Real Aussie battlers

by Colin Peacock / 31 January, 2004
"For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share," says Australia's national anthem - a hollow sentiment for the hundreds locked up indefinitely under Australia's controversial policy of mandatory detention.

As our car picks a path through the clogged main roads of Sydney's western suburbs, Judy Hunt cranes her neck and squints up through the windscreen at the sky. The clouds threaten rain. Not good.

This wiry, Wellington-born campaigner works tirelessly to get people out of detention. She needs to review several cases today, but if the heavens open before we get to Villawood, she knows they'll be packed in under a small canopy that offers the only cover in the outdoor compound where visitors and detainees are allowed to meet.

"There are hardly any seats or space at the tables," she frets. "I'll never get through the paperwork in time."

After World War II, thousands of exhausted European refugees passed through Villawood in the government's postwar push to "Populate or Perish". Helpful staff were on hand to smooth their path into alien Australian society.

Today, Villawood houses hundreds more foreigners hoping for a future in Australia. But these ones - mostly from Asia, Africa and the Middle East - came without an invite and there's no welcome mat.

Instead, they're held indefinitely behind two steel fences topped with tightly rolled razor wire, and watched over by Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) - the company running Australia's private jails and Auckland's Central Remand Prison.

Australia's policy of mandatory detention dates back to 1992, but after the Tampa affair and the Bali bombing, former Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock enforced it more rigorously than was envisaged back then. Across the six states hundreds languish in places such as Villawood. There have been forced deportations, breakouts, riots and hunger strikes at the harshest ones. Suicide, self-harm and mental breakdowns happen all the time.

To visit, you pretend that you're a friend. You need their full names (correctly spelt), nationalities and their six-digit reference numbers. And you need patience - the queue is long, the officials slow. You leave cameras, phones, recorders and money back in the car.

The detainees fear that talking to journalists will harm their case, and it's hard to get them to speak openly. Sometimes they wander off in mid-sentence, nodding towards the uniformed ACM outside the wire, peering in from the cabs of patrolling Holden utes.

While Hunt distributes food and case notes, helpful detainees persuade others to interpret those with bad English. Some seem unwilling, as if they no longer believe that anything will speed their passage from this place.

But among those eager to make progress is an Iranian family from a minority that's unloved by the country's Islamic rulers. The two youngest sons have obvious intellectual handicaps, and their case for either refugee status or compassionate consideration should be rock solid, says Hunt. But like all the others here, they wait indefinitely for an assessment of their claim.

"Their stories are simply not being believed," says Hunt. "People have a hearing on arrival, and are generally refused. Any inconsistency in the review tribunal, any discrepancy in the retelling, and their testimony is rejected as 'not credible'. And that can't be appealed.

"Yet there's nothing to show any link between refugees [in detention] and al-Qaeda or any organisation like that. Anyone in the country with that sort of agenda didn't come in on a leaky boat."

Those in Villawood do at least get the attention of support networks in nearby Sydney.

Anne Simpson's suspicions about conditions in the far-flung detention centres prompted her to make an epic countrywide bus tour of all of them. After arriving at the remote Port Hedland centre in Northern Territory, she was shocked when detainees rushed to the fence to vent their anger.

"These people had never had visitors. They had hardly any communication with the outside world," she recalls.

"Some just cried for two hours. Others were yelling out, 'I'm YAK 240' and 'I'm ELF 678'. They weren't even using their names. They'd got so conditioned to referring to themselves by their numbers."

Among them was Cheikh Kone. On Simpson's videotape of that day, he's pawing at the wire, ranting angrily about "this concentration camp" and "the renewed holocaust". Eighteen months later, he lives - improbably - in Sydney's millionaires' seaside suburb of Mosman.

"The mental persecution is the worst thing," recalls Kone, a journalist who fled the Ivory Coast in 2000. He stowed away on a freighter he thought was bound for Europe, only to emerge in Fremantle.

