No waltzing in Woomera
As Britain offers an increasingly sour welcome to asylum seekers, Australia presents a warning of where such attitudes lead. Belying its easy-going image, 'the lucky country' now operates some of the most oppressive immigration policies anywhere
Saturday May 25, 2002
The sunlight bounces off the steel that rises from the stony desert to a height of more than four metres. Huge coils of barbed wire line the top of the fence. Behind it, another fence. The metal is so thick that you can hardly see the massed ranks of portable cabins inside, huddled beneath the dazzling sky. It is 37C, and the only thing stirring outside the compound is an emu lurching like a puppet between the grey-green saltbushes and rusty earth. A guard strolls between the compound's fences, expressionless under a broad hat and wraparound shades. The high-security prison 130 miles away has lower fences and a less intimidating aspect than Woomera. But then, this is not where Australia locks away its most feared criminals. It is where it sends its refugees.
Several countries, including Britain, now detain illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. But Australia is the only developed nation to detain indefinitely all men, women and children until the authorities decide whether or not they deserve refugee status. In 1994, Australia's Labour government introduced this system of mandatory detention, which has been steadily expanded by the rightwing Liberal government. Last autumn, it went even further, deploying the navy forcibly to repel the trickle of boat-bound migrants - 4,141 in the 12 months to July 2001 - who reach its shores. The scheme was called the "Pacific Solution" - solving its refugee "problem" by dumping the intercepted boatloads of people on impoverished Pacific islands. Thousands are currently locked in camps on Nauru, Papua New Guinea and in five Australian centres. A hand-painted banner made from a sheet hangs inside the fence at Woomera. "Please try to understand our situation," it says. A desert bird flies over with a plaintive cry.
Reza Ali, 33, saved A$20 (around £7.80) - more than half a week's gardening wages for an "illegal" locked in Woomera detention centre - for a phone card, and then blew it on calling me. It was January, at the height of the hunger strikes in which 370 detainees participated, 40 of whom sewed up their lips, refused to eat, and attempted suicide by hurling themselves on to barbed wire or swallowing shampoo-and-sleeping-pill cocktails. Ali, an Iraqi who speaks good English, was begged by some Palestinians inside the centre to raise their plight with a journalist. He gave me his real name, but did not want it used for fear that Iraqi agents would persecute his parents back in Baghdad. Every detainee in Woomera is identified only by a number. I asked him about himself, and he sounded distressed: "I came here with nothing. Now I am taking four tablets, one of them for depression. I am a civil engineer and I don't know where all the information has gone from my mind. They are dealing with us as animals, not as human beings."
"When we first came to Woomera, we didn't believe we were in Australia," says Kerrim Mohamed, an Iraqi recently released from detention. "Because the things that happened - they wouldn't happen in Australia. It must be another country." Woomera is another country. The outback is foreign even to most Australians living in the sprawling suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. Three hundred miles north of Adelaide, Woomera is a world away from the spectacular red scenery of Uluru, or Ayer's Rock, depicted in tourist brochures. Ruled directly by the federal government since it was built in 1947, Woomera village's anodyne beige buildings housed British and Australian military personnel who tested rockets in the desert. The rockets all blew up - except for a few that now take pride of place in the town centre - and the last of the military left three years ago. It was just another dying desert settlement, until the government hurriedly built a detention centre there in November 1999 after panicky reports that whole Middle Eastern villages were paying people-smugglers to transport them to the good life down under.
Woomera has hardly been out of the news since. The company that manages all five Australian centres for detainees, Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), a subsidiary of US penal giant Wackenhut, does not talk to the press. Journalists and independent human rights observers have rarely been allowed inside the compound, but news leaks out of increasingly desperate protests by detainees. Lawyers estimate that there are currently 20 suicide attempts a week among Woomera's 500 detainees, of whom more than 100 are children. The government denies such figures, but a member of its own detention advisory group said last week that conditions were getting "much worse" inside the camp and that staff were finding it impossible to "prevent harm occurring . . . particularly in the case of children". ACM staff privately confirm that disturbing incidents occur daily. Former staff say that the detention centre is a war zone. Desperate for an end to their open-ended incarceration, detainees collapse in pools of blood after slashing themselves in front of their children, or hang themselves from the razor wire, or dig their own graves in protest.
