The story behind the Woomera 'riot'

Issue 

BY JOHN McGILL Picture

Khalil (not his real name) is a middle-aged married man with four young children. He is a Shi'ite Muslim, was born in Iraq and was a shoemaker by profession.

As a teenager, he was conscripted into the Iraqi army. That was in the early '80s. While he was in the army, his family was forced to leave Iraq because their grandparents were from Iran. They were seen as untrustworthy by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime. They were only allowed to take the clothes on their back. The family's property was taken over by Saddam. Khalil got false papers and was able to join them in Tehran.

Initially the family was made welcome and built a thriving business. However in the last five years there was a change of attitude towards immigrants. Inflation and unemployment has increased and the migrants were scapegoated. People born in Iraq were told they were Iraqi citizens and were no longer welcome. They would have to give up their business to Iranians, their children were no longer allowed to attend school and there was no employment for "foreigners".

Khalil and his family could not return to Iraq where they would be killed as traitors or spies, and they would starve if they stayed in Iran. They were allowed to leave Iran "legally" on Iraqi passports that were not legal in Iraq. They flew to Indonesia, where they contacted a smuggler who said he would take them to Australia.

The boat was very old and, as it turned out, very unseaworthy. The engines broke down while they were at sea and they were forced to beach on a remote Indonesian island. They were stranded there while the crew tried to repair the boat. They could see the boat's bottom and it was in an obviously dangerous condition.

Khalil's wife and children contracted malaria and were unable to get proper treatment or medicine. Another boat arrived to complete their journey, which Khalil described as even worse than the first one, but they were forced to go on as they now had no money.

After a further 24 hours at sea, they were picked up by the Australian navy. After they boarded the Australian boat the navy sunk their vessel. They arrived in Darwin in the middle of the night, where they stayed two days. Khalil reported they were treated reasonably and with respect.

They arrived at Woomera detention camp again in the middle of the night. This seemed to be what happened for most refugees, they were always moved at night.

Khalil said Woomera was hell; no pens, no paper, no books, no information and no communication. It was overcrowded, there was no respect and the food was terrible. Khalil said the rice was like soup. After objections, the refugees were allowed to prepare the food themselves.

The lack of communication meant that at least one family back in Iran assumed their relative had died and had held a funeral service for him.

Khalil complained about the conditions and was told "You pay nothing, you get nothing". The insistent complaints from some of the refugees landed them in trouble with the authorities. One night, at around 5am, a few of the "troublemakers" were torn from their sleep and thrown into a jail within the jail, the Sierra Compound, known as the "Double Seam" (there was a double fence of razor wire surrounding the area).

Khalil considered this the ultimate blow in the psychological war being waged against the refugees. This raid on their sleeping quarters was exactly the treatment many of them had been subjected to in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Within days the anger in the camp led to the mass breakout from Woomera on June 7. The asylum seekers were desperate to get the message out about conditions in the camp. They believed that no-one knew of their plight.

They decided to cut the wire and walk to the centre of Woomera town to make their protest in a non-violent manner. The protest received worldwide publicity and led to breakouts at other camps.

The extremely cold nights forced the refugees to return to the camp after two nights. The only food some of the children of the refugees had while they were out was chocolate bought for them by sympathetic journalists.

After the breakout, the "troublemakers" were released from the Double Seam. Conditions changed for the better after the walkout and the authorities started to process their asylum applications.

Khalil believes it was the protest that forced the authorities to behave a little more humanely. The refugees were feeling more confident about their future — then came the August 28 events labelled by the government, camp authorities and the media as a "riot".

Conditions in the camp were deteriorating again. The refugees had been protesting at their treatment and some of them had been thrown in the Double Seam once more.

Khalil pointed out it was almost impossible for the refugees to start the fire that was at the centre of claims of an inmate "riot". They were not allowed to keep matches, lighters or other combustibles. The day before the "riot", masked men were seen emptying the fire extinguishers. Khalil believed they were employees of Australasia Correctional Management (ACM), which runs Woomera.

When the fire started in the school building, the guards left the compound, leaving the refugees inside to deal with the fire. Khalil said the refugees knew there were journalists in Woomera town, so rather than risk their lives trying to extinguish the fire with inappropriate tools, they stoked it up so that the journalists would see it and report what was happening.

Some of the refugees started to construct makeshift banners to publicise their demands. Many of them were very angry at what was happening and tried to break through the wire. ACM put up more wire to contain the refugees and started throwing stones and using their batons.

When the water cannon arrived, instead of directing water at the flames, they were used against the refugees. Some of the refugees responded to the violence by throwing stones back at the guards.

Khalil believes the whole "riot" was engineered by ACM to justify its existence. Some of the alleged rioters were removed from Woomera and have been held in the Adelaide Remand Centre.

Khalil and his family have since been released into the community on a three year temporary protection visa.

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