Motahar Hussein is a Bangladeshi man seeking asylum in Australia. He has been languishing in the Villawood refugee detention centre for two years because the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) has twice refused to accept that he will face homophobic persecution if he is forced back to Bangladesh. Green Left Weekly's Rachel Evans spoke to Hussein in Villawood.
"Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country with homophobic laws. Section 377 of the Bangladesh penal code makes 'intercourse against the order of nature' a crime", Hussein said. "Bangladesh is ruled by a fundamentalist government that has no time for homosexuals."
While at university in the early 1990s, Hussein spent time with foreign students in Dhaka and came to realise that men could be attracted to men. When he became involved with one, he understood that he was homosexual.
"When I realised I was in a banned social group, I wanted to talk openly in favour of gay relationships whenever I had the chance", he explained. "I delivered a speech to a student gathering in 1995 asking everyone to stop corrupt politics, stop using muscle power on other, different religious beliefs, and to legalise some banned practices, such as prostitution and gay marriage.
"Some fundamentalist Muslim groups threatened my life afterwards. I had to leave university and the city and go to my home country town, Chittagong, very far from Dhaka. There I stayed in hiding from the fundamentalists and after a year I got a job in a marine electronics company.
"I feared being killed, kidnapped or tortured by mullahs. I feared members of Jamaat-e-Islami and their student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, and the 'Freedom Party', who had promised to kill 'all western political attitude people'." Hussein described attending a student reunion in Chittagong, where members of Islami Chhatra Shibir found him and bashed him.
Hussein left Bangladesh shortly afterwards and enrolled at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. He was first detained in Villawood in November 2002, when he was unable to pay the university fees. He was released the following January after being re-granted a student visa, then picked up again in June 2004. Police checked him for his passport, which had been stolen, and he has been in Villawood ever since.
Hussein is up against Australia's racist and homophobic RRT. A study conducted by Jenni Millbank titled "Imagining otherness: refugee claims on the basis of sexuality in Canada and Australia", published in the April 2002 Melbourne University Law Review, found that between 1994-2000, 52% of gay men's refugee claims succeeded in Canada, compared to 26% in Australia.
In a 2004 landmark ruling, the High Court overturned a typically unjust RRT decision against a gay couple from Bangladesh, but that has not resulted in more successful sexuality-based refugee claims.
Since he was detained in Villawood, Hussein has been active against the super-exploitation of labour in refugee detention centres. Villawood is run by Global Solutions Limited.
"GSL was saving $6 million per year because they were paying refugee kitchen-hands and cleaners in cigarettes and phone cards", he said. "While the government is campaigning against smoking, the GSL were forcing us to smoke! Refugees could be working up to seven days a week, five to six hours per day.
"In September 2005 I helped start a 'right to work' campaign, where we demanded an end to detainee labour. GSL had won the detention contact on the basis that they would pay detainees. Refugees working in detention went against the Migration Act, which said refugees could not work without a visa. So we demanded that detainees work be legalised so we could fight for better wages.
"We had success in the campaign. We doubled wages here and the Migration Act got changed so detainees can work. At one stage we were thinking of charging Amanda Vanstone with aiding and abetting crime — the crime of allowing undocumented workers to work in detention centres!"
Hussein continued: "I also managed to set up a computer room with seven computers. GSL are annoyed because I set them up so I have the password. We are fighting to have mobile and internet access too."
Hussein said he can't understand the RRT's reasons for refusing him a protection visa. "They say my delay in applying for a protection visa casts doubt on my claim. I was not given legal advice when I was first locked up in Villawood and all I wanted to do was get my student visa renewed. It was only when I read the UN Convention myself, I found I satisfied the criteria."
Hussein said he is now taking his case to the federal court. "I am on anti-depressants and very stressed. I know I will be in danger if I get sent back to Bangladesh. I want to live my life as an open gay man, free and not in detention", he concluded.
Community Action Against Homophobia is organising a solidarity rally outside Hussein's federal court appearance in mid-November. For more information, phone Simon on 0425 208 363. You can contact Motahar Hussein by fax on (02) 8718 9206, or write to him at Stage 2, Villawood Detention Centre, 15 Birmingham Avenue NSW 2163.
[Rachel Evans is a co-convenor of Community Action Against Homophobia and the National Union Students' national female