none on the Island), said he couldn't make the doctor understand that she was really unwell. Fatima was sent back to the detention centre and the next morning could barely wake and was very groggy. At 11.30 am, she collapsed into unconsciousness and was taken to the hospital. Twelve hours later she was placed on a flight to Perth and was operated on at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital at 3.30 am after a brain scan revealed severe haemorrhaging.
After such a delay, the operation was not successful and she remained unconscious until her death. While her husband and children had been brought to Perth, they were sent back to Christmas Island the next morning.
After hearing this story, I wrote letter to Ruddock demanding an inquiry and urging that the records be secured, because records have gone missing in other coronial inquires. I have also asked the Minister's office a series of questions about what has happened to Fatima's body. When I last inquired, her husband is still unaware of where his wife's body is and what the Department plans to do.
From an address at the ACT Labor Club, February 20 2003. Posted at our website here.
Family pays price of our compassion
The West Australian
BY THE definition of Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock and his bureaucrats, Ali and Fatima Reza and their three small children were queue jumpers.
They came to Australia uninvited and dared to hope that they would be able to make a new life for themselves here away from the fear that had become their daily experience in Afghanistan.
The terrible thing that has since happened to the young family will probably help to discourage others from following in their footsteps. But it should also awaken Australians to the human costs of our policies on asylum seekers.
Ali, Fatima and the three children, Zainab, now three, her sister Zahara, 6, and brother Haider Ali, 7, left their home in an Afghani village in the middle of 2001. As members of the Hazari minority denounced as heretics by the Taliban because they were Shi'ite rather than Sunni Muslims, they had experienced frequent violent harassment.
Some members of their extended family were killed, or just disappeared.
The prospects of ever being able to migrate legitimately were non-existent. But they were desperate, and they judged that their grim circumstances would qualify them as refugees.
So, with the help of others in their village the Rezas scraped together about $24,000 and followed a well-trodden path across the border into Pakistan, where they were found, as they were told they would be, by people smugglers.
In return for their money they were flown to Malaysia, where they were able to enter without visas, and were escorted to Indonesia to await a boat that would take them to Australia.
By the time their boat was intercepted and boarded by the Royal Australian Navy, we had already been through the Tampa saga, and Christmas Island, where they were taken, had been excluded from Australia for asylum purposes.
Deprived of the opportunity to apply for a temporary protection visa, the Rezas took the only step available to them. They applied for political asylum and waited in detention on Christmas Island for their future to be decided.
Their application failed, as did their only avenue of appeal to the immigration authorities. The ambiguous status of Christmas Island meant that they did not have access to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.
The Rezas considered accepting the Federal Government's offer of $2000 per family member as an incentive to return to Afghanistan. But they had no home, family or other support to return to.
To complicate things further, they feared that if they refused the cash offer they would be transferred to Nauru, where life was even bleaker. Raising three small children is demanding enough at the best of times. When you are living in a detention centre and your future is uncertain it must be hell. The strain began to tell on 29-year-old Fatima, and although she had not previously had any health problems, her blood pressure shot up to an extreme 220/120.
She was treated on the island for her hypertension and severe headaches, but collapsed and went into a coma and had to be flown to a hospital in Perth. Ali, 29, came with her, but had to leave the children on the island.
In Perth, Fatima had surgery to relieve a brain haemorrhage, but she died on January 19.
The following day Mr Reza was told that he had to go back to Christmas Island. We can only imagine the distress he and his children are going through.
Unfortunately their unhappiness has been made worse by the fact that Fatima's body is still lying in the hospital morgue 10 days after she died. It is important to Muslims that bodies should be buried within 24 hours of death.
People who know them describe the Rezas as an intelligent family with high standards who would have made good migrants. Their biggest mistake was that they sought compassion in the wrong country at the wrong time.
A dedication to Fatima Erfani, who died in Perth's Sir Charles Gardner hospital on Sunday 19 January 2003.
by Richard Wood
"We're going to Christmas". With that proclamation my wife accepted a job on Christmas Island and I finished my thirty-five years in Victorian schools. "Stay in your job and it will kill you." - "You care too much", she added for good measure.
