IT IS EASY to hide people in the vast expanse of Western Australia. The state stretches thousands of kilometres, from the sweltering north to the cold winds of the rugged south, and extends to remote islands far off the coast such as Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, 2,600 kilometres north-west of Perth. There are plenty of places to lock people up and keep them hidden from view.
For more than twenty years, Australian legislation has enabled the mandatory detention of people who arrive here without a valid visa. This includes asylum seekers who make it to Australia by boat in the hope of finding a safe haven. Mandatory detention means they can be held until their refugee protection claims have been finalised, even if it takes years. This is despite the fact that Department of Immigration figures show the vast majority are eventually found to be refugees who cannot safely return home.
At any one time, nearly five thousand people can be concealed behind electrified fences in three of the nation’s largest sites of immigration detention. One is on Christmas Island, the Australian non-self-governing external territory, where nearly three thousand can be held. Another lies one hundred kilometres east of Perth in the town of Northam, which has a maximum-security, prison-like structure capable of detaining up to six hundred people. The third is in the Kimberley region of the state’s isolated north, on the grounds of the Curtin Royal Australian Air Force base, where fifteen hundred people can be hidden.
Caroline Fleay, an academic and refugee advocate, was a regular visitor to the Curtin immigration detention centre throughout 2011. One of the first people she met there was Nadir Ali Rezai. Nadir was held in immigration detention for sixteen months following his arrival in Australia by boat to seek asylum, and he spent most of this time at Curtin. Drawing on Nadir’s experiences of being detained, and Caroline’s observations and conversations with others held at Curtin, we outline below the experiences of people who were detained for long periods at this time in remote Western Australia. When Nadir and hundreds of others were finally released from detention, some of them came to Perth. Caroline and fellow academic and advocate Lisa Hartley meet often with some of the men who continue to wait for their refugee claims to be finalised. Lisa draws on her observations to convey a sense of their lives in the Perth community, where they effectively remain hidden.
VISITING INSIDE THE FENCES: CAROLINE
IT TAKES A lot of time and money to visit the Curtin detention site. Throughout 2011, I made this journey every few months with several other refugee advocates and spent hours over the ensuing days talking with as many of these hidden people as possible. The quickest and cheapest way from Perth, without driving for three days, is a two-and-a-half hour flight to Broome, then hiring or borrowing a car and driving in the direction of Derby for another two hours. The final five kilometres is down a long stretch of road punctuated by warning signs:
TRESPASSING UPON THIS LAND IS FORBIDDEN
NO THROUGH ROAD
There are no signs to indicate that hundreds of asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat are locked up just beyond the horizon.
When we reached Curtin for the first time in January 2011, what hit me most was the utter isolation of the place, reinforced by the weariness of the long journey. We saw a large collection of demountable huts, surrounded by two looming electrified rows of wire fencing, in the oppressive heat of the Kimberley wet season when temperatures average 36 degrees and humidity reaches over 95 per cent. Curtin can hold well over a thousand people in indefinite detention. But as we entered, only a few bodies could be seen moving between huts or sitting under the few trees within the fences.
At the time, Curtin detained twelve hundred men who had fled the violence of Afghanistan. Most were members of the long-persecuted Hazara ethnic group. I felt as if we had stumbled across a secret prisoner-of-war camp for Afghans. Several months later, the Afghans were joined by Iranian and Sri Lankan men seeking asylum. Many were still there by the end of 2011. The majority had left their families behind to take the dangerous boat journey to Australia alone, hoping that once a safe refuge had been found they could arrange for their families to join them.
The toxic combination of many hours spent worrying about their families, their claims for refugee status, and not knowing when they would be released soon became evident. Despair at Curtin was as rampant as the mosquitoes, and every time I visited I saw the escalated ageing of men as that despair was etched into their faces.