Water cannons are driven into the compound to quell disturbances. Numerous national and international studies have condemned the centre and recommended its closure, among them one report by a government-appointed immigration advisory group and another by the government's human rights watchdog, which found that Woomera breeds a "miasma of despair and desperation". Philip Ruddock, the immigration minister, has announced that Woomera's capacity will be reduced from 2,000 to 800. But he insists that the government won't "walk away" from its A$20m (around £7.8m) investment.
More than 50 detainees broke out of the camp over Easter this year, assisted by 1,000 protesters outside the centre. Most have been recaptured, but they are unlikely to be prosecuted or jailed - if they were, they would have visiting rights and a definite length of imprisonment, luxuries denied them as asylum seekers inside Woomera. Few are likely to escape from the new detention centre currently being built near the high-security prison 130 miles down the road from Woomera: the fences there will discharge a non-fatal electronic shock to potential escapees.
Ali's troubles began one year and one month before Woomera's rise to notoriety. He was in bed with his pregnant wife, Isha, in Baghdad one morning when Saddam Hussein's despised intelligence officers snatched him. Ali had turned down the offer of a secret service job and they wanted to know why. So much so that they hung him up, with his hands cuffed behind his back, and tortured him. With Ali locked up, Isha fled the country, destination unknown. Ali was released two years later, but, because he was still in danger, his parents paid for him to flee that very night. Armed smugglers escorted him first to Jordan, where he was told that Isha had probably passed through on her way to Malaysia, the usual route to Australia taken by refugees. Ali was then taken to Indonesia, where he was put on a wooden boat that arrived in Australia in June 2001.
"It was a dangerous trip," he says. "But it was a matter of life or death." Hundreds of refugees have drowned crossing the hazardous Timor Sea. Last year, 353 drowned when their dilapidated boat sank.
Most Australians, led by the government, see Ali as a cashed-up "queue jumper". Every poll finds 70% or more in favour of the government's detention policies. Anti-refugee prejudice is openly expressed across the country. "They're not like us, are they? Doing all these things to themselves in the camps," one middle-aged, middle-class Sydney resident told me. Educated suburbanites talk casually about the "pakis" in the desert. In Dublin, a tiny village on the road to Woomera, the locals have no sympathy for the refugees. "They should send them back. What would they do if we went there?" asks Steve, a local drinker. "Shoot us, most likely," chips in the barmaid. The Woomera detainees are the worst, they agree, the real troublemakers. But there is plenty of space here, I suggest. "No mate, we're full up," says the pub landlord firmly.
Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman leads the charge against the "flood" of "illegals" threatening to "swamp" Australia. Like most Australians, Akerman is suspicious of people such as Ali who come to Australia via people-smugglers. "The overwhelming bulk of these asylum seekers have transited other countries," he says. "When you are in fear of your life and seeking asylum, you fall over the doormat of the first place you are safe and make a claim. You don't sit in a Karachi transit lounge, look at the brochures and say, 'Well, maybe Australia, maybe Canada.' This is why I question the bona fides of these people."
Philip Ruddock, Australia's immigration minister, is a slight, grey-haired man whose refusal to remove his Amnesty International membership badge infuriates the small but growing band of Australians who are dismayed at their country's treatment of refugees. Ruddock admits that the number of people seeking refuge in Australia is tiny compared with the 71,000 who entered Britain last year, but he is proud that his administration has taken action to deter asylum seekers before they become a bigger problem.
Ruddock denies that his government is racist in directing public concern to the 4,000 annual boat arrivals, rather than, for example, the 6,000 or so Britons who are currently illegally at large in Australia after overstaying their visas. He argues that these overstayers pose less of a security risk than new arrivals, and that the system treats all unauthorised arrivals impartially: "If people turned up without authority from Britain, they would be treated in exactly the same way, so prepare your readers for Woomera," he chuckles.
