Sara Strong: A personal reflection on refugees
... and asylum seekers in Australia
Image: Thanks to Alan Moir and the Sydney Morning Herald
The biggest, number one difficulty and trauma for the detainees is that they have no freedom. The people I saw had been in Baxter for more than three years. They don't know how long they will be there; and they are spending years of their lives locked up and not knowing what will happen to them.
They are under constant surveillance by camera, and their living compound is surrounded by a windowless corrugated iron fence, so that all they can see is the sky and the grass. Freedom is the one thing they absolutely long for, and being kept locked up is their biggest torture. One man wrote: "Torture from the constant itch of freedom makes the hours tick slower and slower."
A personal reflection on refugees and asylum seekers in Australia
by Sara Strong
Thanks for asking me [to talk to you]. I am very happy to reflect on some aspects of the present situation in Australia with regard to refugees and asylum seekers.
For the past 15 months I have been exchanging letters with refugees in detention at the Baxter Detention Centre, and in March this year, I went there, to Baxter, to visit. I met the people I had been writing to, and made several more friends, to whom I now write and who write back or phone me, or send me greetings through their friends. I have become extremely concerned and upset by their situation, so much so, that it sometimes takes even me (!) a while to get to sleep thinking about what they are experiencing.
I would like to have an exchange of information, a discussion, rather than a long talk from me. Feel free to stop me and ask questions, and please raise questions at the end as well so that we can discuss issues together.
I am planning to speak about three aspects. I've called these:
1) Getting the Picture
This is where I want to call on you to use all the imagination you have, and try to put yourself in the place of some of the people who come to Australia seeking refuge.
Reasons for coming to Australia
Can you think of a time when you've been really afraid? I'm thinking not so much of "Will the dentist hurt?" or "Will the doctor have bad news?" as perhaps being alone in the house at night and thinking you may be hearing sounds of someone trying to break in. Or walking to your car alone at night and wondering whether that rather rough-looking man ahead of you who keeps looking back at you is going to try and snatch your bag. Anyway, just try and imagine being really afraid.
The people who come to Australia, risking their life in a leaky boat, often without food or adequate water, don't come because they like our climate and our scenery. They sell their businesses and their property, and sink their life savings and all their future prospects into escaping, and they don't have time to join a queue or put their name on a list - they just need to get away fast. I'm sure we all well know that conditions in many other countries are very different from ours in Australia, and that people who protest against something they think unjust, or people who just have a different religion or a different ethnic origin, can and often are made targets of the authorities in their countries. This means the knock at the door in the middle of the night - just try to imagine this happening to your son or grandson or nephew - arrest, torture, disappearance, execution, or at the very least, the constant fear of these things happening.
Here is what happened to two of the friends I write to. These friends are both from Iran, and while I met people from other countries in Baxter - Vietnam and other countries - most of my contact and concern has been with Iranians. Iran is an extremely repressive country, often named by Amnesty International and other international human rights organisations for having no independent system of justice, and continued use of cruel punishment such as amputations, discrimination on religious grounds, and an on-going campaign against journalists and others who seek to exercise freedom of opinion and expression.
Here are two stories I have been told. The first man was approached and asked to join a government-approved organisation involved in repression and punishment of people who speak out for what they believe to be right. He refused, saying he did not approve of what they did. He was told: "You'll regret this for the rest of your life."
His business was taken from him and sold, his wife was taken from him, and he was named as someone who had "spoken against our government". He came to Australia, where he spent almost three years in detention, first in Woomera, then in Baxter. I'm happy to say he has now been released on a Temporary Protection Visa or TPV - more about TPVs later.
The second man was walking in the street with his wife, and some of the hair above her forehead was not completely covered by the veil she wore and was showing. The security police sprang out and began roughing her up. Pretty soon my friend could stand this no longer and retaliated in defence of his wife. He was taken in and severely beaten and kicked, his name and details extracted, and was told: "We have a file on you." He is still in Baxter, having been in detention for more than 3 years, and his wife is in [an Iranian] prison because she gave a birthday party for her daughter on her 18th birthday.