"You are not being told anything about your case. It's like having your life in limbo. If I'd killed somebody, at least I'd know when I could get out."

With the help of Jesuit campaigners, Kone got a visa and a teaching job in a Sydney high school. He's even got an agent for the book he hopes to write about his experience.

Others are even further from any source of support - there are the 284 people still marooned by the so-called "Pacific Solution" under the searing equatorial sun of Nauru. And then there's the remarkable case of young Afghan man Aladdin Sisalem, detained in Australian facilities on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.

"It's as bad as Guantanamo Bay," says prominent Melbourne QC Julian Burnside. "We have not managed to get an independent lawyer anywhere near any of the detainees in Nauru in two and a half years. These people - innocent of any offence - have been denied any legal help at all."

Yet, if people who fled for their lives are being kept safe by Australia - albeit not in five-star comfort - is that not a fair go?

"These people are more than battlers - they've got real guts. They've made a trip that could easily have killed them, and they're being denied liberty and justice," says Burnside.

"We're treating innocent people harshly to deter others. That's immoral. The numbers [of asylum seekers] are tiny set against our orthodox migration stream, but the cost of detention is enormous. There's no logic here."

But PM John Howard's unyielding stance during the Tampa affair helped him win an election that he looked set to lose. He says the 12,000-plus official refugees Australia takes in annually prove that Australia is a humanitarian country - and that asylum seekers are jumping the queue. He's also backed by polls showing that Australians agree you can't be too careful who you let in.

So veteran political analyst Malcolm McKerrass says Howard will keep "toughing out" the bad publicity.

"But the defence of the policy is a pack of lies," he says. "Liberal Members of Parliament tell me, 'Look. We're getting away with it. The public agrees with us. Why should we ditch a popular policy just because you think we're hypocrites?' Seriously! That's what they say."

He has known Howard for years, but last year he turned down his annual invitation to Australia Day drinks at the PM's lodge.

"I wrote to tell him I couldn't in all conscience socialise with [the detainees'] chief tormentor," he says, flourishing the letter and Howard's polite reply.

Refugee campaigners say Howard's policy is not only politically expedient, it's also racist. Why, they ask, were Cambodian and Vietnamese arrivals taken in just a generation ago - and not today's boat people? Why are greater numbers of British and Irish overstayers, who work illegally, not detained also?

"Islamophobia," says geographer Kevin Dunn, bluntly.

In his surveys of attitudes to race - the most comprehensive carried out since the Tampa affair - nearly half of those interviewed say some groups did not belong in Australia - "and they overwhelmingly singled out Muslims and people from the Middle East".

Some say Australia's immigration policy ought to follow that lead.

Wolfgang Kaspar speaks for the Centre for Independent Studies - a think tank credited with influencing and supporting Howard's brand of activist conservatism. He advocates another historic expansion of the Australian population, but not accommodating "these disoriented poor people". Transforming refugees from "cultures alien to ours", he says, involves "transaction costs that are too high. New Zealand did us a big favour taking those people from the Tampa.

"People from the Middle East just don't settle well," he insists. "It's not much to do with religion - more to do with the fanaticism needed to survive in desert cultures."

While the debate rages, the detention centres that once housed thousands are slowly emptying. Many detainees have accepted cash incentives to return home, rather than live in limbo. More are taking up the controversial temporary protection visas that get them out, but oblige them to leave Australia after three years. And others, such as Cheikh Kone, have won lengthy court battles to get a visa.

But Burnside says Howard and his former Immigration Minister Ruddock could yet be called to account for mandatory detention.

"Australia has signed up to the International Criminal Court. We now have in our criminal code some very exotic offences. In theory, senior ministers could be charged with crimes against humanity."

But any prosecution would have to come from the top - from Australia's Attorney-General, no less.

And since last October's reshuffle, the man behind that desk is none other than Phillip Ruddock.

"Do you think he's going to go closely into his own conduct?" asks Burnside, ruefully.

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