The man with the gag: witnessing a forced deportation

January 19, 2005

Sonia Chirgwin

On December 13, I flew from Bangkok to Australia on Thai Airways. After a long flight there was a stopover in Sydney for one hour prior to completing the flight in Melbourne, arriving at approximately midnight. The plane was then returning to Bangkok. I was seated at the very back of the plane. On re-boarding the plane in Sydney, a very officious looking man bustled in and cleared some space in the overhead luggage compartments, reassuring passengers that disturbance would be minimal.

Not understanding what was happening, I speculated to my neighbouring passenger that maybe they were bringing on someone in a wheelchair. But then there was an alarming sound — metal scraping on metal, banging and clattering. We exchanged a nervous glance, and then our fellow passenger was on the plane.

Squeezed between two security officers I can only define as goons, the man was handcuffed, with a chain leading to a restraint at his waist, and to cuffs on his ankles. But perhaps the most shocking was the gag. The man had layers of black gaffer tape around his mouth, bound so tightly that it was cutting into his face. Above the tape, his eyes were wildly panicked. They locked on to mine briefly before he was forced into the seat, and a blindfold was placed over his eyes.

It's funny the things that come out of your mouth when you are wildly searching for a way to understand what is happening. "Is this man alright?", I asked the guard closest to me, even though it was quite clear that he was not alright. The guard was sweating, short of breath, and somewhat adrenalin-filled after physically dragging the man onto the plane. "Look, I can't tell you anything, OK", he answered with a barely repressed anger. I asked what the man had done to be treated in this way. He again snapped at me that he was unable to tell me a thing.

"Welcome back to Australia", I said, shocked at my first experience after being away for a year. Then a third official entered the plane, a smaller man, who unlike the other two didn't look like he belonged at the door of a nightclub to keep the clientele in order.

I recommenced my line of questioning with him. Seeing my obvious agitation, his voice was deliberately calm, seeking to avoid any sort of fuss. He was telling me they had no choice, that some people are "bad" and simply will not cooperate. I asked why he was being treated in this manner on a public flight, and he said that the choice is either this or to charter a plane for a quarter or half-a-million dollars of taxpayers' money. He felt that as they had a responsibility to the taxpayer, the choices were limited.

Sitting in the silence my discomfort grew. The fact that I was seeing this wasn't the problem. Maybe all Australians should be exposed to the hard reality of what refugee deportation can look like. The public flight was not something I should have complained about. My distress was stemming from the man's treatment, and from his obvious fear and distress and my helplessness. Nothing I could say or do would get the flight stopped, get the tape removed from the man's mouth, release him from his bonds or have his voice heard.

So I spoke again to the more reasonable of the man's guards. I asked whether what I was witnessing was the inevitable outcome of PM John Howard's refugee policy. The man spent a lot of time, again in a carefully composed and reasonable voice, assuring me that although he could not tell me any details of this particular case there were simply no options. I wondered whether his crimes were speaking out against his government, or if his crimes were real but the level of punishment unjust. Of course I do not have any answers, as the official was careful to reveal nothing.

Changing tack, I asked about the guards' work, acknowledging that it looked really difficult. I asked where the three officials would go next. He told me they were flying to Bangkok, then accompanying the asylum seeker back to his country of origin, before having a stopover in Bangkok and returning to Australia. He would not tell me what the man's country of origin was.

In asking about the deportee's treatment, and voicing my concern about the lack of dignity leaving in this manner, the official, again in reassuring tones, told me the difficulties they faced. They had been negotiating with the man for eight hours and he would not stop screaming. He had the choice to be taken on the plane reasonably, but he would not comply. He stressed it was one of the worse cases he had faced as a negotiator, although they had tried everything to make him cooperate. He also told me that they were not allowed to use chemical restraint, but only physical means to force him to comply.

He also could not help but give me a spiel on Australia's rights to protect its borders — our rights to determine who comes into our country. I did not engage in this debate, seeing that it was obvious that we came from very different perspectives, and the "we" that he was talking about somehow did not include Australians who thought or felt as I do. He seemed uncomfortable at my use of the term human rights, his voice taking on an even more calming and rational tone.

He asked me about my life, my work, and we conversed fairly pleasantly about what I did and where I lived. All the time my mind was racing for ways to find out more, the image of the deported man's panicked eyes burnt into my mind.

However I was not able to assist him in any way. I left the plane in Melbourne wondering if they would remove the deportee's gag to allow him to eat or drink any time over the 12-hour flight back to Bangkok. I could not see how it would be possible, as they would not want him to scream again. Through the tape he could not utter a single sound, an image that so sums up the voicelessness of the people that "we" determine to be unfit for our country.

All I can do is tell his story. But it is with sadness, as I do not know his name, or where he is from, although I can say he is of Middle Eastern origin. All I can do for him is give a glimpse of his story, as I have no idea of what other horrors he has endured. I need to tell this brief chapter of his story as it is also our story. It is a story of what our nation sees as a reasonable measure to protect our borders.

From Green Left Weekly, January 19, 2005.
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