Interested friends and acquaintances would ask what would I find to do there. "Isn't it every man's dream to be kept by a woman on a tropical island?" was my glib answer. I'd add "beautiful woman", if my wife was in earshot.
So began our two years on Christmas, an idyllic island, 350 kilometres from the Javanese coast.
The arrival of the Tampa and the subsequent construction of a detention centre on the Island to house asylum seekers shattered my reverie as a kept bloke.
My offer of volunteer work teaching the detainees led to full time employment at the centre. Friends opposed to detention centres were a little dubious about my new teaching duties. I rationalised my role by claiming the moral high ground as a teacher providing a service and some pleasure under difficult circumstances. "Just like a prostitute really", as one friend said over drinks, "only the pay's a little less".
On my first day of teaching I stood outside the main gate of the detention centre. They are forbidding places. Forlorn and abrasive, full of galvanised steel and mesh. The razor wire demands your attention.
Inside where the detainees live was a different story. There was warmth and good humour from the mainly Sri Lankan men and the small contingent of Afghani and Iraqi families.
I enjoyed teaching these people: they were my students. The motivation and pleasure in their learning of English rekindled my love of teaching.
Both they and I, always looked forward to the next session. There were gales of laughter during role-plays. Their favourite English conversation activity was played out between the 'immigration manager' and the 'visa applicant'.
The 'immigration manager' would always end this drama with a warm approval of the visa application followed by a round of gleeful applause from the audience.
I taught the Iraqi and Afghan women each morning. We would do this in their dormitory away from the gaze of the other detainees and ACM staff. Some of the ladies spoke Arabic whilst others spoke Farsi, so their halting English was their means of conversing with one another.
Some shared the lesson with their babies, fussing over them as they pursued their studies with pride. The proudest moment for me came when a young Afghani mother, married at 14 and celebrating her 21st birthday in detention, moved from not being able to recognise a letter of the English alphabet, to writing and reading English.
Her enthusiasm for learning humbled my teaching skills. Her pride in her achievement will stay with me forever.
Within this group of four young ladies a strong bond of respect and friendship became evident. It was clear that they came from vastly different backgrounds. In using pictures of household appliances for word recognition and conversation starters the Iraqi ladies shone. The Afghani ladies looked bewildered.
It is hard to teach about the kitchen when you still have to walk to the communal well for water. The concepts were just not there.
When we talked about family wants and needs though we were on the same ground. Not surprisingly in this world of fragmentation and division through religion, race and politics we all want the same things for our family and friends. Just as the concept of a washing machine was unfamiliar to the Afghani families, the concept of peace for Australians is equally unfamiliar.
It is unfamiliar because we take it for granted. Peace for these young mothers was much more immediate. When the Australian government offered the Afghani families $10,000 to return to a 'peaceful' Afghanistan the young mothers comment to me was "I don't want to take my babies back because for 21 years, sometimes peace, sometimes war".
Often, to encourage their English conversation, I would play the part of an official gaining details from them. The ladies love this, as they became very used to the questions and confident in their answers.
Fatima, one of the Afghani mothers, would smile widely when I asked her where she wanted to go. "Please give me a visa, I want to go to Australia today". "Is that all?" I would reply. "No, I want my family to be happy and healthy as well".
With the end of the conversation there would be self-congratulatory smiles all round.
This week Fatima died in detention. She finally got her wish to remain in Australia. I see her smiling face before me and her words "You are a good teacher", strike at my heart.
I only hope that Fatima gets the chance to have the rest of her wish fulfilled; that her husband and her three little children continue to be healthy and ultimately happy in a country that will accept them as refugees.