So there are many reasons why people come here seeking safety, but it has nothing to do with "queue-jumping" or a wish to make more money.
The next part of the picture is what happens after they leave their country. I will only sketch this, and ask you to try to imagine it - first of all, a lengthy journey by land and air through foreign places, entirely dependent on people who are only interested in the money they are paid, and THEN, the terrifying journey in a small, old, leaky wooden boat, crowded with two or three times the proper number of people, men, women and children crowded together, huge waves, sometimes storms. Everyone is frightened and suffering - short of water, with very little food, many are seasick, many are terrified, crying and praying. The voyage takes a week, 10 days, 12 days, in darkness and fear, no comforts, no proper toilets, nowhere to sleep or escape the elements, and when the engine stops, as it does from time to time, there is terror. Nights are freezing cold and days unbearably hot. It's hard for us to imagine.
And then - finally, great joy, arrival in Australia! They've survived the journey - many haven't. One man wrote in a letter: "We saw death with our eyes. And I still have nightmares about it." Another wrote: "When I reached Australia I was very sick and tired, but very happy. I didn't know, it was a new start in my trouble." So, happy to have reached dry land, BUT - then comes detention and a whole new set of troubles.
Life in detention
I'll tell you a little about my visit to Baxter. It's a huge place outside Port Augusta, well out of the town, surrounded by nothing - nothing scenic, that is. It's completely surrounded by flat, treeless earth. Around the whole detention centre are an inner chainmesh fence and an outer weldmesh fence with a sterile zone in between. The fences are electrified and fitted with cameras and microwave movement detection systems. To get in, you apply 5 days previously, stating your full details and reasons for wanting to visit.
When you arrive, you empty your pockets and leave all your belongings in a locker. You are not allowed to take anything in, not even photographs. You are fitted with a wrist band which can't be removed, you show your passport or driving licence, complete a written form, receive an invisible ink stamp that is checked again when you leave as it glows under a special light. You go through six electronically controlled doors, and through an X-ray bar as at the airport, and then you are checked with a hand-held metal detector. It takes about half an hour in all to get in. When you get to the visitor centre, the detainees are brought in a van; they are not allowed to walk the two minutes from their compound. The visitors centre is separated from the guards' office by a plateglass panel through which the guards keep continual watch. If they can't see clearly, an officer comes inside and sits in the visitor centre watching.
According to the detainees, some of the guards are friendly and pleasant and fair in their dealings; others never miss an opportunity to degrade and taunt the detainees.
What is life like inside Baxter? I can only tell you what I have learned from letters.
The biggest, number one difficulty and trauma for the detainees is that they have no freedom. The people I saw had been in Baxter for more than three years. They don't know how long they will be there; and they are spending years of their lives locked up and not knowing what will happen to them. They are under constant surveillance by camera, and their living compound is surrounded by a windowless corrugated iron fence, so that all they can see is the sky and the grass. Freedom is the one thing they absolutely long for, and being kept locked up is their biggest torture. One man wrote: "Torture from the constant itch of freedom makes the hours tick slower and slower."
Depression and mental illness
Secondly, there is a pervasive atmosphere of depression. It's not hard to understand why. They have no idea how long they will be in detention, or what will happen to them, and there's enormous anxiety. Remember too that they have nightmare memories which haunt them constantly - traumatic events in their own country, often including close relatives being arrested, tortured and killed; the terror of the journey, the living in detention which includes many people trying to commit suicide or engaging in self-harm.
They feel degraded by being constantly supervised and mustered, known by a number, receiving clothing which they did not choose, having to use second-hand bedding and plastic eating implements, and especially by being locked up as if they were criminals. Almost all the detainees suffer from bad headaches, depression and sleeplessness.
Many have nightmares and cry out in their sleep, and many are too frightened to go to sleep; they stay up all night and try to sleep during the day. There are metal lockers constantly clanging, two-way radios carried by the guards, doors banging, and toilets in constant use throughout the night. So that if they do try to sleep at night it's almost impossible. The refugees who get out of detention take years to recover from the mental state of depression and anxiety they suffer. Almost all of them receive tranquilisers, and it's a very difficult and long-term process cutting down and eventually giving up tranquilisers.