He believes that he presides over a fair system that deters "illegals" and gives priority to refugees waiting in UNHCR camps. Ruddock points out that most European countries currently do not take refugees from UNHCR camps - instead, they only assess the claims of the tens of thousands that turn up on their doorsteps. In contrast, Australia offers 12,000 permanent places each year for some of the 14 million people given refugee status by the UNHCR. He claims that these refugees are more deserving of protection than those who claim asylum having made it to Australia under their own steam. "It is a question of equity. Our view is we should discourage those who have the money to pay people-smugglers - without walking away from our refugee obligations - so as to be able to put our efforts into helping those in the greatest need." Despite dubbing them "queue-jumpers", the government subtracts the number of boat arrivals given temporary refuge from its 12,000 refugee places - effectively creating a situation in which boat people take places supposedly assigned to refugees from UNHCR camps.
The UNHCR does not like dividing refugees into the "good" ones who queue up in its camps and the "bad" ones who entrust their future to a people-smuggler. "We have to respect the attempt as humanity trying to get a better deal for itself," says Michel Gabaudan, the UNHCR's Canberra-based representative, who has the tricky job of liaising with Australia's UN-bashing government. "To say the refugees are just as responsible as the criminals [smuggling them] is a mad association. Certainly, smuggling is contributing to the shedding of sympathy for refugees." The refugees themselves say that when you are in fear of your life, you do not find out where to line up. You flee. "Where is the queue? I didn't see any queue," says Ali.
The deterrent aspect of Australia's refugee policy was bolstered when the Tampa hove on to the horizon last August. The Norwegian container ship plucked 433 Afghan migrants from their sinking vessel and headed for the remote Australian outpost of Christmas Island. Its captain asked the Australian prime minister to take the refugees. Desperate to boost his popularity before an election, John Howard responded by dispatching SAS troops to storm the vessel. The Tampa was barred from docking and Howard eventually improvised the "Pacific Solution", arranging to send the Tampa refugees to Nauru. Before the 1988 election, Howard controversially raised the spectre of Asian immigration. In the 1996 election, he benefited from white Australians' fear of native title, which gave Aborigines the right to pursue traditional land claims against white settlers. No one knows whether he planned to play the race card this time. But anti-refugee opinion inflamed by the Tampa affair was further fuelled by rising anti-Islamic sentiment and intemperate public remarks by Howard and his ministers after September 11 linking refugees and terrorists. Howard was re-elected in November.
One of the refugees on Nauru managed to joke that Howard should give them protection now that they had won the election for him. But nine months on they are still awaiting his thanks, stuck in a primitive camp on Nauru - often lacking fresh water and power. In November, the UNHCR said that most were genuine refugees. But the Australian government did not release them, and now, given the changing situation in Afghanistan, the UNHCR admits that only a few will be given refugee status. Meanwhile, all but one of the lucky 131 Afghans from the Tampa who were taken in by New Zealand have now been granted refugee status.
The Australian government has continued to use the navy to take boatloads of migrants to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. This "deterrent", alongside the threat that boat people reaching Australia will be locked up in Woomera, seems to be working. Refugees have stopped coming to Australia. Even Ruddock's critics admit that Australia appears to have closed its borders successfully to people seeking asylum. In the four months to February 2001, 1,300 people braved the Timor Sea; in the same period to February this year, no one reached Australia by boat and claimed protection under the refugee convention. However, the government is still building new detention centres, completing a new desert camp at Port Augusta and establishing another secure centre at Brisbane airport.
With Woomera fenced off beyond the scrutiny of the most powerful zoom lens, few people have an inkling of what goes on inside - except for a group of volunteer lawyers who won the right to represent detainees there.
Nick Llewellyn-Jones sits outside Spud's Roadhouse, near Woomera, as huge road-trains (giant trucks with four trailers) rumble past on the desolate highway. He gives up his weekends to drive from Adelaide with a group of fellow lawyers. Woomera, he says, is "like the Thunderdome from Mad Max, only a lot more boring". There is a children's playground and one TV and nothing much for the refugees to do. Attempts to beautify the harsh dirt and steel compound invariably fail - the ground is too dry even for gum trees. The lawyers do more social work than paperwork. On Monday, Llewellyn-Jones rushes off to buy a pair of glasses for a short-sighted Iranian man, before he repeats an attempt to hang himself. "We believe that the government is potentially undermining the rule of law, and human rights, for everyone," he says.
