Life in detention, for seven years
7 March 2005 - the story of Peter Qasim, Australia's longest-serving detained asylum seeker, continues to make headlines, especially after a visit to him by high-profile adventurer Dick Smith, speeches by Petro Georgiou MP, and a renewed focus on 'permanent' and long-term detention.
It is in our view absolutely essential that the story indeed remains on the front pages of the newspapers. Below is more material, starting with a feature from the Age's Andra Jackson.
28 February 2005: The forgetting of Peter Qasim: Greg Egan writes, Dick Smith speaks out - For many detainees in Baxter their life inside means hell for them, and they talk about 'week in, week out'. But for Peter Qasim life is a matter of 'year in, year out'. This page lists some recently published press articles about Peter, including the transcript of two radio interviews with Aussie Icon Dick Smith, who's taken up the banner for him.
9 September 2004: Australia's National Shame: Peter Qasim - Today will see a dismal anniversary marked across Australia, with the passing of six years in detention for a 30-year-old man from Indian Kashmir, Peter Qasim. Peter remains the longest detained asylum seeker in immigration detention, and following the recent Full High Court decision, there are no guarantees that he will not eventually die of old age in the future: he may remain in detention for the rest of his life.
Life in detention, for seven years
by ANDRA JACKSON
THERE is a world-weariness in Peter Qasim's voice as he takes another phone call. He is at the end of the line - and not just the portable phone he takes into the small room that has become his retreat from the world. This is where he now spends most of his days, lying on the bed "like a dead body", he says.
Eighteen months ago, Qasim gave up on his struggle to be accepted into Australia as an asylum seeker. After five years of being shuffled between five immigration detention centres, the Kashmiri-born Qasim called for deportation papers, which he signed. He thought he had found his way out of detention.
Today, he remains in South Australia's Baxter detention centre, a symbol for many of the plight of the country's uninvited asylum seekers. No other country, including his native India, will take him, and he now faces indefinite detention here.
Despite dedicated supporters who have campaigned for his release, as well as visits this week by entrepreneur Dick Smith and a group of backbench MPs, Qasim is on guard against false optimism. After almost seven years, he has the distinction of being Australia's longest-held detainee.
Last month, influential Government backbencher Petro Georgiou named Qasim when he spoke out in Federal Parliament against the mandatory detention policy. While there was disagreement over some of the details of Qasim's case, Georgiou said: "The bottom line is that you have a person who nobody argues is a threat to Australian society, who nobody argues that they don't know who he is, and he has been detained for 61/2 years."
None of this has helped Qasim. He talks now in a weary monotone, his sentences often trailing off. When he lost heart 18 months ago, he says, he resigned from his cooking job in the kitchen of the now-closed Woomera detention centre. "I was unable to concentrate because I had no hope of getting out," he says on the phone from his new security compound. "I couldn't cope. How long can you cope in here?" The man who taught himself fluent English has now lost his appetite and finds it hard to rouse interest in watching TV or listening to news. Like many detainees, he says, he stays up all night and manages about three hours sleep by day. "We are mentally sick," he says, "because we are here. We don't know for how long." His fear is that it "may be for life".
Qasim has already told his story many times - to immigration officials, lawyers and refugee advocates. While the Immigration Department accepted much of what he told them, his life was not deemed to be sufficiently endangered in Kashmir to make him a refugee. He finds it hard now to summon the stamina to recount his version of the saga again, politely suggesting that one of his supporters could tell it as well. Yet once he does start talking, he throws himself into it, seemingly unconcerned about the time it takes.
Born in disputed Kashmir, Qasim is from the village of Gopalla in the Rajouri district of the Himalayan region. An only child, he was orphaned early, he says, but struggles to remember at what age - around seven or eight, he thinks. His father was involved in business and was also active in the Kashmir KLF separatist movement. His father wasn't at home much. When his absence became prolonged, says Qasim, people in the village knew he had "disappeared". Some years later, his mother died.
When a friend of Qasim's father's whom he called "uncle" saw the boy alone, he came to collect him. Qasim was taken to the village of Ghambir where "uncle" lived with his wife and three children on his farm. "They were not kind because they were looking at me like a slave, looking after the house and the farm," says Qasim.
He says he was given a small room outside the house to sleep in. "If they were in a happy mood they gave me food, otherwise I must find food myself and cook."
The bright note in his life was a teacher who would travel now and then from a neighbouring village to give free lessons and free books to children missing out on school. Qasim studied with the teacher, Abdul Rasheed, for four or five years until he fled the village in 1992. It is one of his few happy memories.
Qasim's "uncle" had also been active in the KLF, and Qasim had been present when KLF meetings were held at the house. When "uncle" suddenly went into hiding one day, he sent his family away to a safe place, leaving 17-year-old Qasim behind.
Qasim was arrested by the border security forces and interrogated over four days. He says he was tortured, a claim that has not been disputed by Australian authorities.
"They beat me with the back of the guns and with the batons and with the belt, and I still have broken teeth. They broke my teeth with the back of the gun." On his release, he says, he was warned: "If you tell anybody, we will take you again and kill you." "I was so scared that I left that village very shortly afterwards," he says.
As he tells it, he began a life on the run and survived by his wits. His first stop was in Thanamandi, "far from my village but still in Rajouri". He sought sanctuary at a government school called the Ghulam Shah Academy, trading cleaning duties for shelter. The school provided something he valued - access to books. He finally fled into Pakistan, fearing capture by the Indian army.
