Kate Gauthier: The Cruel Facts
The fact that we must face as people of conscience is that the time for talking is over. Now is the time for action. We must fight this government policy with every method at our disposal, which includes acts of civil disobedience.
Every one of us has a skill or a resource available to us for this fight. It is our duty to our fellow humans to find this skill, and more importantly, use it.
7 December 2002: The Mudgee Muster: Rural Australians for Refugees, its Mudgee National Get-Together - 'We might have had the idea, but unless you'd turned up in your numbers and proved to be the energetic, dedicated, passionate people you are, Rural Australians for Refugees would still be just an idea.' The Events' Program, Report, and Presentations of various speakers at this event.
7 December 2002: The Mudgee Muster photos: RAR Supporters and Friends in Mudgee - Some casual shots, by Grace Gorman, of the Mudgee RAR get together: From politicians to refugees, they were all there!
7 December 2002: Justice for Asylum Seekers Alliance: Reception and Transitional Processing System - Speaking at the Mudgee Rural Australians for Refugees Conference, Grant Mitchell presents an alternative approach to dealing with the processing of asylum seekers for Australia: The Reception and Transitional Processing System provides a realistic, detailed and soon to be costed reform of the immigration detention system which resolves many of the serious problems...
7 December 2002: Martin Ferguson MP outlines Labor's Asylum Seekers and Refugee Policy - Labor's new policy for asylum seekers and refugees is a better way of protecting Australia and a better way of meeting people's legitimate concerns about how this nation is treating individual asylum seekers. The policy addresses three important strategies - protection of Australia, a new processing system and treating asylum seekers decently.
7 December 2002: Australian refugee policy: past and present, warts and wounds - Margaret Piper, Refugee Council of Australia, speaks at the Mudgee National Rural Australians for Refugees Get-Together. "At first glance, refugee policy is much the same as Tehran traffic: complex, chaotic and behaving like an untethered hose. It is only when you understand the complex interplay of international and domestic factors that you can perceive that there are rules..."
The Cruel Facts
Kate Gauthier, ChilOut, Sydney NSW
In July of this year I travelled on the freedom bus Port Hedland and Curtin detention centres in Western Australia, where I heard stories that still make me cry at night. I am going to tell you the cruel facts about what really goes on, in a place where some detainees were too frightened of guards sitting near us, to complain about any treatment they receive.
The atmosphere of repression started long before we arrived at Curtin.
Getting permission to visit the camp was very difficult, despite the written DIMIA policy of "encouraging visiting". I jumped through many hoops for months to gain permission to visit.
Various people from various departments stalled me for answers for a few weeks then passed me on to another dept saying it was not their job.
Eventually I managed to get permission for four people to visit. We now have the dubious distinction of being in the group of less than 10 private citizens who have ever been inside Curtin.
On the morning of the visit our permission was revoked for the good order and security of the centre - because we had chosen to associate with the freedom bus activists, we were considered a security risk. So they denied us because we travelled in the same vehicle as people who had not actually yet been found guilty of any offence. Of course secretly I am offended they did not consider me a security risk in my own right.
Various support groups - especially RAR groups - started a fax campaign to the centre and central operations in canberra demanding we be allowed in the centre. In addition the people inside curtin also put pressure on ACM and DIMIA, and two days later we were allowed to visit.
When I combine these attempts to deter us from visiting with the other police harassment we received during our trip, I realised that somewhere along the line we had become the enemy. Our attempts to comfort distressed people were seen as a threat to national security, and had to be stamped out with a clear message sent by the powers that be.
That message took the form of police harassment throughout the trip. From perth to port hedland we were rarely without a police escort. In Geraldton we held a meeting in the local church, and the police turned up and ostentatiously wrote down the license plate numbers of all the people who came to listen to us.
When we arrived in Port Hedland we had an escort of six police vehicles. They blocked off the road to the detention centre and had 4-6 officers on duty at the roadblock at all times, with a mobile arrest van. They drove through the caravan park at night and shone torches in our tents to wake us up. When we got up in the morning we had a police van waiting for us. When we went to the beach for lunch, down to the public toilets or to the shops, we had a police escort. They must have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on operation caledonia as it was called. During the trip we managed to accrue contact with police motorcycles, paddywagons, marked and unmarked cars, mobile arrest vehicles as well as police horses and one helicopter. We joked that we should plan a freedom ferry to Christmas Island and then we collect a police boat to get the whole set.
When the four of us left the freedom bus to travel to Curtin, we also had a police escort for the 750 km journey. Which was just as well because the van broke down in the middle of the desert and the police had to rescue us. When we arrived at the front gate, bravo station, we also had four friendly federal police police were waiting for us in full jumpsuits, aviator glasses and make-my-day attitudes.
We were escorted to the ACM front gate where guards searched everything we brought in. They opened the packets of clothes and checked all the hems, they opened drink bottles and sniffed them. It took about 40 minutes for them to go through our things and let us in.
We were brought through a compound to a visitor's area, that consisted of a few chairs stuck under a tree between two dongas, the metal portable buildings they house detainees in. My first impression was that these buildings were placed anywhere, like they had been dropped from 1km up in the air. There were cement paths to walk on, but the ground between them was just red dirt, so eroded by wet seasons it would be difficult to walk on, let alone play on.
We waited for another 20 minutes before they brought anyone out to see us. After talking to the group for a while, we could see that the level of both desperation and resignation was greater here than in any other centre we had visited.
