Written by Suellen Green, mid 2012
* All the names of refugees interviewed for this piece have been changed to protect their identities.
While I have always been sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers, the SBS series, Go Back to Where you Came From, which I watched in class last year, was an absolute eye-opener. This program gave me a greater insight into the desperation that causes people to go to such lengths, and I highly recommend taking the time to watch it, and its sequel which involved a group of celebrities, for free on the SBS website.
The feelings this program evoked in me encouraged me to attend the first event in the Victoria University Controversies Seminar series; ‘What happened to the concept of “a fair go” for all? Why does this not apply to new arrivals in Australia?,’ presented by David Manne; which further galvanised my need to do something. I decided then, that I was going to write an article, pleading to whoever would listen, that Australia must stop treating the world’s most vulnerable people as criminals.
There is a simulation on the Go Back to Where You Came From page called Asylum: Exit Australia. It invites you to be in the position of someone who’s fallen foul of a new regime in Australia. I’m a writer, and traditionally writers are one of the first groups to be persecuted under totalitarian regimes. It wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to put myself in this situation. Although it is only a simulation, my stress and anxiety levels were sky high. The thought of my kids in danger, or having to leave them to try and find a safe place for them was incredibly distressing. Not to mention worrying about my own safety. The first time I tried the simulation, I died from starvation on the boat!
It was against this background that I spoke to Aron Micallef, a frequent contributor to SEED, and a passionate human rights campaigner through his position with the Socialist Alliance. Not only did he give me an interview about his own experiences protesting against mandatory detention, he also put me in touch with a VU student who has been in mandatory detention. As a result, Aron’s interview is going to have to wait for another opportunity; the whole scope of the article changed when I met Ali.
Ali’s problems started long before he was born. His ancestors moved to Iraq to be close to the Holy Shrine of Hussein, the third leader of the Shia Muslims. The borders of the Middle East were much more fluid then, but things have changed a lot over the last 100 years or so. As a result, many years after this migration, the Saddam regime threw Ali’s parents (both of whom were born in Iraq) out of the country for not being ‘true Iraqi’. His mother was pregnant at the time, and Ali was born in detention in Iran.
Twenty-five years later Ali was stateless. Although he was born in Iran, he was turned down for Iranian citizenship, time and time again. As a result, he had no identity papers. He couldn’t work in a legitimate job, couldn’t get a license; he wasn’t even allowed to study at university. His status meant that he was illegal in his country of birth. He was discriminated against his whole life. In Iran, he was considered Iraqi. Many Iranian’s hate Iraqi’s. Their two countries had been at war, and around a million Iranians had been killed. Local Iraqis became scapegoats. It was not a pleasant upbringing, but things were about to get worse.
The fall of Saddam’s regime led the Iranian government to announce that it was deporting Iraqis back to their homeland, even those who had been born in Iran and had never even been to Iraq. Saddam may have fallen, but the attitudes that led to the persecution of Ali’s parents, and their ejection from Iraq had not changed. Ali explained to me that Iraq is a tribal nation. If you don’t belong to one of the tribes, then you don’t belong at all, and Ali’s family were not a part of any tribe; they had nowhere to return to. Ali went to Iraq four times after Saddam’s fall to try to get identity papers. One time his parents went with him, to prove that they had been born in Iraq. All this effort was to no avail. He was as unsuccessful at getting an identity in Iraq as he had been in Iran. Not having anywhere to go in Iraq, and not being able to stay in Iran, he turned his mind to leaving the Middle East. Ali went to the Australian Embassy in Iran. It was closed, but there was a sign giving details of the process to apply via the website. He applied, but did not even get to the interview stage.
Having exhausted all his options, finally, in desperation Ali contacted a people smuggler. The price to escape from his situation? $10,000. Did he have $10,000? No, of course not. He was working illegally in his own country, he didn’t have much money at all. He therefore used all the money he did have, then had to borrow money from many family members and friends, and fortunately managed to scrape together the smuggler’s fee. He was given a fake passport, and a plane ticket, and flew to Malaysia.
In Malaysia, Ali was spirited away to a small village, where he stayed in a hut for two days. Then, at sunset, he was taken to a secluded beach, where he got on a small boat with five other asylum seekers. Not understanding what was happening; being made to get into a tiny boat, in the dark of night, Ali started to get frightened. The boat took them to the north of Indonesia, where they got on a bus, which was home for another two days. They were only allowed to get out of the bus for very short toilet breaks. Eventually the bus arrived in Jakarta. Three days were spent hiding out in Jakarta, and then they were given tickets to Mararam Island. Ali was again greeted at the airport, and was taken to a small village. It was here that Ali met Hussein, who was to become his roommate in detention, and eventually, his housemate here in Melbourne. Again they stayed for three days, and then they were taken to a beach, where they were told a ‘safe’ boat was waiting. They were assured that there was no danger, and that the boat had a satellite phone, and life vests. They were both horrified when they saw what was really waiting for them.
