The Leonora Waiting Game


This is the second of a two part series on life in Leonora. Read the first part here.

"Pashtun always say: Tajik go to Tajikistan, Uzbek go to Uzbekistan, Pashtun live in Afghanistan and Hazara go to graveyard."

When choosing between the graveyard and Leonora, Zed chose Leonora. More precisely, Leonora chose him. After three months on Christmas Island, the young Hazara man has spent seven more at Leonora, 230km north of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia’s eastern goldfields.

There are more than 2500 Afghan asylum seekers in Australian detention centres. Forty-nine have had their applications rejected after exhausting the legal process.

Days before I spoke with the detainees in Leonora earlier this year, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Dr Jamaher Anwary, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Regional Representative, Richard Towle.

Zed does not know if he will be accepted as a refugee in Australia. His last interview with an immigration department official took place 98 days before I spoke to him. He describes the time in days, bringing a searing clarity to the wait; the uncertain hope every morning, the anxiety every night.

"My case officer tell me Afghanistan safe, Afghanistan not safe for me. I talk to him about my situation, he say ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’. All Immigration say this; ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’ just like this."


Four weeks before our interview, Dar, a Hazara man from Afghanistan, learned that his application for asylum had been rejected. He was shocked by the decision.

"The Taliban target Hazara people. Eight years ago, they kill my brother."

He says the Taliban are only part of the problem, that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, is opposed to Hazara people living prosperous lives. Asked what he had hoped from Australia, his answer was simple; "For my life, I want to save my life."

Dar has spent 10 months in detention in Australia but remains determined and animated. He is stoic, but his voice cracks when he speaks of the murder of his brother. The atmosphere in the centre, hot and claustrophobic, is taking its toll.

"The people like me, 10 months, one year in here in detention centre, some people are going now crazy, like me."


Zed’s wife Nar has been in Leonora for seven months after three on Christmas Island.

"First husband killed by Taliban. Brother-in-law killed by Taliban. One year ago, my brother was killed by Taliban."

Nar has seven children in Pakistan living with relatives. Her hope was to reach Australia with her second husband, receive asylum and then have her children brought safely to their new home.

"I would like my children to come here to be safe from the Taliban killing."

She and her husband were in the first boat affected by the Gillard Government’s six month suspension of Afghan claims to asylum.


For Zed, the Taliban — who still control significant swathes of the country — are only part of the problem. The Karzai government cannot be trusted, and the history of the Hazara in Afghanistan is an unhappy one. He seems painfully aware of some of the claims and allegations that have been made about asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia.

"You can’t show me any area where Hazara Afghan live (involved) with any terrorism activity, you can’t show us. Hazara very good nation."


While troubled by the claims from the Afghan government about safety, Zed is not entirely surprised by them. What does surprise him is the attitude of Australia’s immigration officials.

"When we come in Australia, Immigration told us in Afghanistan now have peace. We shocked. How is possible Afghanistan have peace? But immigration told us — no, Afghanistan have peace … Everybody, especially Iranians, Arabs, when talking with us they know about my country. They said ‘in my country in news I saw Afghanistan big war, killing everywhere.’ Every citizen in any country in the world know about my country, know the truth, but Immigration — I don’t know how they don’t know about our life, about the truth."


The emotional strain of indefinite detention has been well documented and its effect on children believed to be particularly deleterious. Zed describes a woman at Leonora who has a son living in Australia as a resident but had her claim to asylum rejected after a 10-month wait. "She was crazy after rejection," he says.

"When someone ask Immigration, what’s my answer I’m here 10 months, nine months I feel very bad here, Immigration answer ‘you feel very bad, you must go to your country, (then) you feel good’."


Afghan asylum seeker Nar is extremely shy about her English but eager to communicate. She describes the mood within the centre as "very tension" as people await the decisions on their cases.

"I want to know the decision. I am very upset — long time, no message, no word. We are talking for a long time, from Canberra there is no message … I would like for my children to come when I am accepted."

In Australia she hopes to work as a beautician and seamstress, work which had extremely limited opportunities in a country still heavily influenced by the Taliban. Not being able to pursue gainful employment, however, as both a woman and a Hazara, was the least of her troubles.

"Afghanistan very dangerous for Hazara … Ladies in very bad condition in Afghanistan. Taliban come into the home, kill husband and brother … Taliban …" She pauses with a pained expression on her face. "Rape ladies. Young, big — all."

To pass time, she knits items like scarfs and "mufflers" for other people in the centre, and speaks with her seven children in Quetta, Pakistan as often as possible.


The Government suspended Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum applications on April 9, 2010 — which proved to be four months before the federal election — with a review of the freeze scheduled after six months "as a result of evolving conditions in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka". But does the Australian Government now believe Afghanistan is safe for the Hazara in early 2011?

A United Nations report published in June 2010, two months after the suspension began, said insurgents had increased the level of violence in Afghanistan, and suicide bombings had tripled from the 2009 rate, occurring three times a week on average.


In October 2010, after the enforced freeze ended, Zed was interviewed. By the end of January, he had no word, despite being advised a decision would come within four to six weeks. Zed’s father was in detention for nine months, including time in Leonora, and received asylum five months after his own final interview.

"We called ombudsman, ombudsman complain to Immigration and after four days accepted as refugee."

His father now lives in Victoria, where Zed hopes to live and work if and when he is released.

"We Afghani don’t like to take money, we are also hard working men here, we are not criminal minds, we are very good thinking. If Australia accept me, I respect Australia like my own country. I respect the law."


For Zed, the situation is becoming intolerable. He is convinced that if more Australians knew what was happening to asylum seekers, the position of asylum seekers would improve.

"The people of Australia must understand we are not criminals, we are homeless. If peace in Afghanistan come back, we can’t stay (in Australia) because we love our country, we all want to help our nation. If Afghanistan have peace — no body come across a big ocean with 99 per cent chance of death for 1 per cent chance, in small boat come here and many Afghani died in Malaysia to Indonesia trip, this ocean … All Afghani people take risk and our life risk because they want to work here for peace … Their life in danger — because of this they cross the ocean to reach here and want protected in Australia."

Zed says the asylum seekers would be "happy" waiting six or seven months for a decision but waiting "one year, two years" without knowing their fate was crushing their spirits.


By all accounts most of the people of Leonora don’t believe the people in the detention centre are dangerous or even objectionable, and recognise benefits brought to the town by increasing the population by about 15 per cent, including SERCO and Immigration staff.

Arne Rinnan, skipper of the Norwegian ship MV Tampa, was hailed as a hero in his homeland for rescuing 438 Afghan asylum seekers in 2001. Captain Rinnan said he never understood why his ship was boarded and turned around by Australian forces. Ten years later, asylum seekers seem equally baffled and this manifests itself in recurring questions; Why are we waiting? Don’t you know what is happening in Afghanistan? We are not criminals.

This is the second of a two part series on life in Leonora. Read the first part here.

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.