In a reinforcing loop of trauma, everyone had to bear witness to the toll that indefinite imprisonment was having on them all. Many saw an older Afghan man pacing the compound, incessantly talking to himself. They saw that the detention officers employed by Serco Australia, the multinational corporation contracted to manage the place, were often ill-equipped to deal with increasing numbers of men who clearly needed psychiatric help.
Self-harming and suicide attempts became commonplace across Curtin. It was devastating when nineteen-year-old Mohammed Asif Atay killed himself on 28 March 2011, after ten months in detention.
The officers began to use some of the detainees with good English language skills as interpreters to help communicate with others who were in the midst of their profound moments of crisis. I spoke with one of the enforced interpreters a few days afterwards. The experience catapulted him back to a few months earlier, when he had saved another man’s life by holding up his hanging body until a Serco officer could cut the rope around his neck. The enforced interpreter closed in on himself, and began to spend most days hidden in his room.
Growing numbers of men would fall asleep with the help of sleeping tablets just before sunrise. They tried to keep their minds closed to their surroundings for as long as they could during daylight. There was no point in getting up. All that can be done with an exhausted mind in a scorching environment is to worry. Many men told me that phone calls to loved ones left in situations of insecurity back home rarely brought relief, only further worry and feelings of no longer being a man. They listened to their children asking when they would come home on outside phones barely sheltered from the beating sun, and in the midst of the biting mosquitoes that swarmed in the evening.
TRAPPED BEHIND THE FENCES: NADIR
I WAS LOCKED up at Curtin for fourteen months following a few months in the detention centre on Christmas Island. I was one of the first to arrive at Curtin after the Labor government reopened the site in June 2010. It had been out of operation since 2002, when the Coalition government closed it down following a riot by those it had imprisoned.
In an effort to distinguish Curtin Mark II from its previous infamy, attempts were made to make it appear humane. Air-conditioned ‘dongas’ were erected to protect against the heat and swarms of biting insects. A few health professionals were hired to prescribe Panadol, sleeping tablets and anti-depressants to dampen the pain that accompanies being locked up for months.
I had left the mountainous terrain of landlocked Afghanistan for the giant island of Australia, and was amazed by the blue expanse of the Indian Ocean as I was flown from Christmas Island to the mainland. The red Kimberley soil felt welcoming. Perhaps I would finally be safe from the persecution that I and many other members of the Hazara ethnic group had faced for more than a century in our country. But I soon found myself behind electrified fences, the type seen on the news about Guantanamo Bay, where the United States government kept those it called terrorists. My sense of welcome vanished.
When we first entered Curtin, we saw a bed sheet tied to a strong tree branch in one of the centre compounds. We understood that an asylum seeker had placed it there to hang himself when the detention centre had last been in operation in 2002. The sheet was almost completely worn but its message was as potent as if someone had taken his life right in front of us. It was terrifying, and we wondered what our fate would be. The following year, I saw the body of young Mohammad Asif Atay. He had hung himself with a bed sheet.
One day, hundreds of us were visited by a delegation of Aboriginal elders. We were Australia’s newest arrivals and we were quietly greeted by the First Australians. ‘Welcome to Australia.’ ‘We hope you’ll find it a safe place.’ ‘We wish we could help you more.’ The elders left a book for us to read about the Stolen Generations. I studied the book, and as I absorbed the misery of its story it was upsetting to realise that yet another part of the earth had endured the yoke of British imperialism. Clearly, Aboriginal Australians continued to live with the impact of genocidal policies. So did the Hazara people, many of whom had suffered under the brutal reign of a British-backed king in Afghanistan (Abdur Rahman Khan) at the end of the nineteenth century. Thousands were killed and others were forced from their homes and enslaved.
Hazaras continue to experience the impact of that terrible massacre and displacement, as well as ongoing persecution within Afghanistan. Militias such as the Taliban have targeted us for decades, in part because we are Shia Muslims and the Central Asian features of many Hazara people make us highly visible. Hundreds of us who fled this ever-present fear of persecution ended up hidden in the remoteness of the Kimberley.
