Australian Refugees

Why does [Australia] only follow USA for going to war and other matters against human beings but does not follow USA regarding humane matters? I don’t know, are you aware that USA governments have given 10 million visas to people who were living illegally and freely in USA or not? But your government still has locked up only 300 people in detention centres for more than three years. Why don’t they follow USA now?

Male Refugee, Baxter Detention Centre, South Australia, February 2004

I was frustrated. I had campaigned against the John Howard Government’s refugee policy, and argued that it was fundamentally against human rights, the UN charter, Australia’s national interest and my conscience. These were all powerful, emotive issues that caused my circle of friends to vacillate between embarrassment, disgust, shame, anger and resolve. I shared the view of leading refugee lawyer and advocate, Julian Burnside, when he said that, “our government is engaged in a continuing crime against humanity.” By early 2003, I wanted to do something more than merely talk.

I attended a screening in Melbourne of a documentary about the Pacific Solution. (It was refused airtime on ABC’s Four Corners, according to Kate Durham, Melbourne artist and activist, because of the national broadcaster’s increased wariness of taking on politically sensitive material.) The one-hour report was made by the BBC and Durham (who is also the wife of Julian Burnside). It told the stories of predominantly Middle Eastern refugees coming to Australia for asylum and being placed in offshore processing camps (the words of the Howard government) in the Pacific, including Nauru. Many of them languished in these unsatisfactory conditions for years, due to their confused legal status and a vindictive government determined to demonise any and all refugees, especially those of the Muslim faith.

After the film, Durham was asked what people could do to become involved in the campaign. I was drawn to the idea of letter writing to detainees in detention centres as a way of showing solidarity with their human rights and a belief in the unappropriated notion of a “fair go”. Whether their claims were valid or not, a truly democratic country surely believes in the notions of due process, but our country was increasingly displaying signs of legislating against, rather than for, the most disadvantaged. This was not an Australia I could love.

I wrote to , a website set up by Durham, to “register people so concerned that they would offer their spare rooms temporarily to refugees who were being unceremoniously dumped from our camps.” Soon enough, however, the site became a resource for contacting refugees in Nauru and others around Australia. I requested a list of detainees to whom I could begin communicating. I was sent a list of literally thousands of names. I had pages of surnames, nationalities and ID (the main method of identification in the camps is through number alone – the ultimate dehumanising factor).

I didn’t know where to begin. Who should I write to? How could I make a decision? Should I choose Iraqis or Afghanis? Australia was about to be involved in the former and was already heavily involved in the latter? I asked Durham her advice and she responded simply, “take your pick, it doesn’t matter.” They were already much more than a name for me. Indeed, I decided to select five people from various Middle Eastern countries, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan. Four men and one woman.

I received more responses than I ever expected. A man from Afghanistan articulated the feeling of many:

“About 80 per cent of the Australian community don’t like the refugees. About 20 per cent can’t do anything. Australian people are believing their government’s policy about asylum seekers…[they believe] whatever they are told eg. They are illegal and terrorists so we are protecting the Australians from terrorists.”

The same man was remarkably connected to the goings-on in the wider Australian community and the modus operandi of the Howard Government:

“[Former Immigration Minister] Ruddock wants all asylum seekers to be sent home either by agreeing to take money or to be deported by force. Even people living in the community on TPV [Temporary Protection Visas] are at risk of being sent home. Ruddock has probably done a deal with Iran (probably in return for a trade agreement or something) to send back asylum seekers who have been refused a TPV.”

Being sent back to Afghanistan, which this man faced, was ludicrous and highly dangerous, he argued:

“…Things are very unstable in Afghanistan. The Taliban are gaining support again. Warlords are controlling the countryside and the President [Hamed Karzai] is surrounded by bodyguards because several attempts have been made to assassinate him…How is it possible to make safe Afghanistan? Every group has their own army.”

And all this about a country supposedly “liberated” by Western forces in 2001.


At the Australian Independent Documentary Conference in February 2004, Julian Burnside explained how Australia was committing crimes against humanity, “when judged by our own laws.” Didn’t read about this? It’s unsurprising, as Burnside said:

“I first came across this analysis earlier in the year and I made these observations at a speech in Melbourne on World Refugee Day. Someone from The Age newspaper was present and asked me for a copy of the analysis. I spoke of other things as well, but they asked for a copy of the analysis of Section 268.12 just to make sure I wasn’t taking a lend of them. I sent it through and you can see it’s very simple and it can be compressed onto less than an A4 sheet. I didn’t see anything about it in the newspaper the next day. A couple of days later I got a phone call from this journalist, rather shame-faced he seemed, and he apologised that he hadn’t used the material but explained his editor did not think it was interesting. It is not interesting that our most senior political leaders are engaged in a crime against humanity when judged by our own laws. How do we ever get to that position I wonder?”


