On Wednesday nights after work, I visit my friends. I take a train, then a bus, and walk past the barracks to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA). At the reception desk, an officer checks my drivers licence and inspects the snacks I’ve brought to share. She asks who I’ve come to visit, what room number, and tells me to sign in. Then she tags me with a coloured wristband and gives me a locker key for my bag. No mobile phones inside.
The visitors’ room is usually busy on Wednesday nights. Every time someone is buzzed through the security doors, it’s like a big family reunion, with smiles and hugs all round. Some of the visitors have been coming for many years; some used to be inside. Many bring their children, and often the coloured wristbands are the only way to tell who is in detention and who will go home at eight o’clock.
Some Sri Lankan refugees who have been in detention a long time have special permission to cook their own food: a chance to taste – and share – the fiery flavours of a homeland they can no longer call home. Having grown up in Durban with an abundance of spicy Indian cuisine, I’m no stranger to chili. However, a cup of water always appears when it is needed. Sometimes I worry people think I only visit them for their food and hospitality.
The first time I visited I was nervous, expecting a bleak and confronting experience. But the mood during visits tends to be upbeat, with conversation and cheating at cards an eagerly awaited respite from the tedium. Sometimes, though, on quieter evenings, I realise the laughter is only superficial as we hear about military occupation in places we know so little about, disappearances, suicide attempts in the camp, worries for family left behind. I know my friends shelter me from their darkest experiences, hide their scars from my eyes.
I have met many kind and courageous people, but those I’ve become closest to are known as the “ASIO-rejected refugees”. They have been indefinitely detained, some of them for more than five years now, because of adverse security assessments from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). These are individuals already determined to be refugees who cannot be returned to the countries they fled, due to serious danger of persecution. Why are they considered a threat? They don’t know. They have been charged with no crime and had no trial.
Guantanamo Bay is the only other place in a western democracy where people are held in indefinite detention without charge. Nearly all of the “indefinite detainees” are Tamils from Sri Lanka. ASIO has described its assessments as “predictive judgements”. Refugee advocates say this equates to guesswork, based on information supplied by the Sri Lankan government, a regime with which Australia enjoys intimate diplomatic relations despite its being under UN investigation for ongoing crimes against humanity.
In August 2013, the UN found that the indefinite detention of refugees violates some 150 international laws and gave Australia 180 days to release, rehabilitate and compensate these refugees. But nearly all the “ASIO 46” are still in detention, in limbo, not knowing if or when they will be free. They have seen immigration ministers come and go, high court battles won, UN directives issued. A few, whose adverse security assessments were eventually overturned, have been released without any compensation or rehabilitation. They are struggling to find work, to recover their mental health and adapt to life outside. But their relative freedom spells some hope for the others.
Most of the ASIO refugees seldom spend time in the visitors’ room. Why? I naively asked. They had to leave their wives and children behind when they fled their countries. Now it is too painful for them to see families together. They remain in their rooms with only nightmares and fear for company.
Despite their bleak existence and the uncertainty of their futures, my friends believe Australians are good people and want to give something back in gratitude for the food and shelter they receive. A group of volunteers offer their time and labour to anyone who welcomes their help. The volunteers might be seen, accompanied by officers, picking up rubbish at the beach, painting a church hall or digging a community garden. They tried to be accepted as blood donors. I am constantly humbled by their kindness and generosity.
N is going to become an uncle later this year. Who knows when he will meet his little niece or nephew, but he is endlessly patient with the visitors’ children, who show their adoration by attacking him like over-excited puppies. He likes travelling by train. One day, I tell him, we will take a train ride together.
S is a poet and artist. He gave me a painting that he says shows the meaning of time in detention. Outside, time marches forward on a series of clocks. In detention, blood pools where the time should be. Beside the blank clock face is a coffin and the words “I think, the death better than life”.
M enjoys cricket and often asks about life in Australia. He wants to understand our workplace culture, public transport, road rules, social customs and the cost of living. He makes me realise how small his world is, how tiny the window through which he watches life pass him by.
“Why am I living in the world?” S asked me in despair. “ASIO said I am a bad human.” It reminds me of when my friend and her family were threatened with forced eviction from their home under the apartheid Group Areas Act; her father was our priest, and the rectory was in a whites-only suburb. I was twelve then. I still remember the helpless rage I felt in that moment when injustice became real to me, but I never imagined that on the other side of the world, in the lucky country, a government would have me believe my friends were to be feared and their lives valued less than mine.
S insists I let him know the minute I arrive home safely (but no sooner; that is cheating and he gets “big angry” with me). It takes about two hours to travel home, but I’m glad of the time and distance. In a way, it seems like it should be a longer journey from where my friends are locked up, to where I walk through my front door. Free.
Remedy Australia has a campaign in support of these refugees. You can find more details here.
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