Sonia Chirgwin was waiting in the Sydney terminal for permission to re-board flight TG993, a Thai International flight from Bangkok which would be returning to Bangkok via Melbourne. She’d been in the air for nine hours; one more hour and she would be landing in Melbourne near midnight.
When the announcement came to get back on board, she walked down the aisle to her seat at the rear of the plane, now almost empty as most of the passengers had disembarked in Sydney.
She sat down and clipped on her seatbelt, beside an Australian man living in Thailand who had the window.
Someone with an Australian accent was clearing space in the overhead lockers nearby and assuring the few remaining passengers that any ‘disturbance would be minimal’.
Then Sonia heard metal scraping as if someone in a wheel chair was coming through the rear entrance to the plane. She looked up to see three men approaching; two big men were pushing another man.
The face of the man in the middle was partly covered by shiny black bands of gaffer tape that had been wound tightly around his head. His hair was sticking out in all directions and he was in chains. The gaffer tape covered the lower half of his face to his chin and pulled so tightly that the flesh around his cheeks was distorted. His nose was cramped, leaving only a small amount of breathing room.
His wrists and ankles were locked in hand cuffs — the chrome bracelets fastened by chains to a dark brown leather belt that gathered the light blue overalls at his waist — forcing him to shuffle.
As he was lifted into a seat across the aisle from Sonia, the man’s eyes (which she describes as Middle Eastern and not Asian) met hers in a look she recalls as pained and distraught. A travel blanket was thrown over him to cover his chains and an airline eyeshade used to blindfold him. Cocooned like this, the only thing now distinguishing him from any other sleeping passenger was the gaffer tape.
Sonia tried to get a look at the laminated identity tags the men wore around their necks and asked one of them if the man between them was all right because she was concerned that he might be having difficulty breathing. She was told, with barely disguised hostility, that this was a matter they weren’t going to talk about.
‘Welcome to Australia’, she said, shocked at this first experience of home after being away working as an environmental consultant in South East Asia for a year.
Now the third man — the one with the Australian accent who’d reassured the few passengers earlier — reappeared.
He explained to Sonia that they had been negotiating with the man for eight hours but that he had refused to stop screaming. He had the choice, the man said, to be taken on the plane reasonably, but would not comply. It was one of the worst cases he had faced as a negotiator because they had tried everything to get him to cooperate.
He went on to tell her in calm and rational tones that they would be going on from Melbourne to Bangkok with the man and from there to a destination he could not reveal. It occurred to Sonia that he was trying to pacify her; to get her to believe that they were doing the right thing.
Before the 2001 election, John Howard announced that ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’. And the government has indeed done so.
But the PM was only telling us half the story. The bit he left out was the circumstances under which they leave.
A spokesman for the Department of Immigration, Mr Paul Giles, when contacted for this story, denied Sonia’s claims, describing her as ‘just some refugee advocate beating the drum’, because, he says, ‘the government would never gaffer tape someone’s mouth like that’.
Another spokesman for the Department, Mr Andrew Gavin, did confirm that a ‘removal operation’ had taken place on 13 December last year (the date Sonia’s flight landed in Sydney) and was able to clarify that a removal operation is different from a deportation, which is what happens when Australia deports criminals, but refused to discuss any particulars or the details of the operation. Told that the truth of her account was challenged, Sonia was amazed. "Why on earth would I make something like this up" she says.
John Howard’s statement of 2001 conflicts with the universally stated sovereign privilege of individuals to enter a nation uninvited to seek asylum; a sovereign privilege that should be paired with positive and partisan treatment of those arriving, especially by UN Member nations.
Without Sonia’s account of this ‘removal operation’ we would have no idea exactly what that term really meant, drained as it is of all colour and meaning.
Since it was endorsed for another term in October last year, the Federal government has been busy clearing a large number of detainees seeking asylum from countries they have escaped in fear.
This month an Iranian and a Sudanese man who spent seven years as Australia’s longest held detainee, have been removed. It is alleged that both men were sedated on departure and that the Sudanese man received a repeat injection in transit.
When Sonia asked why the man with his face covered in gaffer tape was being treated in this way, she was told that the choice was either restraining him or spending taxpayer’s money on a charter plane.
Presumably this means that on late night flights in future Australians may well encounter other human beings in the process of ‘being removed’ — perhaps the only opportunity a lot of Australians will ever get to witness the plight of people whose pleas for help ‘we’ have refused.
Project Safe website: The man with the gag: witnessing a forced deportation
Spencer Zifcak, No way out: the High Court and children in detention, in New Matilda: Issue 20 (Wed 12 Jan 2005)
Radio 3CR, Two Broadcast transcripts – Forced into isolation, chemically sedated, physically restrained, and deported in secrecy.
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