Dave McKay's The Worst of Woomera
The Woomera detention centre has been closed for some time, but following the 'imfamous' Easter 2002 protests, when dozens of refugees escaped from the horror of the centre in a desperate snatch of freedom, some folks stayed behind in the Woomera town in a camper van. They called themselves "The Woomera Embassy".
The stories below and on the second page, linked off this page, were written during this period by some folks in that Woomera Embassy. The publication of these stories was followed by a vicious campaign by some other refugee advocates to discredit them: it was alleged the stories were not obtained with full consent of the refugees in the camp; it was alleged that the author, because of his self-proclaimed links with a small 'religious sect or cult' had underlying agendas for the publication of these stories that dirtied its purpose.
Nevertheless, thousands of booklets were printed at the time that contained these stories. And now that Woomera has been well and truly mothballed and most - if not all - of the people written about in these stories, live in the Australian community, having gained refugee or other forms of residency status, we're publishing the stories as they were printed on our website. Why? Well, we think this horrendous period and the associated stories should not be forgotten.
In the introductory notes to the booklet author Dave McKay writes:
"Mothers who throw their babies in the ocean. Fathers who forcibly stitch the lips of their children. Deranged young men who cut themselves and engage in criminal acts. Terrorists who invade our country, and compromise the security of decent Australians. Illegal aliens who smash and demolish every thing that lies in their path.
This is the picture that our Government has given us of asylum-seekers in general, and of asylum seekers at Woomera, South Australia, in particular. Woomera is the end of the line for asylum seekers, or as Phillip Ruddock says, for criminals, because "they are obviously not asylum seekers."
Here is your chance to meet these unspeakable human beings for yourself. Up-close glimpses never before available to the general public.
12 March 2005: The testimony of Moira-Jane - Moira-Jane Conahan went to Woomera in March 2000. Her speaking out was one of the first witness testimonies that eventually dismantled the Woomera detention centre. "The night before I left we were watching Four Corners [...] but I laughed it off and with a minor amount of trepidation left for Woomera."
The Worst of Woomera 2
by Dave McKay
11. Lies Everywhere
When my court case came up on May 27, 2002, the police prosecutor did exactly as the arresting police in Woomera had predicted. He read the police report, which stated, quite honestly, that I had been arrested about 100 metres away from the perimeter fence at Woomera, and he pulled the file, stating that he failed to comprehend how the Woomera police could possibly have charged me with trespassing. I was free to enter Woomera township once again.
But the damage had already been done. I had been banned from Woomera for two months, banned from the detention centre permanently, forced to travel long distances at great expense to be present at the court appearance in Port Augusta, and then been told that it was all a cruel hoax.
What had been done to me was being done to asylum seekers on a daily basis, through misrepresentations that have painted them as terrorists, bad parents, law-breakers, and deranged liars. The Government slanders them at every opportunity and the media quotes the lies as facts, without the slightest effort (in most cases) to question them.
The average Australian would be able to take the Government and the media to court for such false accusations, but asylum seekers have no such rights. But be warned! One day at least one of them will be allowed to become a citizen, and there could be hell to pay for all the crimes that have been committed against them.
The whole issue of refugees has been wrapped up in a military package which portrays their arrival on our shores as some kind of a terrorist invasion. Yet, not one single terrorist has so far been found amongst the thousands of refugees who have been examined microscopically by all the lawyers that the Minister for Immigration can employ. Hundreds of millions of dollars is being spent on a so-called war against terrorism, which is really a war against refugees.
At the same time that lies are told to damn the refugees and all those who support them, other lies are told to cover up the cruel and inhumane treatment that the refugees have received, and continue to receive, at the hands of our Government.
Homer & Paula
Homer and his wife Paula, are from Kabul. They say that only a few years ago, the United States was arming the Taliban against the Russians, and singing the praises of the Taliban. Now the U.S. damns the Taliban and glorifies the Northern Alliance. But the truth is that injustices and persecution have been commonplace under both regimes.