Lawrence highlights widowed asylum seeker's case
Radio National PM
MARK COLVIN: The Labor backbencher, Carmen Lawrence, renewed her attack on the treatment of asylum seekers today. She raised the case of a bereaved Afghan family which agreed to the Government's request that they return home. The family has had a torrid time of it since making its journey to Australia. The father and his three young children were denied refugee status in Australia, and a month ago, the mother died in a Perth hospital. This week, the surviving family was to have been voluntarily returned to Afghanistan, along with the body of the 28-year old woman. But things have got worse along the way, as Louise Yaxley reports.
LOUISE YAXLEY: Ali Reza Efrani, his wife and three young children arrived in Australia in 2001 on a boat, and were detained at the Christmas Island detention centre. After more than a year in detention Mr Efrani's wife, 28-year old Fatima, died in a Perth hospital in January after apparently suffering extremely high blood pressure. Last Saturday, just on a month after her death, Ali Reza Efrani and the children aged three, six and seven, left Christmas Island after agreeing to go home to Afghanistan. They got as far as Dubai, but could not get any further because of heavy snow closing Kabul Airport. Mr Reza and his three children and the casket containing Fatima's [remains] were stranded at the terminal. His lawyer, Christmas Island resident Judith Quinlivan, says he was desperate, and telephoned her for help.
JUDITH QUINLIVAN: He could see from where he was that her body was in its coffin, I think, lying on the tarmac. He kept repeating to me, "Fatima is in the sun, she's in the sun, and I don't know what to do." And he rang me from Dubai to see if I could help, this kind of awful situation with he and his children feeling very stranded and alone, and complicated by the fact that his wife's body was out of refrigeration and just abandoned seemingly on the tarmac.
LOUISE YAXLEY: Frauke Schaefer from the International Organisation for Migration office in Canberra, denies that Mrs Efrani's body was left without refrigeration, she says the family wasn't left without support long, and blames Dubai Airport staff for telling an IOM official that the plane had already left for Afghanistan, when it hadn't.
FRAUKE SCHAEFER: The group was supposed to board the flight and did board the flight around noon, and the IOM staff was assured by the Airport staff that the flight had departed, and then she left the airport as her duty was over, and later on, a short time after that, she was informed that the flight actually did not depart, and she returned immediately to the airport to look after the passengers.
LOUISE YAXLEY: And when will the family reach Afghanistan?
FRAUKE SCHAEFER: The flight is now rescheduled again for today to depart at 10pm Dubai time, that means, yeah, in the evening of this Tuesday, Canberra time.
LOUISE YAXLEY: Labor's Carmen Lawrence says the whole incident is a sign the system is heartless. She's angry that even a family which agreed to go home was treated this way so soon after the mother's death and without Mr Reza being given the chance to give evidence into the coronial hearing into his wife's death.
CARMEN LAWRENCE: Yes, I mean it shows a very cruel and insensitive treatment of Ali Reza and his children after the death of Fatima, sending them back so soon after the death and obviously then apparently leaving them stranded with no back-up, speaks very poorly of the Minister and the Department's interest in people leaving Australia.
LOUISE YAXLEY: You believe that they should have been given more time to cope after the death of their mother?
CARMEN LAWRENCE: It would have been far more sensitive to do so, to make sure they had some opportunity to grieve. But more importantly in the long-term, not just for the family but also for our confidence in the system, they should have been, they should have remained here until the coronial inquiry was completed.
MARK COLVIN: Labor backbencher, Carmen Lawrence, ending Louise Yaxley's report.
Out of sight, out of mind
I am beside myself with rage and distress. Please use/distribute this story where you can.
On Saturday afternoon a young man boarded a plane on Christmas Island. He was farewelled by Muslim, Christian and secular well-wishers - the first time in his fifteen-month detention that 'ordinary' community members have been able to speak with him.
He was accompanied by his three small children who, like him, are now good English speakers and have integrated well into the local school. His wife would have been with them, but she died in Australia a month ago, in a hospital where no friends were allowed to visit and support him during his vigil at her bedside. Any inquest proceedings into her death will be somewhat hampered because his village - if it still exists - has no street names, house numbers, telephones, post office.
