BY SARAH STEPHEN
A storm of public outrage has been provoked by an investigation by ABC TV's Four Corners on the conditions inside Australia's immigration detention centres. The report, screened on August 13, was a damning indictment of the inhumanity of the federal government's treatment of asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation.
By midday on August 14, the ABC's web site had received 5000 emails. The vast bulk were sympathetic to asylum seekers' plight. That same day, the office of immigration minister Philip Ruddock received more than 200 outraged phone calls and faxes.
The Four Corners report showed footage, smuggled out of the Villawood detention centre, of the Badraies, an Iranian family whose six-year-old son, Shayan, is suffering chronic post-traumatic stress disorder after having spent 17 months in detention. He has witnessed several refugees attempt suicide. The boy has stopped eating and talking, and requires hospitalisation every few days for tube feeding and rehydration.
Interviewed by Kerry O'Brien on the August 14 7.30 Report, federal immigration minister Philip Ruddock challenged the assumption that Shayan's illness is a consequence of being in detention. "A lot of the psychiatric conditions arise because you have a predisposition to them", Ruddock asserted. He claimed that Shayan's condition may be due to the fact that he "is not the natural child of the mother, it's a stepchild". Ruddock continually referred to Shayan as "it".
Mohammad Bedraie escaped Iran after a student demonstration he helped to plan was suppressed. Along with another man who led the demonstration, Mohammad spent four months in hiding before he and his family could get out of the country. The other man has been accepted as a refugee in Australia. Mohammad hasn't. The Bedraies fit the criteria for acceptance under the special humanitarian category, yet Ruddock has refused to consider this.
O'Brien challenged Ruddock on this: "Are the actions of the father so reprehensible to you that you should not reconsider allowing him to stay in this country on humanitarian grounds, even if he hasn't been able to prove to you that he's a genuine refugee?"
Ruddock replied: "Every time I give a humanitarian decision, somebody who would otherwise come from a refugee camp or elsewhere in the world misses out."
The federal government's vindictive attitude towards refugees has been roundly condemned. Pip Hinman, a Socialist Alliance Senate candidate in NSW, condemned Ruddock's use of the "queue-jumper" argument to undermine sympathy for onshore asylum seekers.
"To deny the Bedraies the right to stay on humanitarian grounds is gross inhumanity. The truth is that the Australian government has created a 'queue' with its policies. The consistent cutting of the immigration intake by Labor and Coalition governments over the last 10 years belies the fact that Australia is a very rich country, and can support millions more people.
"The Australian government's support for wars and repressive regimes also makes it directly responsible for the numbers in the 'queue'. We can and must abolish the queue by giving refuge to all those who feel compelled to flee from those situations."
Ian Rintoul, an activist with Sydney's Refugee Action Collective and also a Socialist Alliance Senate candidate in NSW, agreed. "The queue is entirely artificial. It is a creation of the government designed to sow divisions among ethnic communities in Australia. They say to Afghan residents, for example, 'You can't bring your family to Australia because these people on boats are taking the places set aside for them'. It was the Coalition government that, for the first time, linked the onshore and offshore refugee intake so that more onshore applications result in fewer offshore refugees."
Refugee groups on August 17 distributed thousands of leaflets at Sydney airport to raise public awareness about the threat to deport the Badraie family. They spoke to airport staff and union members, and have asked unions to ban flights deporting asylum seekers.
Four Corners also interviewed two asylum seekers who escaped from the Villawood detention centre on July 22. Stefan, a 32-year-old Algerian Berber, was targeted by both sides of the civil war in his country, and faced the daily threat of death. He spent nearly three years in Villawood. Mohssen, a 28-year-old from Iran, took part in free speech demonstrations. He was jailed and tortured for two months.
Both had their claims for refugee status rejected, and faced the frightening prospect of being returned to their countries.
Risking reprisals and punishment, Dr Aamer Sultan secretly filmed his views while in detention at Villawood. They were also screened on the Four Corners program. Sultan wanted Australians to know what it felt like to be inside one of "our" detention centres. A medical doctor from Iraq, he has been in detention for two years.
A Shiite Muslim, Sultan faced possible death for assisting anti-government rebels. His claim for refugee status was rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal because they felt it lacked "credibility". Like many others, Aamer had no way of proving what had happened to him in Iraq.
"I used to speak up, that's my nature. And I'm not ashamed of that here or anywhere", Sultan said. "I am just shocked by the fact that here [in Australia, the consequences of] speaking up is as bad as there."
Neither Sultan or the Bedraie family have yet been punished for speaking out.
On August 13, Mohammad Bedraie was summoned to an interview in Stage 1, the high-security section of Villawood detention centre. He refused to go, suspecting that it may be an attempt to deport him. Immigration officials backed down and met with him in Stage 2, and told him, "Don't think your child's situation will save you. You will still be deported."