Paula says that in the past, when the Northern Alliance has ruled in Afghanistan, women were often forcibly removed from their homes by the soldiers, and not returned. She says that if women knew that Northern Alliance forces were coming for them, they would often kill themselves rather than allow themselves to be taken. Paula is terrified about going back to live under this sort of a regime.
When they saw the Northern Alliance returning to power, Homer and Paula gave their life savings ($25,000) to people smugglers who promised them peace in Australia. The people smugglers said that $25,000 was not enough to allow them to bring their 12-year-old son with them, but they promised that Homer and Paula would be able to send for him later, after they had been accepted by Australian authorities. Just one more lie.
Homer's sister is a dentist, and she is married to a doctor in Melbourne. His brother and nephew are studying at a university in Perth.
Paula is a teacher and Homer is a construction engineer. For three dollars a day, Paula gives the youngest detainees the closest thing to a formal education that they will ever get while they are in Woomera. And together she and Homer run an English tutorial each evening for other detainees who wish to learn English. They do this without receiving any pay for it.
Paula laments, "We spent our life savings to come and live in a cage."
Because they fled the Northern Alliance (and not the Taliban), and because they fled before anyone in their family had been killed, they probably represent one of the weakest cases for asylum that we came across at Woomera. Yet they are hardly worthy of the vilification that the Government has heaped on asylum seekers in general. These, the worst of the worst, are simply people in need, people doing only what we ourselves would do if we had the chance, i.e. trying to make a better life for themselves and for their child.
When we spoke with detainees at the razor wire on Good Friday, I was drawn to a short 13-year-old boy whose pleas brought tears to the eyes of many of us.
"We are not animals!" he shouted, gesturing with both hands. "We have eyes like you. We have hands like you. We are not criminals. We want freedom. We want freedom!" He pointed at the ACM guard standing next to me in full riot gear. "These people!" he shouted, and then he rambled on incoherently. He pulled his T-shirt off, rolled it in a ball and threw it at the guard as hard as he could. It fell short, landing on the razor wire. The guard showed no emotion. The boy was in tears.
An older detainee pointed at the youngster and addressed the crowd. "You see this boy? His father is outside, but they keep the wife and children inside still. What kind of policy is that?"
The decision to stay on at Woomera meant months of separation from my wife. But it did not compare to what so many of these people had experienced. I vowed to find out who this boy was and how the Department of Immigration could possibly give a protection visa to the father, while still keeping the mother and children in detention.
When my wife, Cherry, came out to spend two weeks with me in June, 2002, her relationship to me was miraculously overlooked by DIMIA. She was allowed to visit dozens of detainees. Her visits became the primary source of material for this book.
The Baker Family
Oliver Baker came to Australia in 1998, and was given a Temporary Protection Visa a year later, because he is an Hazara from Afghanistan.
He had come to Australia in the hope of bringing his wife Ruth, and his five children over later to join him. They succeeded in fleeing Afghanistan in December, 2000, but were locked up in Woomera while their papers were being processed. Now, 18 months later, the Department of Immigration has rejected the application from Ruth Baker, and her five children, on the grounds that they cannot prove they are Afghanians! Although their circumstances were exactly the same as Oliver's, they are now awaiting deportation.
The boy who had spoken to me on Good Friday is Allan, Oliver and Ruth's oldest son.
Oliver travelled to Woomera from Sydney for a week of visits with his family in June, 2002, at the same time that Cherry was visiting me. Cherry and Oliver would travel together to and from the WIRPC each day. On the last day, as they returned to the township, Oliver walked ahead. He did not want to be seen crying; but Cherry could hear the sobs as he walked. Finally, he broke down and collapsed on the ground. All of his hopes had been dashed. He might never see his family again.
In 1880, King Abdur Rehman decreed that it is not a sin to kill Hazaras. It appears that something similar happened in the Australian Government between 1998 and 2001.
13. Stall Tactics
The primary thrust of the Howard Government's policy on asylum seekers is to convince the public that all asylum seekers are "illegal", i.e. that they are not genuine refugees. The truth, however, is quite opposite. Almost all arrivals are genuine refugees, and almost all of them are eventually accepted.
