From Under A Leaky Roof


People fleeing from Afghanistan and the Middle East and seeking asylum in Australia in recent years have occupied much of the public’s imagination in a quite disproportionate fashion, given the actual numbers and issues involved.

Misleading and highly pejorative descriptive terms such as ‘flood’, ‘tidal wave’, ‘swamping’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘illegals’ have dominated and agitated the discourse, which has been further inflamed by a succession of accidental and deliberate misconstructions of the actions and motives of asylum seekers.

Current Realities

Statistics released in April 2002 report that there were 1,618 people detained in Australian detention centres. Of these, almost 400 had been detained for up to three months, 450 for three to nine months and the remainder, some 750 for more than nine months. Of these, 250 had been detained for more than 18 months. This number includes some 28 minors.

In the ten months prior to April 2002, there had been nearly 12,000 people in detention centres (this number includes those arriving by routes other than by boat), including 1800 minors. Most of these had been released or returned. In the period 2000â ‚¬ œ02, Afghans made up 27 per cent of those seeking refuge. Iraqis and Iranians constituted the two other largest groups (33 per cent and 13 per cent respectively). Male asylum seekers outnumbered females by six to one.

Present and past detainees tend to present coherent reports about life in the centres. It is tolerable – with exceptions – for short periods, especially when a protection visa appears forthcoming. But for those whose initial applications have been rejected and who are now waiting on the results of appeals, or for those who have had all avenues of appeal exhausted and are awaiting deportation, detention becomes an unbearable sentence. The situation is particularly distressing for the many who cannot be deported, because of their home countries and other countries refusing to accept them:

On the plane [from Christmas Island to Perth]we were not allowed to go to the toilets and we were not allowed to have any water. And the ACM guards were sitting all over the plane. I myself, because I was interpreting for the people, one of the guards asked me at that time in Perth that, ‘You know where you are heading to?’ And I said ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Have you ever heard about Woomera?’ And I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘God help you.’ And at that time I really realised that it’s true that we are going to a bad place. (Amir Al-Obaidi, Compass, ‘Strangers on the Shore’, ABC TV 2002)

Later the Howard Government hurriedly developed (some would say ‘developed’ is too elevated a word) and implemented the ‘Pacific Solution’ policy of intercepting asylum seekers before they reached the Australian migration zones, and relocating them to hastily co-opted countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Detention centres were slapped together on these islands, the asylum seekers incarcerated and the UNHCR left to deal with the problem.

Afghani Child

Politically, this tactic permitted the Government to claim further success in dealing with Australia’s refugee burden, and boast that with these new measures, no boat people at all were reaching Australia. Economically, the costs of this ‘solution’ have been enormous – in Nauru’s case, the expenses paid by Australia practically saving them from bankruptcy.

As refugees were removed from the public eye almost entirely, media scrutiny dropped off and public interest faded: reporting on ‘un-people’ from small islands in the middle of the Pacific is ‘slow news’, to use John Pilger’s terms.

This is just as well for the Government, as the human cost has been extraordinary, with detainees becoming even further isolated, living in unacceptable conditions, in some cases abandoned by the camp staff for weeks at a time. Detainees have become depressed and suicidal, and families have been split up.

We heard that it is like Aliabad [in Australia], but we didn’t really know We didn’t know that it is like a prison where people go crazy and die. On this unsuccessful journey, we have seen that we are dead as people. Only because of God’s kindness are we still alive … Australia claims to honour human rights, but as I am a witness, it is a deceiving claim … have they forgotten Nauru? (Extract from letter of a detainee on Nauru sent to her husband in Perth, my translation, 2002.)

Aliabad is used as a metaphor here – Aliabad was a mental asylum near the University in Kabul, set in beautiful parkland, and it appeared a place of beauty and calm. The reality was that inside, it was a place of cruelty where people were mad. It was a prison where people died.

Recent Changes to Policy

Up until October 1999, all asylum seekers reaching Australia, once determined to be refugees, were granted permanent protection visas. Alarmed at the increase in numbers of those arriving by boat over the period 1998â ‚¬ œ99, the Government introduced the temporary protection visa (TPV).

The substantial difference is that the TPV limits the holder to a three-year visa, which will be reviewed in the final six months. Those who are found to no longer be in need of protection will be returned to their countries of origin or to another country that will accept them. Those who are still in need of protection will be given either another TPV or in rare cases, a permanent visa. To gain a permanent visa, TPV holders need to meet criteria based on their travel to Australia and the date on which they first applied for protection. These criteria are strictly adhered to and only a small number of TPV holders meet them.

The TPV significantly reduces the rights and entitlements of holders – access to welfare benefits and education, counselling and assistance are all more limited and the holder may not leave Australia without revoking his or her right to re-entry, nor may they sponsor their family to come to Australia. In effect, this visa is created to be as unattractive as possible, while meeting the minimum standards needed for Australia not to be in breach of international conventions on refugees and of humanitarian law.

