Former refugee: ‘Detention is damaging people’s lives’

May 27, 2011
Tony Abbott and Riz Wakil on May 8.

Riz Wakil, an Afghan refugee, arrived on Ashmore Reef in 1999 and was held in Curtin detention centre for nine months. Now a permanent Australian resident, he runs a printery.

In June 2010, GetUp! won a charity auction prize — a surfing lesson with opposition leader Tony Abbott — and donated it to Wakil. Abbott and Wakil finally met for the surf lesson on May 8.

Green Left Weekly’s Rachel Evans spoke to Wakil about the encounter and Australia’s refugee system.

What did Abbott say during the lesson?

He said: “Riz, I don’t hate people like you. But we need temporary protection visas (TPV), we need a pacific solution, we need to stop the boats. And if I take the refugee intake to 20,000 to 40,000 you will still complain. You will never be happy.”

My response was: “We need to get children and adults out of detention centres. They have committed no crime and should not be locked up. What we are asking is end mandatory detention, children out of detention.”

When I came to Australia, I knew there were TPVs and detention centres. I knew these things. But I still came, because Afghanistan was not safe. I don’t think the Malaysia solution will stop people coming.

After the US started to occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, refugees stopped coming to Australia. The main reason why was that people were a bit more hopeful that — because there were international troops in country — people would be able to have a safe life.

Then people started coming again from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq to Australia and European countries.

Why? Well, because the West bombed the hell out of the country or the military killed people. What happened in Sri Lanka to the Tamils was terrible.

Where are refugees in detention centres from?

Out of the 7000 refugees in detention, 67% are from Afghanistan. Last week, seven or eight Afghan refugees — unaccompanied minors — all got rejected. My experience is that about 76% of Afghans get rejected regardless of where they are from.

This is one of main reasons why detainees are getting so desperate. I was in detention in 1999 and 2000. People were not staying in detention for long time — but they had all these rejections to deal with.

Now it is same thing — the Rudd government even implemented a six-month suspension on applications [from Afghanistan], and we have a huge amount of rejection on applications that are actually processed. There is stress on an already desperate situation.

In Pakistan, the majority of refugees live in Quetta. But daily, regular targeted attacks happen in Quetta against them.

That is also what is driving people to take desperate actions on [detention centre] rooftops.

Of the two detainees that suicided recently, with the one in Curtin the department is still trying to send his dead body to Pakistan.

The other detainee’s body is already buried in desert in South Australia.

Now Malaysia is the second biggest concern. Twenty-eight Afghani’s in Villawood are concerned they will be sent to Malaysia. But new detainees will be sent to Malaysia — not detainees already here.

Is Afghanistan safe?

No. We cannot send people back to Afghanistan — even the Afghanistan government did not agree to this memorandum of understanding the Australian government wanted them to sign, which stated Afghanistan is a safe country. Australia still believes Afghanistan is safe.

A little while ago, 11 students who were going home from studying through central asia were beheaded.

Shopkeepers going through central Afghanistan — the same things happen to them.

In the past week there was a well organised rocket attack on Hazara population in Quetta. It killed eight people and injured 22. The next day shopkeepers were targeted [and] five people were killed again. This not only happens in Pakistan, but in Afghanistan.

How did refugees fare in the federal elections?

For the ALP in the last federal elections the scaremongering worked very well. They managed to scare ALP working class voters with fear of refugees.

The ALP thought — if we do the same thing [as the opposition] will get the voters back from the Liberal Party. The ALP joined the race.

So the Liberal Party are saying: “Now we are as tough and as cruel as the Labour Party. If you guys don’t behave well, we will introduce TPVs.”

So I think we are in the same spot as 2001 and 2002, with a negative and poisonous media campaign.

Every second day there is a poisonous article. They lie about detainees’ pasts and the security of the country they’re escaping. Like Andrew Bolt — who said 96% of Afghan migrants are on centrelink. These are lies.

Under John Howard, 1500 people were locked up on Manus Island and Nauru. Howard spent $1 billion. Julia Gillard says she will spend $800 million plus if she goes ahead with her Malaysia solution.

This is a huge amount of money that could be spent on mental health and education.

What is it like being in a detention centre?

Detention is damaging people’s lives. There were two young Afghan friends in detention — the younger one never spoke to anyone, he was shy. The elder was a jolly kid — he would play and make friends with everyone quickly.

In four months time the younger one got a visa and got out. The older had 13 months in detention.

Now, if you go and meet both of them, the kid who got out of detention earlier studies and has a job. The older man can’t hang onto any job. He is aggressive and has more issues. He couldn’t finish his schooling.

The longer you are in, the worse off you are. Detention is damaging people’s lives.

In detention you only have one thing in mind — it’s a terrible mental state.

Detainees can’t think straight. The only thing on their mind [is] will they send me back? And I can’t go back because it is not safe. The rooftop is easier than being taken back to Afghanistan.

It’s desperate and impossible for someone who has been in this situation.

How will we free the refugees?

This is the time again where we have to be more organised — to educate people and start a positive campaign parallel to what is happening in the Australian media.

We have to educate more and more people. In my personal experience, if we give them logical answers and reasons we will be able to achieve something and at least try get rid of idea that harassing people scaring them that refugees come take our jobs. We will be able to make some difference.

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