By this time, says Qasim, he was working for a businessman in Manjakot, who traded in carpets and livestock. The man, Javed, regularly crossed the border into Pakistan and guided Qasim across one night by foot, illegally.
Here Javed "organised" an Indian passport - Qasim says he doesn't know how - using Qasim's savings. He then put him on a train to New Delhi, from where Qasim made his way, via Singapore and Papua New Guinea, by boat to the Torres Straits with three other asylum seekers. Customs officials intercepted his group and he was sent to Port Hedland. He was 23.
For almost seven years, he has only known the confines of detention centre walls. An Immigration spokesman this week claimed he had been "unhelpful" in supplying information to verify his story. But Qasim counters that it is unreasonable to expect someone who has been orphaned as a child and who fled a conflict zone to be able to produce identification papers. He points out that the two Kashmiris picked up with him as they tried to reach Australia did not have documents with them either. One of them, a teacher who worked for the Salvation Army in PNG, now has permanent residency. The other Kashmiri man has since been released, and the Bangladeshi asylum seeker has been returned home.
Qasim says he has passed on details of his former teacher and the businessman who helped his escape from Kashmir to Immigration. Consular officials were sent to Kashmir to verify his story. "But they never told me any outcome of this," he says.
One detail Qasim is sure about is being told his date of birth - May 5, 1974 - but he does not know if it was registered "because there was never any reason to ask". The town hall and most government buildings where such documents might have been held have been taken over by the Indian Army because of separatist militancy, he says. There is no photographic record of his early life. Qasim is adamant that he cannot recall ever having his photograph taken when he was growing up. He has never even seen a photograph of his parents, he says. "I've only seen them when I was small and I saw their faces and I remember how they look like but I don't have any photographs of them."
Without formal schooling, he went through his growing years in Kashmir without collecting certificates or any other documents that might mark his existence. "Most people there were mostly like me, they never needed documents because you only need something when you apply for a job with the government or somewhere. But I am like a labourer, I didn't need to have ID. And people know my language so they know who I am."
Qasim's days are spent languishing in his room in the Blue moderate-security compound, lying across the double bunk, staring at its fibro walls, "my mind just going round and round".
It is spartanly furnished with a cupboard and a small table. Occasionally he flips through a book.
Adventure stories and history stir him. He says cautiously that he hopes that this week's separate visits by "such high-profile figures" as Dick Smith and the parliamentary backbench team will improve his chances of finally closing the door on that room.
"I hope it will make a difference . . . these people are high-profile people. I requested them to get me out of here."
He says he gave Petro Georgiou copies of three language tests for his native Pahari and Kashmiri languages carried out by immigration officials at the end of 2003, which he passed.
In the meantime, he says, he doesn't care any more whether he is released into Australia or sent back to India.
"I am happy to go anywhere. I just can't cope with staying here any longer."
US expert pans criticism of detainee
Australia's longest-serving detainee, Peter Qasim, cannot tell authorities the surname of his guardian because the area where he grew up does not use them.
A US professor of anthropology says the Kashmiri district where Mr Qasim claims to be from addresses people by their given names or nicknames.
Mr Qasim, who has been detained for more than six years, failed in his asylum claims and cannot return home because the Indian Government will not accept him unless his identity is verified.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone on Sunday said Mr Qasim had not co-operated with authorities and would not give the surname of an unrelated guardian, whom he called "aunt".
But Mr Qasim's supporter, Greg Egan, says the Immigration Department has a letter from University of Illinois professor Sylvia Vatuk that says the area he comes from does not use surnames.
"Since people don't have anything like our 'surnames' that are passed down from father to child, nicknames are a way for people in a small community to distinguish between, for example, one 'Kazim' and another," Professor Vatuk wrote.
"It is therefore quite understandable that . . . Muhammad Qasim can't produce for the Australian authorities his foster father's 'surname'. He didn't have one."
Mr Qasim's case has been raised by a Government backbench committee, which met yesterday after members Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird and Phil Baressi visited the Baxter detention centre last week.
Mr Georgiou vowed to continue his push for a more compassionate policy on asylum seekers until the policies of indefinite and long-term detention are abandoned. He said his visit to the centre drove home the severity of a policy that has kept more than 110 asylum seekers in detention for periods of more than three years.
"You are talking about people who have escaped from something and who have been detained for very, very long periods of time," Mr Georgiou told The Age yesterday.
"A lot of them are young people and we are ripping their lives apart.
"To a significant extent, asylum seekers who arrive by boat have been characterised as being not good people. When you meet them, you realise that they are actually not bad people, that they are people who have suffered overseas and come to Australia in a disorderly fashion.
"They are real people with a lot of positive attitudes who can make a contribution to Australia."
Mr Georgiou said an enduring impression was of the isolation rooms, where inmates can be kept for 20 hours a day for protracted periods for breaking facility rules or being at risk of self-harm.
"Do we really want people who have fled to Australia, and we are in the process of determining their status, to be subjected to this sort of situation?" he asked.
Mr Georgiou said a number of those he interviewed were suffering very bad depression. He was also struck by the intensity of feeling of support groups, including nuns, priests and social workers at Port Augusta. "Their distress at what is happening is really palpable."