Not satisfied with the results this new visa class was achieving, in September 2001 the Government amended the Migration Act legislation to further limit the entitlements it conferred, specifically with regard to those holding TPVs.

Under the new conditions, any asylum seeker arriving directly in Australian territory who lodges an application for a protection visa who had ‘resided’ more than seven days in a potential refuge country en route to Australia can never apply for or obtain a permanent visa, though the minister does have the discretion to waive this condition. This ruling cannot otherwise be appealed.

The precedent to the TPV can be found in the Safe Haven visas granted to Kosovars who were evacuated to Australia during the Balkan conflict of 1998â ‚¬ œ99. The same approach was employed for East Timorese in 1999â ‚¬ œ2000.

The Kosovar and East Timorese communities, while housed in military barracks, were still relatively free to interact in the community and a comprehensive range of services was provided. It is suggested by some writers that this interaction and the corresponding relationships, mutual cultural exchanges and broad public awareness that developed, are in part what fuelled the protests at the Kosovars’ forced return in 1999â ‚¬ œ2000.

In 1999, I worked closely with the Kosovars sent to Western Australia, providing counselling, and during th
is time observed how the Kosovars’ proximity and the ease of contact with local people meant that they came to be seen as human, as real, as people like us. Empathy developed.

There has been no corresponding opportunity for interaction and the development of broad-based empathy with asylum seekers in remote camps. This subsequent dearth of relationships, absence of cultural learning, exchange and understanding have left a public vulnerable to propaganda and cynical manipulation. This weakness has been effectively exploited many times.

Refugees as Rhetoric

There has been only modest resistance presented to the innuendo, misinformation and outright lies that have dominated public discourse on the nature and motivations of refugees and few credible alternative scenarios have got off the ground. Mistruths have been free to run unchecked, finding fertile soil in the fear and ignorance of the public:

On the numbers and natures of refugees seeking asylum in Australia:

PHILIP RUDDOCK, then Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs: … this is a national emergency … It is an assault on our borders … So-called boat people are flying first class into Indonesia and Malaysia before boarding rickety vessels for Australia … people who have the money, those who are prepared to break our law, those who are prepared to deal with people smugglers and criminals.

On links with criminals and terrorists:

PHILIP RUDDOCK: … [detainees are]people who may have substantial criminal records, who could be murderers, could be terrorists …

PETER REITH, then Minister for Defence: [the asylum seekers]may well include underground members of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. [Unauthorised arrivals of boat people] can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities.

DIMIA: There are also in immigration detention former terrorists, former senior officers and military personnel of despotic regimes, people who are suspected of crimes against humanity.

On claims that asylum seekers had thrown children over the side of their vessel:
PHILIP RUDDOCK: … disturbingly a number of children have been thrown overboard, again with the intention of putting us under duress … I regard this as one of the most disturbing practices I’ve come across …

JOHN HOWARD, Prime Minister: Quite frankly, I don’t want in this country people who are prepared, if those reports are true, to throw their own children overboard. And that kind of emotional blackmail is very distressing … I don’t want those type of people here, I really don’t.

PETER REITH: It is an absolute fact, children were thrown in the water … if you don’t accept that, you don’t accept anything.

It would be untrue to suggest that it is only from the Government that such dangerous notions have come. But most of them have. And statements from the Government carry a weight that other comments may not; they are assumed to be true and subject to less immediate critique. Anyway, the final responsibility for leadership – and perhaps more importantly, integrity – in a public issue such as this is with the Government and they have been quick to raise the red flag, quick to wave it around, and slow to lower it.

Under A Leaky Roof by Phil Sparrow

It should be clear that the emotional weight attached to the label ‘terrorist’ assumed far greater negative significance post-September 11, 2001. In its frequent co-option of this term, either the Government of Australia didn’t realise this, or it did realise, and didn’t care. More sinisterly, and perhaps more likely, it realised and intentionally used the term in conversations and statements about refugees and asylum seekers to further polarise attitudes and gain support for its position.

These sentiments and these changes in language have won the support of the Australian public through rhetoric such as that quoted above and, in spite of little or no evidence to support the various claims, derision and accusations levelled at asylum seekers.

There is no flood. There is no border assault. No children were thrown in the water, and there has only been one identified war criminal among all the asylum seekers to arrive in Australia in the last four years. It remains a moot point as to what constitutes a ‘war criminal’ when assessing people from a country such as Afghanistan, where conscription was the norm and almost all men over a certain age were involved in some kind of bloodshed, willingly or not.

According to both the Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) and DIMIA checks, no terrorists have come to Australia via people smugglers. Those who have actually interacted with the refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries find them hardworking, honest, hospitable, thrifty, reliable and willing to work where Australian citizens are not, in conditions Australians dislike.

Nonetheless, this distortion has occurred. The lamentable and shameful result is that Government policies have acquired strong public support, and correspondingly, there has been a massive impact on the rights, protection and treatment of refugees.

This is an edited extract from From Under a Leaky Roof: Afghan Refugees in Australia (Fremantle Arts Centre Press) RRP: $24.95

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.