Within one month, I had received replies from every refugee with whom I had begun communication. They were passionate and deeply moving. I remember one specifically talking about the lack of medical care at the Baxter Detention Centre. “Ahmed” wrote: “nurses are evil. The health manager is a very nasty man because he does not care about anyone’s situation as a human. He does not let people go to the hospitals every quickly and people do not see the doctors. My son had sore ankles and he did not see him until he got better. When he saw him he did not need him anymore.”

I was constantly reminded of the humanity and compassion of refugees thrust in the middle of partisan squabbling and shameless political fear mongering. On the war on Iraq from “Souleman”: “My opinion of the war is that it’s wrong. And war is the thing that pushed us to come to Australia. Peace is what we are looking for because we do not support it. It was sort of wrong and right in the same time. It helped people and helpless for others.” Recent student protests in Iran from “Farida”: “I want to tell you a truth, the politics is dirty (or nasty, I don’t know what you say it) and means to deceive and lie to people. What you think about these students or others in Iran? If they have protested, they will be arrested. If they leave Iran and seek asylum in other countries as your country, they will be in detentions such as us. I ask God for helping them.”


John Howard supported the overthrowing of the Taliban and yet imprisoned refugees fleeing that horrendous regime. Howard talked of Saddam’s vile crimes, yet placed, behind bars in distant prison camps, those escaping Iraq. The Howard Government talked about supporting Iranian reform and student democracy, yet locked up those very individuals trying to find a better life in Australia. These tragic ironies, and blatant hypocrisies, are not lost on an increasing number of Australians.


Faezeh was born in Iran and left with her family to Australia in 2000. With her three brothers, mother and sister, she was imprisoned in the Port Hedland Detention Centre in north-west Western Australia for three years. In the February 2004 edition of Amnesty’s Human Rights Defender magazine, Faezah writes about her experiences growing up in detention as well as her travels on a leaky boat from Indonesia to Australia. Leaving Iran for “some religious problems”, the family was soon placed in an internment camp. This is yet another story that makes a mockery of the Howard Government’s request that all refugee claimants should not “queue jump”. Do they really think people have a choice as to when they have to leave their country of birth? Intimidation or death can come at any time, and in many Middle Eastern countries, frequently does.

Writing about her intellectually disabled brothers, Faezah explains one particularly traumatic day in Port Hedland:

“My brothers were prescribed some sedatives to try and calm them down. For Faez, the older one, they increased the dose until all he did was sleep all the time. When they ran out of those tablets they gave them some other very strong tablets and soon my brothers got sick. Faez was dizzy all the time, he collapsed and vomited but the medical officers said it was the flu so nothing was really done until August last year when a doctor recommended we move to Villawood [a detention centre in outer Sydney] because the boys needed to go to hospital. My mother and us kids moved to Villawood and my brothers went to the children’s hospital where they said the tablets had caused liver problems. My brothers are still having tests to see if there is any long-term damage.”

With numerous medical and psychological groups having pronounced life in detention as a serious health hazard, and rates of suicide and self-harm being monstrously high, it is time that increasing numbers of Australian citizens condemned their government’s activities that lead to this kind of behaviour.


I am still writing to a handful of refugees in Baxter Detention Centre. One of them called me before Christmas last year and asked me to help him promote his case to the public due to my job as a journalist. It was a very difficult conversation. I felt helpless listening to my friend’s pleas for me to do something, anything. I listened and told him I would do whatever I could. I was acutely aware that much of the mainstream press deemed it unimportant to report on individual refugee cases, except in “exceptional circumstances.” But surely every asylum seeker in our crazy system is exceptional? And surely we all bare responsibility for the effect on their lives from a government our people elected three times?

Supporters of the Howard Government harsh policies claim that the policy is highly effective since virtually no “unauthorised” boats have arrived since late 2001. This fact is indeed correct, but in any year before 2001, no more than 4000 such individuals ever reached our shores. Are we truly saying to the world that Australia, with a serious need for greater population, couldn’t manage a handful more immigrants every year, many of whom are middle-class, educated and highly motivated? Such rationality is constantly lost in the hysteria surrounding refugees. In the minds of many, they feel threatened by Middle Eastern, dark-skinned individuals. The government also constantly suggests that terrorists could be lurking in detention centres.

There is an alternative Australia and it is being born on the margins as I write. Pamela Curr, Greens National spokesperson on refugees, recently wrote on the fate of an African asylum seeker being forcibly sent back by the Howard Government to his country of birth (and almost certain persecution and/or death). She said:

“The African country to which he is returning has a terrible human rights record and is one which the Australian government advises Australians not to visit. If they do visit, [they should] remain in the capital and only to leave the capital in the company of armed guards. Yet a person who has been sentenced to death for complaining to local authorities of terrorist activities is being returned by the same Australian authorities who are obsessed with terrorism.”

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney based journalist and writes regularly for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Leave a comment