We were locked behind electrified fences for many months. As small boats continued to arrive in Australia, more men from Afghanistan, and others from Sri Lanka and Iran, crowded Curtin beyond its holding capacity. Some spent two years and many long waking hours in the place, waiting for news of their request for refugee status. For the first six months of my detention, my refugee claim was ignored. I had arrived in the wake of the Labor government’s decision to freeze the processing of Afghans’ claims for six months and Sri Lankans’ for three months, with the justification that conditions in these countries were about to improve. They did not.
It was incomprehensible to me and many others that we were being deprived of our basic human rights in Australia, just as Hazaras had been in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. It felt as if the Australian Government had thrown the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the bin. I was sure that such discrimination could not reflect the attitudes of all Australians, but still we had to endure it. Processing for Afghans finally resumed at the end of six months, but many waited more than another year for the processing of their claim to be finalised.
Visitors were rare and most were welcomed, but there were some unpleasant occasions, such as when then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott visited Curtin and talked to us like a bullying kid in school.
Outings from the hidden site were also rare. Some men were escorted by Serco officers to see the Boab Prison Tree on the road leading to Derby, where they were told Aboriginal people had been imprisoned overnight in the late nineteenth century. Most other outings were for medical purposes. After thirteen months at Curtin, I was driven the forty-five minutes into Derby District Hospital for treatment for an arm injury. Despite the physical pain, the drive to town felt joyful. Once in Derby, however, I saw groups of Aboriginal people walking together but apart from other people. I knew of the Rudd government’s apology to the Stolen Generations and yet I could see the distance between the peoples of this town, and it shocked me.
NADIR WAS RELEASED from Curtin in late 2011. By this time there was a growing list of reports documenting the mental-health impacts of long-term detention in Curtin and other Australian sites of immigration detention. Mirroring the findings of earlier reports on indefinite detention, mental-health professionals, human-rights organisations, refugee advocates, academics and journalists highlighted the self-harming, suicide attempts and suicides in Australia’s immigration detention centres.
While women and children began to be released from their sites of detention in late 2010, it took another year before the Labor government began allowing men to be released before their refugee claim was finalised. By May 2012, most of the men detained in Curtin from 2010 had been allowed to leave their remote imprisonment. By the end of that year, more than 90 per cent had been given a permanent visa to remain in Australia, according to the department’s annual publication, Asylum Trends Australia 2012-13. After locking them up for many months, the government finally recognised that almost all of the men detained in Curtin had a well-founded fear of persecution should they be returned to their own country.
Some of these men now live in Perth. One man, Noor, was released from detention in March 2012, twenty-two months after arriving in Australia by boat. A Hazara man, he had also fled the persecution in Afghanistan. Noor is not his real name. The continuing insecurity of his status in Australia means that we have to conceal his identity.
Along with six hundred of those detained between 2010 and 2012, Noor’s claim for refugee status has not yet been finalised. Reports from asylum seekers detained during this time highlight the many inconsistent findings between Department of Immigration officials and independent reviewers of their decisions. The Labor government’s Minister for Immigration, Brendan O’Connor, finally conceded in 2013 that many of the claims given negative decisions had to be reassessed. One year later, the men continue to wait for this to be done.
RELEASED BUT NOT YET FREE: LISA
NOOR LIVES WITH four other Hazara men in a Perth suburb that is characterised by cheap housing and poor infrastructure and public transport. Caroline and I visit regularly for a chat and a cup of Afghan tea, or sometimes dinner. From the outside, the house looks like any other in the street – a small, weathered red-brick. But inside, the men’s lives are starkly different to those of their neighbours. In the two-bedroom house, many waking hours are spent sitting in the living room, thinking and worrying about their future.