To add to the feeling of hopelessness, the despair, the depression, the worry and anxiety about their fate, is the loss of self-esteem by feeling they are considered to be dangerous or criminal. If they are taken out of the detention centre to go to hospital or to see a doctor, they are handcuffed, and remain handcuffed in front of the doctor or the hospital staff.
To give you a balanced picture, I have to tell you that they do have a gym where they can work out. They have a library stocked with books and magazines; they have television, and I believe (from a Government "advertisement" for Baxter on the internet) that there's a pool table. There is the opportunity for English lessons and I met an 18-year-old boy who had been in detention for 4 years, and spoke almost perfect English because he had seized every opportunity to learn. But many of my friends told me that they can't concentrate on lessons because of depression, headaches and an overwhelming feeling of lack of motivation while they are in detention. I think I can fully understand that.
One man wrote a piece of creative writing (and this shows how so many detainees somehow manage to keep a lovely sense of humour). He imagined the following scene:
"One night a kangaroo came near the fences and watched detainees who walked in the yard of the detention. He wondered and said to himself: unbelievable, who is animal, me or them? Then he thought that night and repeatedly asked himself, who is animal, me or them?
Kangaroo came with his friend the next night and showed detainees to his friend. The second kangaroo said to the first one, I know these. They are criminals and very dangerous. They must be kept in detention. You must not love them, and now we must go. But the question remained in the kangaroo's mind: who is the animal?"
Threat of Deportation
Then there's the constant and terrifying threat of deportation. Detainees are terrified of being deported back to countries which they fled because their religion, or their political opinions, or their ethnic origin made them likely candidates for arrest, torture and execution. A very few find life in detention so utterly miserable that they voluntarily go back to their country of origin, but they are hugely in the minority. But forced deportations continue to happen. In Baxter, on the Thursday before Good Friday, one of the Iranians was found to have "disappeared". No one knew anything about what had happened to him until the Minister for Immigration admitted that he had been sent back to Iran. This was a man who had become a Christian while in detention, being forcibly deported to a country where people are tortured and executed for being Christian. We don't know what has happened to him since his deportation. He is not alone. People are not only forcibly deported, sometimes having been taken from their room by armed guards in the early hours of the morning and injected with tranquilisers to make them go quietly. Does this sound like Australia? Or more like Nazi Germany? The fear is always with them. Research has been conducted into the fate of asylum seekers who have been deported and returned to their country of origin, and the results are disturbing, to say the least.
If detainees make complaints, or have arguments, or speak disrespectfully to the guards, they are controlled by being put into what is euphemistically called 'Management'. I'd like to read you a letter I received from a man I met in Baxter and with whom I've been exchanging letters since my visit there.
Thank you so much for your letter. I hope you and your family are in good health.
I remember you very well, because I never forget your kind eyes.
I would like explain you about management.
I had heard many stories from anothers my friends about management and I always had wanted be there because I wanted to know what is happening there and what is my feeling when I am there!!
Baxter is a terrible place but Management is a terrible and dreadful place. Management has an appalling rule. Management's rule try very hard to break your dignity. They try very hard to make you nervous, upset and angry. If you need something like food, tea, smoke, etc. they disregard you. They talk you with bad language. Management has 10 single cell with dirty mattress, sheet, blanket and full of stink. There is a camera. They look at you by camera all the time. The light is on all the time. You have to be very strong against all of them. To be in Management was an experience but bitter experience.
I really don't want anyone be there!
Please give my best greeting to Chris and your family.
Thank you so much for everything.
'Management' is actually solitary confinement in a cell with a permanent camera, so that even when sleeping or using the toilet, the detainee is under observation and the light remains on day and night. For the first two weeks, detainees are kept in their single cells for 23 hours out of 24 and allowed out in the recreation area for one hour a day, under guard. Then for a further two weeks they are allowed out for exercise, under guard, for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. After 5 weeks they can go back to a normal compound.