ACM's camps are run by staff recruited from prisons. Most refugees and employees at Woomera have a tale of violence or abuse against detainees. Ali became friends with the centre manager. Some guards are humane. Others are "very stupid and very racist", he says. Ali has avoided violence, but during one riot an officer in riot gear approached him. "He pushed me with his stick, and said, 'Now I can tell you: fuck you. You are a piece of shit.' " When Ali reported him, the guard came back and made a threat often made - if he didn't behave, he would never get a visa. Some detainees have been in Woomera for two years, locked in an appeals process or waiting to be deported. "We want to go back to Iran because at least there we will get tortured and imprisoned by people who speak our own language," another detainee says.
Barbara Rogalla worked in Woomera as a registered nurse. She noticed "a very high level of anxiety" among the detainees. "The people on anti-depressants didn't quite fit the clinical picture of depression. One thing that would immediately lift their mood was the prospect of being released. Imagine you've risked your life, you finally get somewhere and think, 'Thank Christ, I'm free now,' and then someone taps you on the shoulder and goes, 'No mate, you're going to jail.' " During her second contract, Rogalla made public allegations that detainees had sexually abused a child. The allegations were not proven, but they triggered a critical government inquiry. Nevertheless, the practice of mixing men with women and children still goes on today, and reports of abuse of children in the centre have continued.
Rob McDonald, a volunteer lawyer who works in Woomera, estimates that it takes six hours to assess whether someone is a genuine refugee. The government, on the other hand, claims that this basic process, with necessary security checks, takes 14 weeks. In reality, many detainees who have straightforward claims (and some documentation), such as Ali, are left waiting in a state of high anxiety for as long as eight months. Ruddock, the minister in charge, blames lawyers and their time-wasting, legalistic procedures for the delays.
Six weeks ago, Ali got a tap on the door. A guard told him that he would leave Woomera with a three-year temporary protection visa (TPV) in two hours. During his detention, Ali contacted the International Red Cross and asked them to try and find his wife, Isha. Unknown to him, she had also made it to Australia, given birth in detention, and set up home in Sydney with their daughter, Nina, now nearly three. Isha wrote to Ali in Woomera. "I was very worried," he says now, "because I thought she would forget me or was with someone else. She was waiting for me with her family at Sydney airport. It was very emotional. It was wonderful."
The sun streams in through the window as Ali assembles a set of shelves in his empty lounge. Ali's relief that he can just sit here, in a suburban street in western Sydney with his wife and daughter, is tangible. But he is far from free. Australia gives permanent visas to the refugees from UNHCR-run camps. But boat arrivals (the vast majority of whom are found to be genuine refugees) are granted a three-year TPV, which the government pledges to reassess on a case-by-case basis when it expires. The best it will offer is another three-year TPV. The worst is deportation, which for Ali would almost certainly mean death.
Most employers won't take people on TPVs, so, despite an engineering degree and good English, Ali survives on A$182 a week (£70.80) benefit. He is renting a sparse flat in Cabramatta, infamous for being Australia's heroin distribution depot. Ali has not met many Australians yet. With the drug-related violence in his neighbourhood, he dares not go out after 8pm. Nor has he seen the sea in Australia. He can't afford the train fare to the beach for his family.
Maqsood Alshams spent 475 days in Villawood detention centre, a barbed-wire compound in western Sydney. A 37-year-old journalist from Bangladesh, he claimed asylum after his nationalist politics brought threats against his life. After his release, he became an energetic campaigner for refugee rights. We walk into the Homebush Hotel, an ugly brick pub on a thundering six-lane concrete highway in Sydney. The barmaid's smile fades as she takes a long, second look at Alshams' almost Aboriginal colouring. Alshams has had worse treatment. Last New Year's Eve, he was punched and kicked to the ground by a white man who called him a "black bastard" after Alshams wished him a happy New Year. Despite the attack, he wants to stay. "I could go to Sweden, but there's nothing for me to speak out about there," he says with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
Why do most Australians support the government's hard line? Phil Glendenning, the director of the Edmund Rice Centre think-tank and charity, links Australia's long history of hostility to its newest arrivals to antipathy towards its oldest inhabitants, the Aborigines. Both the oldest and the newest Australians trigger a deep unease about the validity of white settlers' claims to ownership of houses, swimming pools and sheep farms across the land. "We are here on false pretences because we have no agreement with indigenous Australians," says Glendenning. "We stand on stolen ground. We took land, culture, language, heritage, spirituality, and we began to take children. John Howard refers to people like me as advocating a black armband view of history. I would say that there is a white blindfold view of history that is not prepared to come to terms with our past. There's a fundamental unease at the heart of Australia, because we haven't come to terms with ourselves and our identity."
