Lips sewn shut – An Australian secret

“For those who’ve come across the seas We’ve boundless plains to share” – Advance Australia Fair (Australia’s National Anthem)

Ahmed (not his real name) shows me some photos taken of him reciting his poems at a convention a few years ago. He is quietly spoken, mild-mannered and very intelligent. Since then he has lost a lot of weight and his face has become gaunt and beset by worry.

This isn’t surprising really, considering he was unlucky enough to be held in the controversial Woomera detention centre for seven months whilst waiting for his claim for asylum to be processed. He considers himself fortunate – some have been imprisoned for over four years.

Born in Al-Basra, Southern Iraq, Ahmed became critical of Saddam’s cruel regime as he grew older. After a period in jail for his outspoken poems, he and his family escaped to Kuwait, Iran and then Syria where he was safe for a number of years. When relations between Syria and Iraq started to improve, however, Iraq became able to trace dissidents like Ahmed more easily.

To safeguard his family, he made the long and dangerous journey to Australia, taking advise from his colleagues and students that it’s a vibrant multicultural society and would be sympathetic to his plea for asylum.

Australia’s treatment of people like Ahmed, however, is one of the harshest in the world.

This policy was catapulted into the international consciousness when a leaking Indonesian fishing boat full of more than four hundred mainly Afghani asylum seekers was rescued in August 2001 by Norwegian Captain Arne Rinnan and his ship, the MV Tampa.

The boat had left Indonesia and was only hours away from Christmas Island, part of Australian territorial waters. It is a route often chosen as a passage into Australia as it is a much shorter and somewhat less dangerous journey than entering the mainland directly.

With the federal elections just around the corner, Prime Minister John Howard decided to take a tough stance and refuse entry to the Tampa’s human cargo. The refugees were kept carefully away from the media, and eventually welcomed by the tiny Pacific island of Nauru. The Australian public, hampered by a paucity of both facts and, it seems, compassion, shortly afterwards elected Mr Howard for another term in office.

Whilst it’s true that there is a great deal of peaceful ethnodiversity here, true integration can take many generations as accents, attitudes and cultures synthesize and blend together. The precariously balanced racial-tolerance which exists in the majority can be undermined all too easily by reckless fear-mongering.

Since February 1998, Australia’s six detention facilities have been managed and run by a private company, Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), which is a subsidiary of the American-owned Wackenhut Corrections Corporation.

ACM has repeatedly refused entry to reporters as well as concerned members of the public. Professional health workers have to sign confidentiality agreements with ACM, and are understandably reluctant to speak out for legal reasons.

Thanks largely to a vast body of misinformation, many people now do not seem to see any discernable difference between asylum seekers and criminals. They are constantly labelled by journalists and politicians as ‘illegal immigrants’ despite the fact that those seeking asylum are legally entitled to, whether they have proper travel documents or not.

Following the initial apprehension, an asylum seeker is given a ‘pre-screening’ interview as well as health and identity checks. They are not told of their legal right to a lawyer or right to complain to the Ombudsman if mistreated.

During the interview, officials rely on hearing certain ‘key’ words to decide if they are invoking protection from the state. If the interviewee does not use the correct technical legal terms however (even the phrase ‘seeking protection’ is not enough), they are usually deported and their story becomes irrelevant, however horrific.

“When I moved into detention centre, it was 5 ½ months no DIMA [Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs], no anything. Just I have a [identity] card. No right to send letter to your family. No right to call your family. No right to hear news. No right to read newspaper. No right to see television. No. Nothing.”

Whilst in detention, detainees are called by the number on their ID cards rather than by name. Ahmed became “DON128.” Only after strong protests were they allowed a telephone (to be shared with over 1000 others) and even then, they had to clean toilets and bathrooms for a full week just to get a phone card from the guards. After no contact for so long, some family members overseas had already held funerals for their loved ones.

To understand what it is like inside Woomera, you have to first imagine three families, or up to 18 people, crammed into the small caravans (no regard to mixed religion or race) with no air-conditioning.