In the two days following his departure he will have travelled via Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai to Kabul. There, if transport is available, he will have taken a 15-hour road trip to his village. If it is still there, his family may or may not be; he doesn't know because of course he's been unable to contact them (see above). He fears to stay in Afghanistan and plans to leave again soon via Pakistan and Iran. Perhaps those two well-known bastions of human rights will be easier on him than Australia has been.
But hey, out of sight, out of mind. Hope you're feeling proud of yourselves, Mr Howard and Mr Ruddock.
No Room at the Inn
by Pamela Curr
An update on the deportation of Fatima's family
We must never underestimate this governments capacity for cruelty, nor the media's capacity to be silent.
Fatima's husband, a young widower with 3 children aged 2, 4 and 7 years set off on Saturday afternoon on a sad and lonely journey from Christmas Island back to Afghanistan. In Dubai he met up with the body of his wife who had died in Perth. There the family has been stranded since Sunday. The father and his children in the transit lounge and his wife's body in a coffin on the tarmac. The family is understandably deeply distressed. In the past few hours IOM have transferred the family to a hotel to rest and Fatima's body was removed from the tarmac. They are waiting for the flight to resume to a snow-bound Afghanistan where they face a 15 hour journey by road to their village if it is still standing.
As of this morning we dont know if they are still waiting.
Before Christmas last year when the children still had a mother and their father a wife, this family was told they had two choices-one to be transported to Nauru with apromise that they would never get to Australia and the second to agree to return to Afghanistan from which they had fled. Fatima said -"better to die in Afghanistan than in a strange place."
A few months later this 27year old woman was dead leaving a husband and three little children. The Coronial inquiry into her death will take maybe a year or two to occur. By then her children could be dead also of hunger and cold in a war torn , drought-stricken Afghanistan- her husband could be shot, tortured or disappeared for being an Hazara-a member of a minority group in warlord dominated territory.
Well done Australia. There is no room at our Inn!!!!!
Fatima - A Minister's Shame
Canberra Times Your Say
Dear Minister, It distressed me to learn of Australia's 9th refugee Death in Custody, these visitors to Australia were supposedly under the protection of yourself and the Department of Immigration Officers.
It will be found that Fatima died in Perth as a direct consequence of your heartless policies Minister.
Fatima was loved by her husband Ali and her 3 children aged 2,4 and 7.
You said Fatima would accompany her husband Ali and her 3 children, out of the Christmas Island Detention Centre.
But now we learn Mr Ruddock, that Fatima finally caught up with her family in Dubai.
You lied Mr Ruddock, why did you hide Fatima?
What are you trying to hide Mr Ruddock?
Why Minister do you have so little respect for family life that you permitted her family to leave Australia for their sad and lonely journey from Christmas Island back to Afghanistan without their loved mother and wife.
It is to your eternal shame that the religious beliefs of these visitors to Australia are disrespected.
I ask that you tender your resignation as Minister for Immigration and Cultural Affairs, as you are unsuited for the position because of your lack of sensitivity or understanding of other cultures.
You are driven purely by a hard heart.
I will remind you Minister that Fatima who was only 27 said in replying to your offer to send her to Nauru, an island with an absolute minimum of services. - "it is better to die in Afghanistan than in a strange place."
Minister you must be aware that Ali and the children face a difficult trek back to Afghanistan in icy weather. Very likely the children will not survive the winter.
While Ali could be shot, tortured or disappeared for being an Hazara - a member of a minority group in warlord dominated territory.
All this sure to happen before the Coronial Inquiry into Fatima's Death.
With no surviving members of her immediate family the outcome of the Coronial Inquiry may well be lost in the legal system, I am sure this will give you some comfort knowing there will be less personal embarrassment.
The only comfort I get will be the knowledge that you will no longer be a Minister of The Crown when the Coroner brings down his report, and that the Government you represent will have been removed by the Australian People.
The people of Australia will not let Fatima die in vain - you will be haunted by her memory.
