Two days after staging a rooftop protest, Burmese Rohingyan refugees inside the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC), received a notice on March 17 from the immigration department.
“Your concerns about the delays in finalising cases are understandable,” it said.
“New streamlined processes have recently been developed for security checking so that the checks will be completed much faster. This means that for most cases, security checking for people whose refugee claims have now been accepted will be completed progressively by the end of April.”
All the Rohingyans were granted refugee status 10 months ago. The notice was sent to all refugees in mainland detention centres.
A notice sent to refugees held on Christmas Island was longer, with pointed comments about “decision makers” being held up by “unrest” on the island.
I spoke to the Rohingyans at NIDC a few days after they received the news. They said the department had probably intervened to hurry up the process due to overcrowding at Christmas Island, and the need to transfer refugees to the mainland.
I didn’t need to point out the hypocrisy of it: how much anguish, uncertainty, how many suicide attempts, must be endured before the immigration department decides it will intervene to speed up the process?
“We’re happy the government intervened, we are happy and feel good since [the notice],” one refugee told me. “It feels promising for us.”
But he also pointed out that the immigration department had broken its promises before — for example, about getting children out of detention.
“Maybe at the end of April they will be apologising to us for more delays,” he said.
Rohingyans are a persecuted ethnic Muslim minority in Burma. They speak a separate language, but have lived in the western state of Arakan for generations.
Despite this, they are denied Burmese citizenship, and denied recourse under the new citizenship act. With tensions increasing under the repressive Burmese military regime, thousands of Rohingyans have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh. Some make it to Malaysia, such as the refugees I met.
Malaysia’s abhorrent treatment of refugees is well-documented. It is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, nor has legislation for protection of refugees. Amnesty recently reported widespread caning of refugees by authorities.
The Rohingyans said many refugees are sold to human traffickers by Malaysian immigration officials. They are held in Thailand until their families can pay what amounts to a ransom for their release.
I asked if this had happened to any of them. A few men nodded. One man said: “Not to me. A human trafficker gave me to a fisherman and I had to work on his boat until my family could pay for me to be released.”
They spent many years living in fear in Malaysia. Eventually, they made the scary, difficult decision to leave their families and seek refuge in a country that was a signatory to the refugee convention; a country they thought would respect their rights under international law.
Forty-two Rohingyans came in four boats, arriving in Australian waters between September 2009 and January 2010.
They were all transferred to Christmas Island. Some have since been released and many transferred to other detention centres, including the seven I met. Four have attempted suicide while in detention.
By late May, the immigration department had recognised them as refugees. Not that this meant they were all finally freed.
The conditions in Australian detention, one said, were “100 times better [than in Malaysia]. But in Malaysia, when the UN [High Commissioner for Refugees] intervenes, we are let out of detention. In Australia, we are recognised as refugees and we are still locked up.”
They said they don’t want to complain about conditions at NDIC, having left behind family in much worse conditions in Malaysia and Burma.
“But we didn’t come here for food and a bed [things not guaranteed in Malaysian detention centres]”, one refugee told me. “We come from a very poor country, we are used to being hungry, used to living in the jungle. We came here for freedom.”
Since May, they have been told ASIO was undertaking “security checks”. ASIO, the immigration department and ministers have ignored enquires about the cause of the delay. Some of were interviewed by ASIO for the first time last month.
The men looked tired, battle worn and traumatised. But the government’s notice had made them hopeful.
What else do they have, if not to cling to news from the immigration department and believe that it could lead to their release?
One man I met was particularly withdrawn. I asked about him later.
He left his three children behind in Malaysia. Three months ago, hearing that his children had been left with a friend and were struggling to pay rent and eat, he told his case manager he wanted to return to Malaysia as he could no longer cope with being unable to support his family and did not know when he would be free to do so.
He was ignored and resorted to setting himself on fire.
He is a lot more hopeful now since hearing the news from the immigration department.
But if the immigration department’s promised “streamlined processes” is just another attempt to calm things down, to quell the growing protests — and if the Rohingyans are still in detention in May, June, and beyond — what resources, what hope, will get them through?
I told them there were many Australians fighting to change government policy, to free them and all refugees. We must raise our voices, so those in detention hear us and have something to hope for.
And, importantly, we need this campaign to win, so the detention centres are closed down and the refugees are made welcome.
We must defeat government policies that lead people who want nothing more than the basic freedom others take for granted to attempt suicide and self-immolation.