The camp is surrounded by several layers of fences, topped with coils of razor wire. In this desolate place once used for missile-testing, temperatures can reach the mid 40’s (around 112 Fahrenheit) during the day and below freezing at night.

Despite this, there is no shade and little recreation area. There are no English lessons, no library and those inside are often treated like in-mates by staff that are mostly trained to work in correctional facilities. Some ACM guards taunted the detainees as Ahmed explained to me:

“I remember some people in ACM, hold something [that was] heavy. I want to help him. I said to him ‘Can I help you?’. He said, ‘When you be human you can help us.’ ”

The detainees’ past trauma combined with sometimes very long incarceration periods have led to widespread psychological distress, such as major depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.) This is borne out by the many cases of self-mutilation, hunger striking and attempted suicide.

Many detainees have sewed their lips shut in protest of their conditions. A young Vietnamese woman, detained because she overstayed her student visa, recently dived off a rooftop and landed head-first on the ground below. She died after three days.

Aamer Sultan is a medical practitioner, held in the Villawood detention centre after fleeing Iraq. He conducted a survey of 33 detainees who had had their refugee claims denied, and were waiting appeal. Despite rejection, over half were victims of gross human rights violations in their previous country.

He found 58% had suffered physical torture, 30% the murder or disappearance of immediate family members and all but one displayed symptoms of psychological distress. Despite his publication in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, his results have been all but ignored here.

Particularly concerning is the detention of children, and their treatment by ACM employees. The threat of separation from their children is sometimes used by staff to force hunger-striking parents to relent, and, more generally, to encourage detainees to behave. Incompetence and insensitivity abounds. One woman who had trouble breast-feeding her six month old baby was advised to use reconstituted chicken stock instead.

Ahmed tells me about an incident that distressed him greatly. “I saw one officer hit a kid. She was daughter of four years, playing with the dirt by the fence. A guard, a very huge guard came with his feet like this [shows me a kicking motion]” When I asked him why the guard kicked her, Ahmed said that she was playing too near the fence.

Even if successful in their claim, they are given almost no help once released. They find themselves out on the street with only about $200 ($US100.) Church and humanitarian groups, often running on shoestring budgets and relying heavily on volunteers perform daily miracles. Refugees also depend on existing networks and family for support, especially whilst they try to get established in the community.

Ahmed believes that the three-year restricted Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) combined with the long period of absence has sadly caused his marriage to break down. The TPV allows only one-way travel, and as his family are also Iraqis living illegally in Syria, they cannot come to visit him.

Over the phone, his son calls him ‘uncle’ as he hasn’t seen him for so long. Integrating is an uphill battle – many potential employers are put-off by the usually poor English, the lack of Australian work history and the temporary nature of their visa.

Australia is the only western country in the world to have a compulsory detention policy. Others release most asylum seekers into the community after initial screening whilst waiting for their claim to process. Unfortunately, the negative treatment of refugees in the press, caught up in the 9/11 hysteria, has fostered the suspicion that any one of them may be a terrorist, effectively justifying the decision to keep them locked up.

Perception it seems, as is sadly too often the case, is more important than reality. The perpetrators of the world trade centre tragedy migrated to America on first-class air tickets and valid travel documents. They didn’t come on a leaky boat.

Over the past few months I’ve heard all the arguments, read the statistics and witnessed the political games. One thing that has been missing is the human side of the story and having the opportunity to talk with Ahmed at length has left an indelible impression. It’s easy to forget these are people just like us, with husbands, wives, friends and children – often escaping from suffering we can scarcely begin to imagine.

In the midst of all the heat and dust, two courageous Australian girls provided Ahmed with his most poignant memory.

“They hide themselves and came near detention centre. They throw something to us and some people of us catch it. [The guards] search everything, every caravan, every room to catch it but they couldn’t.” The girls had thrown a scrunched note and when I asked Ahmed what it said, he paused, then replied “We know you are here. We are with you.”

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