I urge readers that share my concern to email the minister at philip.ruddock.MP@aph.gov.au
An Open Letter to Philip Ruddock
Canberra Times Your Say
I am writing to voice my sadness and disgust at the treatment of Fatima Erfani, her husband Ali and their three children. Fatima died in custody after being held with her family on Christmas Island. I understand she was only 28. Ali and the 3 young children left Australia without knowing where Fatima's body was. I now understand her body has caught up with the family on their sad journey back to Afghanistan. I beg you for one moment to imagine yourself now in Ali's shoes. When I try it is just too hard and sad. I pray Ali has the strength to endure what I don't imagine I can.
Ali and his children will not be in Australia for the Inquiry into the death of Fatima. The family are Hazara. I don't know Ali and the children will survive upon their return to Afghanistan. They may never know the result of the Coronial Inquiry. I won't forget and will spread the tragic story of Fatima and her family. I will follow the Inquest and wait for the Coroners report. I don't know what you will be doing, Mr Ruddock. I don't know you've given Fatima and her family a second thought. I don't feel safer as a result of your treatment of this family. I feel heartbroken and sickened.
Ruddock as caring guardian
Canberra Times Your Say
Re: Open Letter to Ruddock (Kate Wildermuth, 21/02/2003)
Come on, Kate Wildermuth, don't complain about our excellent and ohhh so effective "deter and deny" refugee policies - Australia's Very Own Version of the UN Refugee Convention.
The Honorable Minister Ruddock is the Official Guardian of asylum seekers in detention, and he spoke caringly - as caringly as Hannibal Lector would have done if these Australian events would have been a scene from "Silence of the Lambs" - about Fatima Erfani, when he announced on radio that "the corpse will be deported with the family to Afghanistan".
He also told Australia on air that his very own Mother died just like Fatima.
I didn't quite get that from Minister Ruddock at the time. I think he must have meant that Mother Ruddock was in some kind of isolated maximum security lock-up on an island like the one Napolean Bonaparte was banned to - without access to the normal things in life for 18 months.
Mother Ruddock must also have been floating in a rickety boat for 11 days in the blazing tropical sun under the control of a NAVY flotilla, like SIEV-6, the boat Fatima came with on her journey to Australia; Mother Ruddock also must have had high blood pressure for six months prior to her death, in this period receiving the most shocking news one can get - which meant that almost her entire existence as a Mother came to a stagnating halt: the country she had travelled to from the other side of the world deemed her an undesirable alien, while as a totally dedicated and devoted Mother she had planned to give the absolute best to her three children.
Finally, Mother Ruddock also must have had an assessed extreme blood pressure of 220 over 120 more than a week before being flown to a hospital - only after having become unconscious more than fifteen hours before being under the care of a surgeon in a hospital.
Don't be so critial, Kate Wildermuth. The Minister takes good care. It's a difficult job, being a Minister of Immigration in Australia. It can take up to five years to deport those "undesirable aliens" - only in this case, Fatima's husband and three children were successfully deported within four weeks of Fatima's death. Sometimes the Minister works wonders, especially when those nasty human rights lawyers in Australia promise to make his fine work so extremely difficult - and maybe even may become successful in pointing their fingers at him as carrying some kind of responsibility for the 'unfortunate' consequences of doing his job so well. Don't complain. It was only the ninth person who died in an Australian detention centre in two year period.
Ali Reza Irfany replies
Hello, how are you? We are all well and I thank you very much for your kind words, thoughts and prayers that you sent me and my family.
My children and I leave tomorrow as we are going back to Afghanistan. We don't know what to expect and it will be difficult without my wife.
We were unable to stay in this situation indefinitely as I need to get on with our lives.
I have received many cards and good wishes from a lot of people. It is impossible to write to them all so I would appreciate it if you could thank everyone for me. I can't say how much it means to me to receive these kind words from you all.
The children don't really understand what is happening. We will do our best to continue on with our lives.
There are some very kind people in Australia I will always remember.
Thank you and goodbye.
Ali Reza Irfany