'Management' is used if there is any complaint, any tension, or any kind of protest, and also, when someone is about to be deported he is put into 'Management' overnight before the deportation takes place. I am told by friends who live in South Australia and visit Baxter frequently that in the last few months Management has become longer in duration and more easily incurred.
The detention centres are run by an organisation called Global Solutions Limited, or GSL, and the "compliance and training methods" they use at Baxter have been likened to the Guantanamo Bay camp and the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Applying for Refugee Status
The Refugee Review process by which detainees have their case heard, is a totally unjust process. The Refugee Review Tribunal is not an independent body; its members are selected by the Minister for Immigration, who also decides whether their contracts are renewed or terminated. This puts pressure on tribunal members to make decisions in line with what the Government wants rather than conducting a genuinely independent review. Tribunal members who have made decisions in detainees' favour, granting them refugee status, have from time to time been criticised by the Minister, and know that their jobs are on the line.
Asylum seekers do not have a right to legal representation at the hearing; they do not meet the tribunal members face-to-face but have hearings conducted by television. Translation is another difficulty which acts against the asylum seekers; translation services are inadequate and often biased. In addition, the Refugee Review Tribunal is not bound by the rules that courts are bound by regarding evidence and legal process. Members of the RRT vary considerably - from very biased and prejudiced people, to some excellent and very fair members. For the asylum seeker it's the luck of the draw who they get.
If the asylum seeker receives an unfavourable decision, his only recourse is an appeal to the Federal Court. But the decision of the Federal Court can only overturn the decision of the Refugee Review Tribunal if it can be proved that the process of the Refugee Review hearing was flawed. The Federal Court decision has nothing to do with the merits of the case. (We have a friend who is a Federal Court judge who explained this to us.)
Well, that has given a bit of the picture, probably very incomplete, of what life is like for asylum seekers. Let me just give you the briefest picture of the asylum seekers themselves as I have encountered them. I mentioned the sense of humour. It struck me noticeably how sad and depressed many people are, but they rally wonderfully to receive visitors, and there is that deeply ingrained traditional hospitality. They are determined to be good hosts and to make your visit happy, and there was much laughter, song and dance on the day I visited. (It was the Iranian New Year and both the visitors and our hosts the asylum seekers wanted to make it a special day.)
In one of my letters I mentioned that Chris had a cough, and when the letter reached Baxter, we immediately had a concerned phone-call asking after his health. We were amazed and somewhat humbled. I know that several of them have family members in prison, some have bereaved family members, yet they always enquire very genuinely about the health of everyone in my family. They frequently say: "You go to too much trouble for me", and it's very hard to get them to say if they need anything. I met in Baxter people who, despite everything they have been through and all their present troubles, would enhance our community and our society with their values, their skills and their personalities.
This picture I have sketched was from my personal experience.
We now move on to
2) Some facts about the refugee situation
There are lots of known facts. To keep it brief I'm going to outline just seven of them.
Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." So, people who come here informally are not "illegals" and it is dishonest to call them that. Under Australian Law and International Law people have a right to seek asylum in any place they can reach if they have "a well founded fear of persecution."
We are not being swamped by hordes of boat people. We take very few refugees compared to other countries. Compared with hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in Europe (300,000 in 1999/2000) and millions on the move in Africa and Asia, only a trickle of asylum seekers arrive in Australia each year, on average about 1000, of whom approximately 900 in every 1000 were found to have proper grounds for refugee status. Australia hosts one refugee for every 1,583 people, compared with 1:530 in Britain and 1:76 in Tanzania, one of the world's poorest countries.
Life in detention centres is harsh. It includes daily musters, searches, fences, gates, bars. Asylum seekers are kept under constant surveillance by closed-circuit cameras and guards. In Baxter Detention Centre the inmates are completely isolated from the outside world; all they can see is the sky.
There have been numerous reports of systematic mistreatment by guards and DIMIA officials. Detainees' health is not adequately serviced; detainees often say that any and every health complaint is treated with Panadol and water.
