The Future of Asylum Seekers

Henar Perales did not visit Villawood IDC in the capacity of Tharunka journalist. This article was written subsequent to her visit.

For the past year Atash has been wishing he had stayed in Afghanistan, even if it meant getting killed by the Taliban like his father.

There are two refugee aid workers at a table with seven men from Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, and there are grapes, biscuits, coffee, and tea to be shared. We sit in the visitor’s area Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, where I have come to visit my friend Atash. I happen to have a pen and notepad and I scribble:

Serco staff removed tea & coffee from visitors’ area. The food is inedible.

From afar, Villawood IDC might pass for a school, or a factory, or an office compound, the red brick reminiscent-of-nothing blending in with the grey decay of its surroundings. Even as we hand in IDs and mobile phones it feels like a visit to the doctor. Only when hermetic doors shut and a guard escorts us and I see that even the trees have been surrounded by metal fences does it become clear that this is actually a prison.

There are 371 people housed in the three areas that make up Villawood. In the reception area, six portrait pictures atop the vending machine, United Colours of Benetton style, smile at visitors. Atash, who flew to Sydney fifteen months ago, lives in Stage 2, known as ‘Hughes’. With a bright smile he says he left Afghanistan at fourteen and walked across Greece to Italy with a group of ten other Afghanis. ‘During the day we slept in the woods and at night we kept walking. We were like vampires.’ Until he flew to Australia, Atash travelled across the Middle East and Europe freely. ‘If I’d known, I would have stayed in Ireland, even though the weather was no good. But you can’t turn back the clock, you know?’

Asylum seekers in Hughes can only make contact with detainees in Stage 3, or ‘Fowler’, during outsiders’ visits. Fowler is for those who arrive by boat and request asylum. Across the visitors’ area where we sit, the high fences of Stage 1 rise in the distance. Stage 1, now known Blaxland, is the maximum security section, where some detainees await deportation while others are monitored by Serco for threatening self-harm.

There have been three cases of suicide in Villawood IDC. On April 2011, riots at Blaxland culminated in a fire that destroyed the recreation centre and medical facilities. The Australian Human Rights Commission released the following: “It is important to recognise…the context which preceded those events at Villawood IDC. Many people had been held in detention for a year or more, with no end in sight and without the ability to challenge their ongoing detention in a court.”

Asylum seekers have to remain in detention until their refugee status is approved by the Refugee Review Tribunal, the Migration Review Tribunal or the Department for Immigration and Citizenship. Over 750 people have been in Australian detention centres for longer than a year, according to the Human Rights Commission statistics.

Australia is not the only country that holds asylum seekers in detention. Since 2009, up to 3,000 migrants have been detained in immigration centres in the United Kingdom. Last Sunday the New York Times reported the lack of information regarding the causes of death of migrants in detention in the United States. But in those two countries, detention is reserved for those who breach immigration procedures or who may flee while their case is being reviewed.

In 2010 Australia and New Zealand received 8,600 applications for asylum, compared to 269,900 in Europe and 78,700 in North America, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports show. The same report states that over 42 per cent of the world’s refugee population resides in developing countries.

Since 2001, the year that saw the ‘Tampa Affair’, when the Norwegian ship, carrying 433 refugees rescued from international waters, was refused entry into Australia, the question of ‘boat-people’ has dominated Australian media and policy. Specifically, in the last month, the public debate focused on the apparent need to ‘humanise’ asylum seekers, as if until now they had been confused with monkeys or imported goods.

SBS broadcast its most successful program to date, Go Back to Where You Came From, a reality show which took six –painfully ignorant—Australians on the backward journey of a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq. There was also the Tampa Special on Q&A and the ‘Politics in the Pub’ night centred on the refugee debate and the ABC documentary Leaky Boat. These debates coincide with the Julia Gillard Government’s ‘Malaysia solution’, still to be ratified, whereby 800 asylum seekers will be swapped with 4,000 refugees already processed in Malaysia.

At ‘Politics in the Pub’ I met David Bitel, the Immediate Past President of the Refugee Council of Australia. ‘The guts of the whole debate’, he tells me, ‘is Australia is signatory to the UNHCR Convention, which says that we must provide protection for refugees, irrespective of the means of entry.’

‘What we should be doing is calling for Indonesia and Malaysia to ratify the Convention so that refugees can apply for asylum there. This would solve the problem overnight.’
Earlier this month, Chris Bowen, The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, told 2GB radio, ‘The benefit of Malaysia is it’s not [a transit lounge like Nauru], you get sent back to Malaysia where there’s 92,000 asylum seekers and you get considered in the same frame as all of those’.

Later, the Minister’s office told me, via email, that the agreement with Malaysia will ‘break the people smugglers’ business model.’ They said the Government ‘wants to stop the human misery that people smugglers trade in and deter people from making these dangerous sea journeys, while increasing our humanitarian intake.’ In answer to whether sending potential legitimate refugees to non-signatory countries is a breach of international law, the Ministers office told me: ‘The UNHCR has publicly supported the Malaysian transfer arrangements as an opportunity for better protection of refugees in the region. Malaysian PM has also agreed to treat any asylum seekers transferred from Australia with dignity and respect, in line with human rights standards.’ Had this been a conversation, I might have asked how the last statement contradicts Bowen’s answer that asylum seekers sent to Malaysia will fall into the non-special pool of 92,000 awaiting asylum.

Atash says his future, when it was still ahead of him, did not seem such an essential element of survival, though it clearly is now that he can no longer envision it. The Government last year suspended processing for Sri Lankan and Afghans for six months, which is part of the reason assessment for people like Atash have been delayed.

‘There is also a concern’, David Bitel had said, ‘with the quality of advice that immigration officers are being given, and with the accuracy and currency of that advice’. One such case is that of a fifteen year old Afghan boy, a Hazara like Atash, whose request was rejected by immigration officials relying on false information. Sophie Peer, the Communications Manager at the Refugee Council of Australia, later told me that the Refugee Council is asking for detention not to be indefinite. She says asylum seekers should be detained for a maximum of thirty days or be given individual judicial review.

Muhammad, sitting between Atash and me, offers me some grapes. He has just been granted asylum and hopes to bring his wife and four children from Quetta, Pakistan. ‘You on Facebook?’ Ali, a young man from Iraq, asks me. In Ali’s shoes, I imagine, Facebook is the difference between some form of presence and absolute absence.

Though this truly feels like what it is, a lovely afternoon with friends, with hermetic doors closed again I wonder what it is like once we are gone, and all go back to rooms and insipid meals and uncertainty.

Henar Perales