When Noor was released from detention he was given a bridging visa that granted him the right to work; he was desperate to find a job so he could send money to his family, who were suffering in his absence. He also hoped that work would disrupt the depression that plagued him in Curtin. He found a job gutting chickens soon after settling in Perth and worked hard, sometimes seven days a week, until he injured his hand. As the months in the community surpassed the months in detention, with no resolution to his refugee claim, depression took a strong hold again. Noor is now too unwell to work and is entitled to little government financial assistance. ‘I feel like a beggar,’ he says.
Mehdi, another man whose name we cannot reveal, also lives in the house. He is one of thousands across Australia, including fifteen hundred people in Perth, who are subject to a policy first implemented by the Labor government that denies the right to work to asylum seekers who reached Australia by sea after 13 August 2012. The denial of working rights was part of the government’s attempt to deter the further arrival of asylum seekers by boat.
In some ways Mehdi is lucky. Another deterrent policy sent asylum seekers to offshore sites of detention on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. Instead, Mehdi was held in detention centres in Australia before being released into the Perth community on a bridging visa. In other ways, he is unlucky. He continues to wait for his refugee claims to be considered some two years after his arrival in Australia, and is surviving on very little financial support. He often thinks about the dangerous boat journey from Indonesia to Christmas Island. The boat was cramped and the ocean terrifying. He remembers the relief when, after five exhausting days at sea, an Australian customs vessel was spotted on the horizon. Mehdi’s feet touched Christmas Island’s jetty on 16 August 2012. If he had arrived just three days earlier, he would have been given the right to work. During the long days in the house, with little to do, this deprivation feels bitterly unfair.
Mehdi survives on a government payment of about $221 per week, equivalent to 89 per cent of the Centrelink Special Benefit. While Perth is home to some of Australia’s wealthiest households, it also hosts a growing number of people who struggle to meet the high living costs of a city flush with the profits of mining. After paying rent, Mehdi is left with $16 a day to cover all his expenses. This includes food, clothing, transport and phone credit to call his family. Public transport is not subsidised for asylum seekers in Perth, and the cost of taking a bus or train means they can rarely travel far.
Some weeks, Mehdi has to supplement his allowance with vouchers from a charity in the Perth CBD, a fifty-minute journey by bus and train. He finds this humiliating but has no choice – the few supportive charities are also stretched beyond their capacity. Some agencies provide free English lessons but they are also located near the CBD. The thirty-minute walk to the local library is one of the few activities available to them outside the house. There are many waking hours spent inside with little to do. ‘It’s like living in a cage,’ Medhi says.
Mehdi and Noor, and the others in the house, continue to worry about their families. Noor has not seen his wife and four children for more than four years. For Mehdi it has been two. Before December 2013, there was the prospect that after being granted a permanent visa an application could be made to the Department of Immigration for visas for immediate family members. The Coalition government now refuses to process family visa applications until Australian citizenship is gained. The government also insists that people applying for refugee status who arrived by boat will be issued only temporary visas. Temporary visas do not allow them to apply for family reunion.
Mehdi and Noor sometimes show Caroline and me photos of the smiling young faces of their children. Noor talks about how much they have grown since he last held them. ‘I am not concerned for myself. I am only concerned for my family.’
Just as they would with their families back home, the men eat dinner with us on the floor of their living room. For people who have so little money, their generosity and hospitality is humbling. Dinnertime discussion often turns to trying to make sense of the latest official announcement about which visas may be granted to asylum seekers, who may be allowed to stay in Australia and who might be told to go. At other times, they eat in silence. Sometimes, after dinner, Noor brings welcome respite with the nostalgic sound of the dambora, a long-necked string instrument that he made when he was in Curtin, and he sings old Hazaragi folk songs. But sadness is never far away. At the back of their minds, they are all waiting for news that will determine the future for themselves and their families.
NOOR AND MEHDI are no longer locked behind electrified fences, yet they continue to be hidden. They remain isolated and out of view of most Western Australians. So too are more than fifteen hundred asylum seekers currently locked inside sites of immigration detention throughout the state, according to the department’s July 2014 Immigration Detention and Community Statistics Summary.