The only undertaking given by Ruddock is that they will be given 72 hours' notice or deportation.
A clinical psychologist, Dr Zachary Steel, explained to Four Corners that studies have shown detainees are more traumatised than those who come here through official refugee programs. Add the trauma of long-term detention, said Steel, and the psychiatric damage could be irreversible. Many get so depressed, suicide can seem like the only way out.
Four Corner's Debbie Whitmont asked Ruddock to explain the number of cases of self-mutilation in detention centres and whether the government accepts that these people are showing desperation. "Well, you say it's desperation, I say that in many parts of the world, people believe that they get outcomes by behaving in that way. In part, it's cultural."
Hinman described Ruddock's comments as "callous". "Self-mutilation is a desperate cry for help. It's the result of someone having to endure unbearable suffering. In any society which considers itself humane, such desperate action would be responded to immediately."
Rintoul added that Ruddock's labelling self-harm as cultural "is an attempt to appeal to racial prejudice to divert attention from the reasons for the refugees' action. Only those with a very base view of human character could believe that people could do such a thing for the purposes of manipulation."
Whitmont asked Ruddock in the Four Corners report: "Does it ever concern you that sometimes we might make a mistake, that we might send someone back effectively to their death?"
"Well, I wouldn't want to see that happen", he replied.
"It might have happened, though, mightn't it?", asked Whitmont.
"I'm not aware of it ever having happened".
"Do we check?", persisted Whitmont.
"We expect people to tell us if it does."
"How could they do that?", probed Whitmont.
"Because the sorts of groups that people associate with who are likely to be persecuted often have very extensive networks of communication internationally."
The Socialist Alliance's Pip Hinman slammed Ruddock's attitude. "The Australian government should make a point of finding out! By sending people back to situations they've described as life threatening, and not ensuring their safety when they get back, the government is imposing a death penalty."
Ian Rintoul added: "People have almost certainly been sent back to their deaths. In the last 12 months there are two examples of people we know who have disappeared. One is an Iranian Baha'i who was almost certainly arrested on his return, and possibly murdered. The other is a Somali who was returned and has not contacted anyone he knew in Australia."
Rintoul was interviewed on the Four Corners and described the level of support for a proposed sanctuary network for escaped asylum seekers. Ruddock retorted that he'd like to get hold of the lists to contact people to "see whether there are Australians who genuinely hold the view that they would want to help people break the law."
Ruddock's assumption that nobody would care enough to help escaped asylum seekers has outraged many people.
Rintoul's phone was running hot for days after the program went to air. He was struck by the types of people calling, mostly Anglo-Australians — parents, teachers, doctors — whose eyes had been opened for the first time. There were many offers of clothes for escapees. Some doctors offered their services, and medicines. A person from the Gold Coast rang to say he wanted to come down to Sydney and start a hunger strike outside Villawood detention centre.
A very concerned middle-class professional woman rang to say she had organised a meeting of seven people. They were keen to follow up barrister Geoffrey Robertson to see if he will take on cases in support of asylum seekers. They are also considering publishing an open letter to Ruddock in a major newspaper, calling on him to release women and families from detention.
Someone tipped off refugee rights groups that Ruddock would be attending a reception in North Sydney on August 16. A protest was organised to greet him.
On August 16, Ruddock's spin doctors issued a 30-page document, including a four-page media release, responding to the "inaccuracies" in the Four Corners report, and listing all the positive things about life in detention. This is an indication that the government is on the defensive as the depth and breadth of support for asylum seekers in detention snowballs.
"Many decades ago, Villawood used to be a migrant hostel. It provided assistance with settlement, temporary accommodation and information about migrants' rights. That's what it needs to become again. We need to close the all the detention centres", Rintoul told Green Left Weekly. "The refugee issue is the 21st century version of the White Australia policy, and we need to say that it's time to end racism in this country. The use of language like being swamped by 'floods' and 'hordes' is reminiscent of the fear whipped up over the 'yellow hordes' 50 or 100 years ago. Our campaign for refugee rights is also a campaign against racial stereotyping and cultural prejudice."
Hinman added: "The policy of mandatory detention has to be abolished. Asylum seekers should be placed in the community. There are plenty of people prepared to house and care for them, and it's a system used in other countries. There is no reason why it can't be immediately implemented. In the longer term, the Socialist Alliance strongly advocates that all discriminatory and restrictive immigration laws be abolished.
"The Socialist Alliance will be supporting the campaigns by the refugee rights movement. There are also many members of the Socialist Alliance who have added their names to the sanctuary network.
"The Socialist Alliance is also revealing the real situation that refugees face, in their countries of origin and in the camps in Australia. This helps shift public opinion, and directly challenges the racist and divide and rule propaganda of the major parties and the far right."