But the longer the Government can hold them in prison, then the more they can be made to look, and even to act, like criminals. Experiments have shown that if you crowd enough rats together in a box for long enough, they will soon turn on each other, or try to escape. The same is true of humans.
And there is another strategy for caging the refugees indefinitely: The longer they stay in limbo, the greater the chances are that some change in circumstances in their home country will justify the Government sending them back. That is the official policy with regard to refugees from Afghanistan, even if it takes ten years.
But surprisingly, even in Woomera, amongst the supposedly worst cases, visas continue to be granted. And when they are, the Government even takes the joy out of them winning a visa by making the visa only "temporary" (meaning that they can still be sent back ten years from now if circumstances change). And the Government tops it off by giving detainees a bill for up to $190 a day, that covers all of their time spent in detention. It is not uncommon for successful applicants to be slugged with a bill for $200,000.
Sherman is 21 years old. He carries himself proudly. He is quick to tell you that he comes from a wealthy family in Afghanistan. He is also quick to tell you that the other asylum seekers at Woomera are imposters.
Sherman, you see, has just been awarded a temporary protection visa. He will be held for some time, until DIMIA is satisfied that he has all of the necessary paperwork. But Sherman has implicit faith in the system. It has worked for him.
Like so many of us who came to this country as migrants, it is easy to think that we deserve, more than others, to be here... that middle-class Western comforts are our birthright... that poverty and suffering are quaint traditions of other cultures or other classes of people.
Sherman's uncle was a commander in the Hezb-e-Islami. Until recently, they were part of the Northern Alliance, fighting the war against the Taliban. Sherman's father was actually taken captive by the Taliban.
But then, as the Northern Alliance gained strength from U.S. funding, it turned on the Hezb-e-Islami. Sherman's father had kept his wealth in U.S. dollars, hidden in the house, so Sherman took the money and paid $7,000 for passage to Australia. The people smugglers told him he would be travelling on a big ship to Australia, that the leaky boat was only to take him out to the ship.
Sherman was furious about this fraud.
Sherman praises the Australian Government and its handling of his case. He hopes to start a business in Australia, and to study.
Concessions given to asylum seekers have been used by the Government to aggravate their plight. Government cameras caught them laughing on an outing, and photos were released to the Press as proof that they are happy where they are. Consequently, many refused future outings.
Thousands of dollars worth of donated toys were not delivered when detainees refused to be photographed holding the toys.
"We don't want toys; we want freedom!" they shouted. And the same is true of other gifts. They know that as long as the Australian public believes they are cared for physically, their real problems will not be solved.
But the fruit of this otherwise shrewd assessment has been widespread depression.
We needed a way to get the asylum seekers thinking more positively, if were to stop suicide attempts.
We came up with an idea for a camp newspaper, The Freedom Banner. We could put it together outside the centre, and mail it in, but it would be composed largely of material submitted by the detainees themselves. We floated the idea with our supporters and were soon sponsored by an author from northern NSW.
Contributions came slowly at first, but gradually interest picked up. Asylum-seekers contributed poems, articles, and artwork. One even made a crossword puzzle, with words in it like Ruddock, Freedom, and Iran.
David & Hamish
David and Hamish are brothers, aged 30 and 28, from Iran. Only David attended the interview. A staff psychologist who went public with what he had seen at Woomera commented on the startling difference between the way the two of them have reacted to their situation. David has stayed strong, while Hamish has lost hope.
Together the brothers converted to Christianity while in Iran, a crime punishable by hanging. Their family reported them to the authorities, so they ran for their lives, arriving in Australia 28 months ago.
A few months after arrival, they both participated in a mass breakout, which led them only as far as the township of Woomera, before they were captured. On returning they were forced to sit in the hot sun without moving for three hours straight.
David says that Hamish is very sick psychologically. He was close to tears and would not elaborate. David's hands shook when asked details about his and his brother's conversion to Christianity in Iran. He said that it was 'secret' and that it would be dangerous to others to tell.