I met a man I have been writing to for a while. He immediately grabbed me and hugged me like a daughter. He held my hand for most of the visit.
He had been a firechief in Iran. One day his boss told him to disperse a crowd of protestors using the high pressure hoses. He refused and was thrown in jail. He escaped from Iran to Australia where he was detained in a place where they are quite willing to use high pressure hoses on protesting asylum seekers.
He told me that the policy is that when people arrive in detention at the remote camps they are kept in segregation which means being kept away from more experienced detained people, allowed out of their room for only a few hours per day, and with no access to any communication. No TV, newspapers or radio, and no phone calls or letters in or out.
Esi had begged to be allowed to write a letter to his family, or to call them on the phone to tell them he was alive. Guards said he was not allowed to do so until after his first interview with DIMIA. His segregation was for six months. They do this to keep people ignorant of the process, and increase their risk of failing to meet the guidelines, so we can deport them.
During his time in detention he went on a hunger strike for 32 days, one week was without water. In that time he went from 120kg to 80kg. He spent 10 days in hospital being fed nasally. Another man wasn't so lucky, and is now blind from his hunger strike protest.
Esi has since given up and returned to Iran. He said he would contact me when it was safe to do so, in about 2 or 3 years.
We met a woman who fled Iran because of an abusive husband. I did not ask for her story because her son was translating for her, and I did not want to make a child go through all the details again. She knew that if she left her abusive husband, she would face danger in Iran. So to leave him, she had to leave the country.
One of her boys is in a wheel chair, with cerebal palsy. I have since found out that this mother was waiting for a wheelchair for 12 months and while she waited she was given a $20 stroller to push her 16year old disabled child around in. In Curtin this child had not seen a specialist doctor, and had no special treatment like physical therapy. No-one gets special treatment in detention. Policy is executed with no exceptions. This family of a single mother with three sons, one of whom is disabled, should not be in detention. They should be given a bridging visa and released into our community.
We met a young family with two young children. The small boy has witnessed acts of self-harm in the camp, and now has a severe speech impediment from being traumatised.
Other examples of things that we were told about was that kids were promised they would go to school when they improved their English, only to be told later they were too old or too young. People told us that often the children of outspoken detainees were stopped from going to school in favour of the kids of those who toed the line.
Food is chicken, boiled rice and cabbage. Every day. No culturally appropriate food was offered in Curtin.
There are stories like this from all the camps.
People are often drugged when they are deported. One woman was eight months pregnant when she was drugged and dragged to the airport at 4am wearing a nightgown and no shoes. Her distraught husband was put into isolation while this occurred.
People are usually deported on a Sunday or public holiday in the dead of night so that advocates cannot use the courts to stop the deportation.
The saddest family we met was a father and mother and their two young-adult children. Everyone in this family seemed to be in a major depression. The parents were very articulate in their own language, and the son was translating for them. This family was so beaten down by their situation; they all seemed in a major depression. The father said to me that he no longer cared whether or not the government believed them, they just wanted the Australian people to believe them.
I realised that for many people, the trauma they have gone through that made them become refugees, is compounded by the fact that our system says they are lying about that trauma. Like survivors of childhood abuse, sometimes they know you can't make it better, but they just want the human respect of being believed and sympathised with.
I said to them I believe you, and the mother started crying. She said, you people must be angels. It made me cry, because I wanted to bring them a little comfort and hope, but not too much hope. What kind of a government policy is this, where we visitors are forced into a situation where we have to worry about giving too much hope where there is none.
I made the stupid mistake of trying to find something to say that would be positive and I said that when they move to Baxter things would be better. Better facilities, better treatment, more visits. The mother said to me "we do not want your golden cage."
And that is what this is all about. Even though the detention camps are horrible places, with inadequate school, health, food, facilities, although some guards are violent, although some people, even children, get put into isolation on cold nights with no clothes for punishment, it is not the actual conditions inside the fence that is the problem.
It is the bloody fence that's the problem.
It is keeping them locked up at all. We put them in these camps in the desert, and don't let them even put in an application for six months, then keep them waiting and waiting, refusing to let them know how their case is going. We keep them on tenterhooks about their future, and threaten them with deportation if they query their rights.
We can appal you with stories of abuse and violence, but the most cruel aspect to the detention centres is the slow death by bureaucracy. Its harder to see, and harder to make a shocking story out of, but it is by far the most damaging aspect of detention.
I have spent many hours trying to understand why the Howard government is doing this. The only answer I have come up with is too horrible to contemplate. That the cruel fact is that there are people in this world, who would trample on basic human rights in order to further their political careers. That there is a government department who have a go-slow policy in order to grind peoples' will to fight for freedom into the dust. That there are guards who would take pleasure in humiliating and beating the most vulnerable members of our global community.
That there is a company who makes profit from human misery and by breaking international law.
For the fact is, political and financial profit is the reason why asylum seekers are locked away.
But the fact that WE must face as people of conscience is that the time for talking is over. Now is the time for action. We must fight this government policy with every method at our disposal, which includes acts of civil disobedience. Every one of us has a skill or a resource available to us for this fight. It is our duty to our fellow humans to find this skill, and more importantly, use it.
And one of the most important things our groups must work better on, is more communication between those locked inside, and those who are out within the community, but might not yet feel part of it. More consultation with asylum seekers about this movement, as they often know best what the repercussions our outsiders actions will be on their lives, and have to right to decide what actions should be taken.
We must remember that we do not fight for detained asylum seekers, we fight with them.