‘It was 100% different to what we had been told,’ said Ali.
It was a very old, decrepit, leaky, fishing boat. From the time Ali left Iran, his life wasn’t his own anymore. He couldn’t make any decisions for himself, and by this time he was totally helpless to do anything; he had to get on the boat. The 37 people crammed on to this small boat were told by the three man crew that if the boat sank, they were on their own. The captain and the two crew mates would save themselves. This boat trip was one of the worst times of Ali’s life. None of them could eat, everyone was too seasick. He spent much of the time, lying on the deck, unable to move. They suffered through this ordeal for five days. Eventually they were intercepted by an Australian Customs Boat, which took them to Christmas Island. And then a whole new nightmare began.
Having heard about European detention centres, where you are free in the community, but have to sign in each night, Ali was astounded to learn that he was to be locked up for an undetermined period of time. That time ended up being 15 months; 14 months in the Christmas Island Detention Centre and one month in the Darwin Detention Centre. Detention itself is not an equal service in Australia. The Christmas Island Detention Centre is very different from the Darwin Detention Centre, which is different again from Broadmeadows (Where one of his friends is still locked up after two years. )
The 14 months in detention at Christmas Island, was very difficult for Ali. For an intelligent man, the passivity of existence was hard to take. There was nothing to do, and no idea how long this was going to go on for. Ali wrote messages daily to Serco’s management regarding his concerns about his mental health. Some people took their own lives; others withdrew, becoming more and more isolated. Many of them were unsuccessful in at their first attempt at requesting asylum. This also had a devastating effect on their emotional wellbeing.
Ali, himself, was rejected the first time. This was after he had been in detention for nine months, and was desperate to be free. Subsequent events proved that this rejection was the wrong decision. Perhaps the Immigration Department was so desperate to be seen doing something, they processed everyone in the same way? This was after the hunger strike (mentioned below) that highlighted the plight of detention centre inmates. It was promised that the process would be quicker. Yeah, sure; if you can accept an unfair rejection! Immigration minister, Chris Bowen, even blamed the refugees themselves for prolonging the process when they fought their rejections!
The more I research this issue, the more ashamed I am of the Australian Government. This country made a commitment to the United Nations Refugee Convention in 1951. Since 1992, when mandatory detention for asylum seekers who come by boat was introduced, successive governments have failed to live up to that commitment.
In October, 2010, Ali was involved in the peaceful protest at the Christmas Island Detention Centre. He went on a hunger strike with around 250 of his fellow detainees. Some of them (about 25) sewed their lips together. Ali didn’t eat for a week. The protest had an impact, made people listen, but it didn’t change anything. Six months later, there was another protest. This time it wasn’t peaceful. Ali wasn’t involved in the March, 2011 protest, but he understood the desperation that led to it, and helped interpret between protesters and authorities. After everything they had already been through, just to get to Australia; to then be locked up, without charge, for who knew how long, took a great toll on everyone’s mental health. One of the reasons Ali chose psychology to study was that, after seeing the effects of detention on the minds of his fellow detainees, he wants to help people with mental health issues.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) got involved with this March, 2011 protest. Detainees were attacked with tear gas, and bean bag pellets. Some were injured. In the wee hours of the morning, when Ali was sleeping, AFP officers stormed into his room, and took him, along with 99 other men, who had been named by Serco as
Possible ringleaders, to another area where they were isolated from everyone else in the detention centre.
Another detainee who was caught up in this wrote a letter which can be read on ABC’s The Drum website at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-05-18/asylum3a/2717968. His conclusion is thought provoking to those who believe Australia is a just, progressive country.
‘Is this called justice, here in Australia? Is this the way people get treated in a country that boasts about its humanitarian efforts? Accusing people of an offence they haven’t committed,
without any solid proof or evidence, is something that happens in dictatorship governments. Does this country follow the same dictatorship system as our own countries?’
Another three months later, it happened again. After the third major incident at the Christmas Island Detention Centre, this time in July 2011, Ali, along with many other detainees was removed to Darwin Detention Centre for final security checks. He was finally released from detention on September 7, 2012. In the short time since I first met Ali for an interview that was supposed to go for an hour, and instead turned into a 4 hour chat session, we have become firm friends. He is a very intelligent and incredibly interesting person. And isn’t that the whole point here? He is a person, a flesh and blood individual, just like the rest of us.
So, next time you see another news report dehuminising desperate people seeking asylum, remember that they are not ‘illegals’, they are not criminals, they are not ‘boat people’. They are just people. Men, women and children who need our help, not our condemnation.
Perhaps we can change the call of ‘go back to where you came from’ to ‘Welcome to Australia’.
Isn’t that more in keeping with our much vaunted Aussie sense of fair play and mateship?