Outside the Razor-wire


Two former Baxter inmates plead with their support worker to be taken back to Baxter because it’s the trusted and familiar routine, and a lot less scary than living in a city. Another refugee tells a number of friends that ‘all Australians are stupid’. And a fourth one plans to abandon all the services, education and tutoring he has received in a major city and phones to tell a letter-writing family he’s met just once that he wants to come over to live with them, 3000 kilometres away.

The recent ‘adjustments’ to the lives of long-term detention centre detainees and their families have been quite dramatic, but what is emerging is the complete absence of after-care available to former inmates, now that they have gained their freedom and visas.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Several cases of refugees who have ignored or refused to connect to refugee support centres are surfacing. Some have suddenly abandoned host-accommodation homes, often in mansions with ample room, offered by well-to-do retired people, and are known to criss-cross the city in which they landed after detention, sleeping here, sleeping there, restless, refusing job offers for reasons trivial to us, and more seriously, refusing any form of support, guidance and counselling.

On the surface, at least, it looks as though the demands made of the Howard Government by the Petro Georgiou group on immigration policy and practice have been successful – the database used by the refugee advocates’ network shows that in the first week of August there were just thirty asylum claimants in the Baxter detention centre and eight each in Maribyrnong and Villawood. Meanwhile, the Christmas Island centre lies deserted after all the Vietnamese passengers of the Hao Kiet who ‘almost’ reached Port Hedland in 2003 have finally left their Orwellian isolation and most of them have been declared to be refugees on a second review.

However, the changes in mandatory detention procedures did not take into account a central aspect of the issue: the transitional management of long-term detainees in the community. This has created new tasks, new priorities and new demands for the advocates’ network.

Already the army of refugee supporters is going quiet. Those who dedicated themselves to regularly visiting detention centres may well feel as if they’re out of work on the weekends. And the general public could be excused for thinking the horrors of long-term detention have vanished, as the almost daily reports of the agony of detention centres are rapidly disappearing from the pages of Australian newspapers.

Refugee welfare and care centres, however, are suddenly very busy: the number of their clients who are in a deep state of shock and who show severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder has increased considerably.

Australia’s policy of keeping people locked up ‘forever’ has permanently damaged hundreds of people, broken their trust in what Australia has to offer and destroyed their confidence in their own ability to engage with society think of the little girl who lived in Woomera who asked whether flowers grew in Australia. Those recently released from Baxter may have been ‘amongst us’ for five, six or seven years, but they have never been in Australia – and suddenly we throw them out on the street.

Demand for life-long psychiatric and psycho-social support services for the long-term detainees was not a part of the Georgiou deals. We owe it to the political prisoners of Howard’s 2001 election campaign to offer a full program of restorative justice, no matter what it costs. But it seems that only Australia’s border protection policies were designed on a ‘no-matter-what-it-costs’ basis, while John Howard remains mean and tricky when it comes to assisting those whom he tortured. The costs of permanent detention are still borne by its victims – they are just less visible to the media now that they are not behind bars.

The family of one young Iranian refugee has taken the demand for compensation into their own hands. Shayan Badraie, now ten, is suing the Federal Government and detention centre operators Australasian Correctional Services and Australasian Correctional Management for damages, claiming they ignored advice about the effect of detention on the boy’s mental health. There are likely to be more such cases in the near future.

Meanwhile, on 21 July Australia’s Governor-General signed off on changes to the excision regulations and two detention centres are being built in the Northern Territory at Gove, and on Horn Island – outside the migration zone. A motion by Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett to disallow the excision of thousands of islands from Australia’s migration zone has just been defeated along party lines.

Perhaps that’s a good thing. If you’re close to retiring you can now have your sea change and move to Groote Island, Melville Island or Magnetic Island and feel pretty safe. At least, you’ll never meet an Immigration officer or a staffer from the Department of Immigration, who may lock you up or deport you to an unknown destination because you have an Un-Australian accent.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.