Conversion to Christianity is one of the hardest defences to prove, because there is so much disagreement between ourselves (the professing Christians) over what "conversion" entails. Baptism? Church membership? Religious experience? Things like faith and love?
But Iranian authorities are not so fussy. If anyone has the courage to say, under threat of death, that he or she is a Christian, then it is reason enough to execute them. David and Hamish are guilty of being such Christians.
15. Blood Money
A few days before the DIMIA reps threatened forcible deportation at Woomera, there had been a report of an Iranian being forcibly deported from a detention centre in Western Australia. This was done despite the fact that his brother, who had agreed to deportation, had earlier disappeared upon arrival in Iran, even before leaving the airport. He has not been heard of since. Both men were Christians.
Refugees who had been hanging onto a thin hope that they could win their appeals against the Department, or that there would be a sea-change in Australian thinking about asylum seekers, were suddenly thrown into a panic. A few decided that, if they were to be returned anyway, they would use the money to finance yet another escape from their home regimes.
But most decided to resist the decision. Delegates of the various groups (Sabeans, Christians, Hazaras, and other Afghanians and Iranians) proposed a hunger strike in defence of the Afghanians. The Iranians agreed to support the strike, because they knew that they would be next after the Afghanians had been spirited away.
Condon is 25. He has been in detention for 15 months.
His uncle and brother were killed by the Taliban. His father, who is 65 years old, sold his shop and borrowed money to pay smugglers for his second son's journey to Australia. Condon hasn't heard from his family since he left, and he worries about them constantly, because they have no source of income without the shop.
The Tajiks and Pashtuns are enemies of the Hazaras. Condon, like most Afghanians at Woomera, is Hazara. DIMIA gave him a Dari-speaking Tajik interpreter for his court case. (Condon speaks Hazaraji.) The interpreter claimed Condon was from Pakistan and not Afghanistan, and he was rejected on that basis. Most Hazara people have their visas rejected for much the same reason.
Hazaras who flee Afghanistan also face persecution from their own people on return, because local Hazara leaders, desperate to maintain control of their flocks, say that runaways will have been corrupted by their contact with outsiders, and that they should be killed.
Monty's English is good. He is soft spoken, and appreciative of the accommodation and food that he has been provided with in his time at Woomera.
He is an Hazara who fled Afghanistan to escape call-up in the Taliban army. Monty is 27 years old. He left his wife and three children, aged between three and seven, hoping to be able to send for them later. Now they are missing. He is divided between wanting to search for his missing family, and wanting to gain admittance to Australia, so that he will have a place to bring his family.
Monty is one of the few who has not tried to hurt himself, and he does it by trying to contribute positively to his surroundings. In Kandahar he was a signwriter, so he paints signs for DIMIA, for $1 an hour.
Monty was refused a visa when a translator said that his answer was no to a question for which he actually answered yes.
The hunger strike started on Sunday morning, 23 June, 2002. However, only twenty people refused meals on that day.
Then, during the day, a mass meeting was held by the detainees. It was decided that the emphasis should not just be on a return to the status quo, nor should it be just in support of the Afghanians. If they were going to have another hunger strike at all, it should be all or nothing, freedom or death for the lot of them. Of 209 detainees, only 19 exempted themselves because of age (very old or very young) or health. We understand that one or two others may have also refused outright. The other 190 detainees agreed to stick together. This included children as young as nine years old.
The official strike began the next morning, Monday, 24 June. Those who had exempted themselves had agreed to move to a separate compound to cook and eat their meals, out of consideration for the others.
Nancy (see page 11) checked herself out of hospital against the wishes of her doctor, in order to be a part of it. Bobby, the twelve-year-old son of another woman who had been in hospital with Nancy, spoke on the phone to the media, explaining that he and other children like him, were not being coerced into what they were doing. They too had suffered, and many of them had already attempted suicide as well. These were children who had been forced by governments here and overseas to deal with life and death issues at a very early age.
Kevin is 17 years old. He came alone to Australia, when he was just 16.
As a Sabean Mandian, he was persecuted in his school in Iran. In religious education classes, he was told that Sabean Mandians are infidels, that they are not humans. Other children were told not to play with him, and he would often get beat up by fellow students.