The use of solitary confinement is common and often arbitrary. In the small isolation cells where they stay for days, weeks, and even months, there is no reading material or other activities, the window is frosted glass so they can't see out, and they have virtually no contact with other detainees.
The worst and cruellest aspect is not knowing when the ordeal will end, and the constant anxiety of being deported.
Several psychiatric studies have shown that detention is incredibly damaging to the mental health of detainees. Levels of depression and stress disorders are almost universal, and thoughts of suicide and acts of self-harm are extremely high. Detention is cruel - and these are not people who have done wrong and furthermore, they are people who have already suffered great trauma.
Australia is the only western country that detains asylum seekers while their claims are being heard. Other countries detain asylum seekers only while health and security checks are made, then they are released into community care while their claim is being assessed.
United Nations conventions "allow for a person seeking asylum to enter a country without authorisation." The detention of innocent people, and the conditions in the detention centres, breach the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The detention and deprivation of children is a direct breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In May 2004 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report, National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention, was tabled in Federal Parliament. The inquiry found that Australia is in breach of the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that the detention of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest period of time.
The Human Rights Commissioner said: "Children with emotional and physical scars will be a legacy of our mandatory detention policy" and that "Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" of children is not something Australia can be proud of. Amnesty International and The Family Court have also found that the detention of children is illegal. As at the 21st July 2004 there were still 92 children in detention. 2 in Baxter, 17 in Pt Augusta, 34 in Villawood, 6 in Maribyrnong, and 11 on Christmas Island, 22 on Nauru.
Essentially, people are being held in detention as a political strategy. Community fear of terrorism, and rhetoric about "border protection", have been used to exploit the situation so that our leaders can be seen to appear "tough on refugees". Asylum seekers are kept isolated from the population, detained in remote parts of the country, the media barred from entering detention centres, and cameras and mobile phones forbidden.
What I find particularly shocking and disturbing is that the detention industry is now a billion-dollar business. In Australia, Europe and the United States, a small number of multinational corporations are competing for government contracts to lock up asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. It is a lucrative business, and some of the biggest banks and investment funds are lining up for a slice of the action. And the walls of secrecy surrounding detention centres help to breed a culture of abuse.
Keeping a refugee in detention costs between $120 and $140 or more per person per day. Last year we paid $25.8 million to keep just 200 people, including dozens of children, locked up behind electric fences in Baxter. This year we gave another $22.5 million to bribe Nauru to imprison the last 264 people, including 74 children.
In contrast, the federal government donated $5 million to the starving millions in Sudan - a very small fraction of what we pay to keep people in detention.
Community based programmes are not only much more humane; they are considerably cheaper. Most shocking of all, some detainees, having been granted refugee status and released from detention, have then been presented with a bill for thousands of dollars to pay for the time they spent in detention. So that they start their time in Australia with an enormous bill which they have no hope of paying, for a detention period which was for them nothing but trauma and anguish.
Australia has gained an international reputation for harsh treatment of asylum seekers. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that our imprisonment of asylum seekers violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Amnesty International has condemned the policy in the strongest terms. In May this year the National Council of Churches backed the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's call for release of abused detainee children and called for the release of all children and their family members by June 10th. The National Council of Churches' Refugee spokesman said: "It is shocking to think we've had to have a three-year inquiry to tell us the obvious. Well now we know that locking up kids under the mantra of 'border protection' is wrong."
Malcolm Fraser, speaking on ABC Radio National's Encounter programme said recently: "I've been to ... conferences in Tokyo, in Osaka, in Finland, in different parts of Europe, and people say to me, 'Don't you know, don't your colleagues, your countrymen know that Europe has to deal with 350,000 or 400,000 asylum seekers a year, and you can't handle 4000 with decency, with respect?'"
The General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Reverend Dr Samuel Kobia, visited Baxter in July and said it reminded him of "Guantanamo Bay without the shackles".
The Australia that hosted "the friendliest ever Olympic games", offering hospitality to people from all over the world, is showing a much darker side that has shocked and surprised people in many parts of the globe.
3) The Good News - and 'What we can All do to Help'
The Good News
The Good News is that there so many, many individual Australians as well as organisations who support, encourage and do all they can to assist refugees.