Unlike most former colonies, Australia's white leaders have never signed a formal agreement with its indigenous people. Some argue that it will remain stuck as a colonial nation until it does so. In New Zealand, the British crown signed a treaty with Maori chiefs in 1840, which defines indigenous rights in the country today. Of course, there are still tensions between whites and Maoris - and a significant proportion of New Zealand public opinion was opposed to accepting the Afghans from the Tampa - but many feel that it is no coincidence that thousands of immigrant Pacific Islanders are welcomed in New Zealand, where its indigenous people enjoy formal rights and informal respect. Australia is also different from New Zealand in its long implementation of a "White Australia" policy, a series of migration tests preventing non-white immigration, which was not revoked until 1973. The very creation of the Australian nation in 1901 was sparked by fears of an Asian invasion and enshrined the "White Australia" principle in federal law. "A policy which had almost 80 years of existence does not fade away easily," says Robert Manne, professor of politics at Melbourne's La Trobe university.
Akerman, of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, however, points out that Australia has never had any modern race riots, unlike Britain. There is a long tradition of successful immigrant integration across Australia, from the Afghans who opened up the outback on camels in the 19th century to the thousands of Vietnamese boat people who arrived in the 1970s. "It is amusing that nations that have been unable to cope with their limited refugee intake attempt to tell us how to better manage what has been a shining example of migrant and refugee administration," says Akerman. With its controlled immigration policy, he says, "Australia is an exemplar to the world of how you can build a melting pot community without the melting pot boiling over."
Australia may not yet be boiling over, but that may be because the fires are confined to its detention centres. Yet, even as the government prospers by stoking anti-refugee sentiments, there are plenty of Australians who don't fit racist or anti-refugee stereotypes. An instinctive and generous friendship is offered to outsiders in the outback. At Spud's Roadhouse, near Woomera, a middle-aged couple have stopped for a break. "Where are the larrikins that get all this publicity?" the woman asks the roadhouse owner. The larrikins - the lovable troublemakers - are down the road behind barbed wire. "I feel a bit sorry for them," she adds. "We don't know where they've come from and what their circumstances were. They must be pretty desperate."
The roadhouse owner speaks softly: "I wish they could all bloody stay, to tell you the truth."
Even refugees who have been abused or attacked say that they have found the vast majority of Australians warm and welcoming since being released from detention. As an inmate, Kerrim was told in Woomera that "the Australian people don't like you, they don't need any more refugees, they say you are criminals and terrorists". This was "rubbish", he says. "When we got released we met the nice Australian people. The majority of Australian people are friendly and feel sorry for us."
There are hypocrites aplenty - such as the white owner of a Thai restaurant who has a Thai wife and is president of the local anti-Asian One Nation party - but Australia is not a nation of two-faced people. And the polls don't lie, either. It just seems that when Australians get to know a refugee, clear prejudices get a bit cloudy. Boat people become good blokes when their human faces replace the stereotypes of illegal, queue-jumping criminals or terrorists trying to snatch Australians' spot on the sun-lounger.
Grant Edmonds, managing director of Burrangong Meats, puts it best. Edmonds, a big bluff Australian, has employed 85 Afghans on TPVs in his rural abattoir and found them to be indispensable. "The trouble is, one of these people moves in and you think, 'Oh, he's all right but the rest of them are probably no good,' then another one moves in and he's all right, and you start to think, 'Well, perhaps they're all not too bad.' "
Stuck in the hostile desert of Woomera or on inaccessible tropical island camps, surrounded by barbed wire and shielded from scrutiny, the real battle for Australia's refugees is to make themselves known.
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