Kevin admits to being hot-tempered. One day, in his religious education class, he criticised Islam and the Government of Iran. He said that Muslims are non-humans too. His teacher tried to remove him from the class, and he punched him.
Kevin was expelled from school for this, and a complaint was made to the religious police. He could be sent to prison for up to ten years for the classroom incident. The only alternative was to join the army, where persecution would almost certainly be heavier. Kevin feared that if he lost his temper in the army, the consequences would be much more serious. So he decided to escape. His uncle helped him to get a false passport in order to flee the country.
Most refugees bring money with them, but Kevin is an exception. It took all that his family had to pay the people smugglers. His only finances are the $1 an hour that he gets from DIMIA for work that he does at Woomera. He has had no contact with his family since leaving Iran, and he worries about them a lot.
All the other men in Kevin's compound are Muslims. He says that they too persecute him. Anti-anxiety medication (Lomax) helps to ease his stress.
17. Another Breakout
The hunger strike was bitterly painful. Mattresses were placed in the middle of the two compounds, where, day and night, 190 detainees sat or lay in the freezing winter weather. For five days they refused to give in. Not one man, woman, or child retreated. I spoke with them about their demand for a total end to mandatory detention. Weren't they being a bit unreasonable? Their reply was that they had been reasonable in a previous hunger strike, and it got them nowhere.
"This time it is freedom or death," they said. And every indication was that they meant just that.
The Minister for Immigration continued his lies, saying first that there was no hunger strike, then that only twenty detainees were fasting (and gradually increasing his figures closer to the truth as confirmation of what we at the Refugee Embassy were saying became apparent).
Then, very late on Thursday evening, 27 June, after five days without food, the 190 hunger strikers were awakened by the sound of car horns blaring and people shouting. About five vehicles pulled up at the corner of the detention centre, aiming to cause a stir and to shout their support for the languishing hunger strikers. When the frightened guards failed to show, the rowdies leapt from their vehicle with a video camera and started filming the detainees, who had now crowded around that part of the fence.
"Freedom! Freedom!" they chanted. Indeed, one of them, Kyle (See page 13.) had earlier cut a vein in his arm and collected enough blood to write the word in both English and Farsi, and in letters almost a metre high on a compound wall. He was taken to the camp hospital and stitched up, and then returned to the hunger strike.
Earlier that day, he hunger strikers had been told that they would be given no further medication of any kind unless they agreed to break the strike. All those people with suicidal tendencies who had been taking anti-depressants, were now being helped along by camp staff in their slow march toward death.
"Freedom! Freedom!" the chant continued.
The rowdies outside explained to the detainees that they had no plan for escape, and that they were a long way from safety, but it had as much effect as my lecture to Truman in my first and only visit to the centre. (See page 5.) Some 35 detainees insisted that they would take their chances regardless. The others opted to stay.
Star pickets were found in the back of one of the trucks, and detainees broke off a pole in the ground, which they used to pry bars apart. The liberators threw blankets over the razor wire, and prisoners began to clamber out.
Escapees crowded into the vehicles, while the original occupants of the vehicles escaped through the desert darkness on foot. The vehicles headed off in different directions.
And all of this was done while the camp guards (all three of them) merely stood by and watched, focussing a video camera of their own on the perpetrators.
When we learned of the escape, at 2:30am on Friday, it was with mixed emotions. As expressed at the Easter breakouts, we lamented the reckless foolishness of the protesters. Yet we could not help but feel a measure of relief for some of the people who were finally out.
Publicly we said that escape can never take the place of release, that being a fugitive is no substitute for being free. And we meant every word of it. But having seen what awaits these people back home, we had another perspective. Escape is far better than death, and being a fugitive is far better than being raped.
The reaction from Canberra was as it has always been: to hit back. All visits were cancelled indefinitely; phones were taken away; and the media was allowed only to hear (or to print) one point of view. The Australian, on June 29, printed a report supposedly from Raymond (see page 43) that the breakout was a "commando" action done "very shortly". It totally misrepresented Raymond, who had actually provided the story about the horns, the shouting, and the video cameras. My name appeared only as one of the protesters, under an emphasised quote from Phillip Ruddock that the escape was an organised effort by "people in contact with the detainees". The aim was to discredit the Refugee Embassy and to justify further isolation for these people.
The public could never be allowed to consider that they too may have been so moved by the tears and anguish of these people to have at least considered taking such extreme action in their behalf.
Martina is a single mother with three children. She is housed in the township of Woomera, away from the detention centre. Because she is unmarried, others look down on at her at the detention centre.
Cherry first bumped into her at the local grocery store. Martina wanted to buy some aerosol cologne, but the guard escorting her objected, saying that it could be used as a bomb. Because Martina argued with the guard, she was very nearly denied a visit with Cherry later that day, and she was heavily grilled over who Cherry was and how she knew her.
Martina's oldest daughter, Peggy, had just been released from hospital. Her 15th birthday had triggered depression and she had slashed her arms. The family have been incarcerated for 11 months, so this was Peggy's first birthday in detention.
But this is one of the luckier families. They have actually been approved as refugees. Martina said she could not talk about what had happened to her in Iran, but apparently it was horrendous enough to win her a visa. However, DIMIA is waiting on police clearance from India, where the family had lived seven years ago. The Indian police, of course, have nothing to gain by sending such a document, and so Martina and her children could be in detention indefinitely despite having been granted a visa.
Martina is the woman who cared for Porter, while Nancy (See page 11) was recovering from her wounds.
19. Advance Australia Where?
This book has been an attempt to introduce the average Australian to the human face of asylum seekers. The profiles in this book have not been specially selected. In fact, they have been the ones that the Government says have the weakest cases for refugee visas.
Our island state is difficult for refugees to reach. And because of that, we get only the best of the best asylum seekers... people who have the courage, resources, and foresight to make the hazardous journey to our shores. Even those who have fled here only to escape poverty represent, on the whole, the kind of people who would make our country proud.
Australia is quickly becoming divided, in much the same way that countries like Afghanistan and Iran are divided today. People who object to Government policies there are silenced, in one way or another, until they have to break the law in order to escape. Phillip Ruddock appears convinced that the majority have a right to silence, and to trample the rights of minorities. And he boasts that he has the votes to do it.
In Nazi Germany decent citizens finally had to break the law in order to help Jews escape. More and more Australians are starting to think that this is the case in Australia. Before that happens, we would ask you to write, phone, and visit your local MP and let your voice be heard in favour of a fair go for asylum seekers.
We must put an end to the lies that have been used and that continue to be used to demonise these very real people who have already suffered such terrible hardships.
Raymond is 22 years old. He has been in detention since he was 20. He is one of the 50 detainees who escaped at Easter. Nevertheless, when he was caught and returned to Woomera, the management there asked him to resume his role as delegate for the Afghanians, because he is regarded as a very sensible leader. He is also highly revered by fellow detainees.
Raymond is one of seven children born to a poor Hazara shepherd. He only attended school intermittently because of home duties. But when he reached Australia, he taught himself English by reading and by spending as much time with DIMIA staff as possible.
Raymond has been the most articulate voice of the refugees at Woomera, and is coming to be respected by the media as well
When the threat was made to forcibly return Afghanians, Raymond gave in and consented to return peacefully. As an Hazara, his life will be in danger when he returns; but he will just have to live ... and perhaps die with it.
However, when a fast to the death was announced on behalf of all detainees, Raymond was one of the first to volunteer. In fact, he was one of the top organisers. He loves his people, and he is willing to die for them. More than that, he loves people in general... Hazaras, Muslims, Sabeans, Christians.
And he loves Australians too.
According to our Government, Raymond is one of the worst people ever to come to our shores, and he must go back. We respectfully disagree.
This html version of "The Worst of Woomera" was produced by Project SafeCom, Narrogin/Fremantle WA. You can subscribe to the Project SafeCom Newsletter by exploring a subcription here.