After I had been writing for several weeks to one detainee who has become quite special to me, because he's an outstanding person, I received a letter from a lady called Mary. She introduced herself saying: "I am Achmed's [not his real name] Australian Mum".
I have got to know her, and visited her in March, and we speak often on the phone. She's a wonderful person. She was alerted to the plight of refugees through her church and shortly after, she drove 300 km. through the desert to Woomera where she met Achmed. Achmed was then 27; he couldn't speak properly and he couldn't stand up straight; he was bent over. He came and sat beside her and said, in his half-voice: "You remind me my Mum; will you be my Mum?"
Then there was a fire at Woomera; Achmed lost all his documents and all his possessions, and Woomera was closed to visitors for a month. During that month Mary wrote to him every single day, just sending words of encouragement and warmth. When Woomera closed, Achmed was moved to Baxter. Mary had visited him every 10 days, driving the 300 km. from Port Pirie, after visitors were allowed again. Baxter is only 100 km from where she lives and she visited him there every week and was a real Mum to him.
His voice returned and he straightened up and felt some degree of hope. Achmed was one of the lucky ones. He was released from Baxter on a Temporary Protection Visa - and I could give an entire talk on the system of Temporary Protection Visas, whereby after 3 years, by which time the refugee has learned English, found a job, become part of the community, sometimes settled the children into school, the TPV expires and the family is sent back to their country. But that whole subject would take too long, and is very complex. But for Achmed the expiry of his TPV was down the track and he rejoiced in his freedom as only someone who has been incarcerated for 3 years with no time-frame and little hope of release, can rejoice.
Achmed has gone to live with Mary and her husband and he is their son and they care for him as their son. I stayed with Mary and Will and Achmed in March and I met many other individuals who do similar things, who give their time and their petrol and their money and their love to do everything they can to give hope to asylum seekers in detention. There are thousands of them all over Australia.
Incidentally, I'd just like to say that you would look far to find a more endearing person than Achmed - deeply committed to values of faith, integrity, loyalty and truth; a young man of enormous warmth and a great sense of humour; he makes light of his troubles and loves to treat people to the Iranian food which he loves cooking. Mary says: "He's one out of the box", but I met many other great people when I visited Baxter.
There are thousands of people like Mary, ordinary people and people in the public eye who command nation-wide respect. I've mentioned Malcolm Fraser who spoke on ABC Radio National's Encounter programme on July 11th. Margaret Reynolds, President of the United Nations Association of Australia, who lives in Launceston, is another who works to change our treatment of refugees. Cricketer Ian Chappell on the 11th June wrote a letter to "Dear fellow Australians", asking for support for a special appeal for A Just Australia, a national campaign group working for just refugee programmes. In Tasmania we have Tasmanians For Refugees, a group which works tirelessly and sacrificially to provide information about what is happening to refugees, to lobby for better treatment, to welcome and support refugees who come into our community and to show a different, friendlier face than the official attitude.
When I went into the Internet and looked up "Refugee Support Programmes", I got 30,300 responses! There are over 100 refugee action, lobby and support organisations around Australia and the number is growing rapidly.
Newly launched is an organisation called The Justice Project Inc., formed to co-ordinate a refugee reform campaign. They say: "We want a return to an Australia that made people in genuine need feel welcome, and created an environment where they felt safe and able to contribute to the community."
So there is good news about what is happening, and about the growth of people seeking a fair go for refugees, asylum seekers and people who need humanitarian protection.
What We can Do
If you would like to do this, I have some sample letters and some guidelines.
If possible, dispel some of the myths (a polite word for lies) that are often spread about refugees and asylum seekers.
Details of Tasmanians for Refugees, how to make a donation if you wish to do so, and who to contact to write to a detainee, are on this sheet which I will hand out.
To end on a happy note, I am going to pass round this wonderful photo which appeared on the front page of The Age on the 24th June 2004. It shows an Afghani father being reunited with his wife and children more than four years after he fled the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Questions to Ask the Listeners
With acknowledgments to: