How Can We Ever Repay You?


Their wedding album is the usual shade of cream. The invitation, stuck inside the front cover, directed guests to join the ceremony at the "BDC garden" on 18 December 2004. Photos show the beaming bride surrounded by her bridesmaids and family. In the brilliant sunshine, the groom’s dark Tanzanian skin is starkly contrasted with the bride’s ivory gown.

The blank pages at the end of the album do not reveal what happened later — how the guests and the bride left the BDC garden, leaving the groom inside, and how the groom would not move to their marital home for another six months. BDC is Baxter Detention Centre, where the groom was officially known as Detainee 1053.

Kasian Wililo is now known by name and not number. He has been on a temporary spouse visa since 2005 and lives in Padstow with his wife Emily, their two young sons, Harry and Moses, and their newborn baby Gervis. Villawood Detention Centre is only a few suburbs away, but when Kasian goes there it is as a volunteer and not a detainee. Framed photographs of his family in Tanzania hang by the front door. He has not seen them in over a decade.

Emily and Kasian met at Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre in Melbourne in 2003, where Emily was a volunteer art teacher. "The chaplain gave me a list of people who said they’d wanted visitors," she recalls. "[I] picked a name off the list and had no idea if it was a guy or a girl or who they were going to be. Little did I know it would be my husband."

The attraction was immediate. "Gosh, I thought he was hot! But it wasn’t the done thing to go and fall in love with an ‘inmate’." A cheeky glint sparkles in her eye. "I thought he didn’t like me because he never made eye-contact with me. He was talking to me but looking down." Whether by accident or design, Kasian is adopting a similar pose now, concentrating on the last few bites of homemade burger on his plate. Emily’s description of his shyness teases a coy smile onto his face. He looks at her with a sidelong glance, as if slightly embarrassed all over again to have his feelings made public.

In early 2004, Kasian was bundled into a paddy wagon and transferred to Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. "I didn’t know if he’d been deported or put in prison, or killed himself," she recalls. When she found out where he had gone, she made a decision. "I packed up everything I owned and moved over to be with him. The rest is history," she says.

In May 2008, an innocuous looking envelope from the Australian Government was delivered to the Wililos’ home. It contained a bill for $161,684.60, due in 30 days. "There wasn’t even a memo in the envelope, to say ‘Oh, sorry, we forgot to give this to you’," Emily recalls. "Just this bill, like any other bill you get in the mail. No note, just an invoice." Her voice is thick with incredulity. This vast sum is the cost of Kasian’s mandatory detention, billed at $125.40 per day.

"It’s not every detainee who’s made to pay this debt," she explains. "It’s only people who’ve been detained but get released on a visa other than a protection visa." To illustrate this point, she describes the case of two brothers who arrived in Australia from Iran. One brother was granted a permanent protection visa. The other brother married an Australian citizen and, like Kasian, was granted a temporary spouse visa. His debt totalled more than $300,000. His unmarried brother owed nothing. "So if Kasian never married me," Emily says, "and they ended up giving him a refugee visa, he wouldn’t have been charged."

Up until now, Kasian has let his wife do all the talking. His graveyard shift at a milk company means that this meal at 4.30pm is actually his breakfast and his reticence is, in part, because he has only just woken up. When he does talk, his English is spoken with the lilting rhythms of his native Swahili. "It is very bad," he says. "I wish they would change their policy and find another way to deal with refugees rather than putting them in detention centre."

He confirms that at no point during his detention, nor when the Immigration Department actively suggested he apply for the spouse visa rather than hold out for a protection visa, was he informed of the financial implications. At the time, Australia was the only nation in the developed world to charge asylum seekers for their detention. "The unjust thing," Emily continues, "because it’s all based on whatever the political flavour of the month is, it’s all based on politics. About six months [after Kasian was released], they basically let everyone out, because they softened their policies."

In June this year, Immigration Minister Chris Evans introduced The Migration Amendment (Abolishing Detention Debt) Bill 2009 to Federal Parliament. The proposed changes mean that only convicted people smugglers and those caught illegally fishing will be responsible for paying detention costs. Under the bill, all outstanding debts will be extinguished but there will be no reimbursement for payments that people have already made to the Government.

Several Liberals, including backbencher Petro Georgiou, spoke out against the Liberal Party’s opposition to the bill (and crossed the floor to vote for it). "Do we charge drug dealers, serial paedophiles, sadistic murderers, multiple rapists the cost of their detention?" Georgiou asked. "No advanced society should allow on its statutes a law which so degrades and humiliates fellow human beings who are legitimately calling on our protection." He described the proposed amendments as taking "another step towards closing a dark chapter in our history."

Meanwhile, Liberal hardliners are describing it as "another advertisement" for people smugglers. On Monday, one of the architects of the Howard government’s policy on refugees, former attorney general Phillip Ruddock, stepped back into the debate to claim that the recent reforms will convince thousands more people to choose this very dangerous way of coming to Australia: "If the numbers keep on increasing at the rate they have been, I think the Government will be looking at a pipeline of 10,000 a year or more. They were the sort of numbers we were looking at when we decided we had to send a clear and unambiguous signal."

Apparently, part of the Howard government’s "unambiguous signal" was sent by billing some very poor people for enormous sums of money that they had practically no way of paying, for a "service" that had already cost them dearly in many ways.

"There’s no doubt," claimed the shadow minister for immigration Sharman Stone in Parliament, that abolishing the debt "would bring great joy to the people smugglers who are once again very active in our waters."

Kasian disagrees. He sits at his dining room table, pulling at the sleeves of his t-shirt but speaking with measured conviction. "That is not the truth," he says. "The genuine refugees — the ones that come here by boat — are the ones who are not going to pay the money anyway because they will get the refugee visa. They are looking for safety for their life. They don’t care about the debt. They don’t care at all." As he sees it, far from discouraging desperate people not to come, the bill for their detention just made the lives of some of them harder once they’d got here.

Official figures collated by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre support this claim: more than 90 per cent of the asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are eventually deemed genuine refugees and do not owe detention debt. The Wililos have not paid any money towards the debt. "If we had have been paying it off and they waived the debt, they wouldn’t have refunded any money," Emily says. "We just said, ‘Up yours’."

On Monday 7 September, the Senate voted in favour of the bill to abolish detention debt, with the support of Families First senator Steve Fielding, and also from Liberal senator Judith Troeth, who crossed the floor to vote for it.

The passing of the bill means that Kasian will not have to pay the debt, and he should now also be eligible for a permanent spouse visa, which will allow him re-entry rights should he leave Australia on a family holiday. He particularly wants to take Emily and the boys — and the seven more children he dreams of — to Tanzania to meet his father, who has HIV. "I have hope that one day this stuff going to be over," he says, "so I’ll do everything I can to save as much as I can."

On my way out, Kasian accompanies me to the gate, carrying nappy-clad Moses in his arms. "I’ve been through all this stuff," he had told me, during our conversation. "I know it’s part of my life but I don’t make it everything. I always try to forgive."

When I drive past, Harry and Moses are on the trampoline in the front yard. Kasian waves and then turns back to his sons. Their tiny brown legs spring higher and higher in the late afternoon sunshine.

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.