Who can claim that we have not killed them?

October 20, 2004

Kate Durham gave the following speech to an August 27 Sydney meeting on refugees and detention. She has been an outspoken critic of the Pacific solution, under which asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia are housed in makeshift camps outside Australia's immigration zone, thus denying them access to basic legal rights.

Let's start with a lie and a little wishful thinking. My lie takes us back to August 2001. The very, very deservedly right honourable Mr Philip Ruddock, immigration minister, is on the deck of the MV Tampa, clasping hands with its captain Arne Rinnan and brimming with one of those beatific smiles we've come to love, while he waves his magic wand of welcome and condolence over the hundreds of hurt and broken families that have appealed to Australia in most desperate circumstances.

Ruddock is world renowned as the minister for joy and justice, and his department is his message stick extolling the benefits that refugees bring with them as they revive the diminishing pool of youth and skills in the countryside. "Refugees are often the best and brightest, bring them on", he says.

Now — I'll switch to the truth and how I got here.

Three years ago, the tiny Indonesian tub Palapa began taking on water. Its distraught cargo of 438, mostly Afghan, families and teenage boys were making their last prayers when the Norwegian ship, the noble MV Tampa, came into view and proceeded to rescue every last one of them. The sailors could not believe how many there were. My friend Mohammed Mahdi had 435 written in felt pen on his hand as they assembled on deck, three more followed, while the Palapa broke up and sank before their very eyes.

Captain Rinnan, having expected only about 80 asylum seekers on such a small vessel, despaired of the condition of the people on his deck. They all got food poisoning, and defecated wherever they could, and they fell in and out of consciousness, pregnant women especially. Still, Prime Minister John Howard refused to send a doctor. He sent the SAS who prevented the captain speaking to journalists or even to Justice Tony North [who was presiding over a case brought by Julian Burnside to bring the refugees to Australia.]

Our government rewarded the Tampa captain with the threat of charges for "people smuggling" and after about 10 burning days, the worn-out rescuees were disgorged — with the aid of lies and threats — into the lowest and most frightening equipment holds in the bowels of the vast troop ship, the Manoora. They spent another tortuous 23 days there, while the accommodation facilities of the ship went unoccupied.

The lawyers' win in court was appealed by the government and the grotesque new Pacific Solution was spawned. Australia's reputation as an honest broker of the refugees' convention was now dismembered.

I decided on two projects. Firstly to set up Spare Rooms for Refugees.com; a web-based register of people so concerned that they would offer their spare rooms temporarily to refugees who were being unceremoniously dumped from our camps. (It works.) And I decided that, while the wire fences were being erected on Nauru, I would try to contact the detainees in an effort to sponsor refugees. I did manage to get letters in, and I contacted a migration agent and lawyer.

Letters and faxes went back and forth. Mohammed Mahdi was my invaluable source. I learned of the conditions there, we gathered the names and needs of detainees, and I would bully people in Canberra for them. I was now receiving bundles of letters.

The Four Corners program asked me to help the BBC's Sarah Macdonald who was making an hour-long piece on the "Pacific Solution". It was dismaying to hear that they regarded me as knowledgeable, the only thing I knew was about a long but legal way into Nauru.

Sarah impressed me within 15 minutes by saying dryly "the BBC is fascinated by your country's appalling politics, it's so corrupt, it reminds us of the last days of the John Major government in Britain" — I liked her, immediately. We made plans and set off within two weeks, disguised as "housewives".

I had never imagined that, in June 2002, I would circumvent Nauru's visa bans, and fly from New Zealand to Fiji, Kiribas, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribas, Fiji, New Zealand and back home again, just to get three days on the ground in Nauru as a transit passenger. My adventure with this undercover BBC journalist meant that we wore secret cameras. I was to get her into the camps.

I had letters, contacts, gifts, toys and confidence in Mohammed. Nothing prepared me for the size of the monstrous construction known as "Topside Camp". Try to imagine a makeshift town compressed into what felt like a baking tray. It was still in construction, Australian workers on $5000 a week were all over it, the generator alone was bigger than a house, and was only installed after five months.

Try to imagine the dark, the lack of water and food. Stumbling to find the toilet block and finding it through smell — the humiliating unflushable toilets were disgrace enough, without the sickness they caused. At the peak of its operation 1200 people lived in that one camp, the rest, the Iraqis lived in Statehouse, about 350 of them. Nauru is mostly blinding white rock, which intensifies the heat and repels rain clouds, its climate is unique, even at the equator.

In Topside, a child's playground was installed for the 200 children there, no child used it, they would be turned into crisps. But that wouldn't interest the IOM, the International Organisation for Migration, which ran the camp. As its manager said to a psychiatrist who was urging various reforms there, "the IOM is just a whorehouse".

Indeed, their business was how to turn detainees into dollars. The IOM managers live luxuriously at the Hotel Menen, rarely visiting the camps, they had two sets of security guards, Chubb inside the camps, Australian Protective Service outside them. They entertained themselves lavishly. We went to their weekly party complete with dancing girls, groaning smorgasbord and open bar tab. Mr Ruddock must hate their endless invoices. The Nauruans hated their princely presence.

On the Saturday night I saw a windscreen smashed with fists and cans, the drivers who were sitting there were not unsurprised (every windscreen there is smashed) and simply drove off. The Nauruan chant in the background was "I hate Australians and all whites". Why not?

The so-called Nauruan public service works only on detention centre business.

Detainees are piled into their gaol without charge. The IOM and the Australian consul-general threatened us with that too, if they suspected we were violating our visa restrictions. They told us that detainees are held naked in Nauru's prison (to prevent suicides) which was a nice touch. They did arrest me eventually, but I was unarrested when I became very irritating, saying rather grandly that I was the wife of a QC (Queens Counsel), and were they aware of Article 5 of the Nauru Constitution? I was wearing a white Armani georgette dress, deliberately, I didn't think they'd dare mess it up — and they didn't. I was too blonde, too white and too loaded with goodie-two-shoe toys and sweets.

The seven-foot manager of the IOM, Cy Winter, assaulted me, actually, when he realised that in spite of his orders I was not gaoled. I wasn't hurt seriously and it's only interesting in that it indicates, what licence the IOM gives itself. It is the law in Nauru.

Nauru is a sick little country, it's an exemplary model of unsustainability. If turning detainees into dollars is going to be the new industry to emerge in this already ominous century then living well or in good conscience as Australians is an unsustainable wish. Australian kindness and fairness is eroded and vanishing like so much phosphate money.

The Pacific Solution is about degrading the resources of people, as much as it's about waste, and we are wasting far more than the $500 million this Pacific Perversion was priced at. At more than $400 per day per detainee there, cruelty like this really costs. Many have spent three Christmases there.

Sick countries are always prey to parasites and we've supplied an army of them. The IOM builders, security guards, Australian Productive Service officers, immigration department officers, technicians, electricians, telephone engineers, mechanical engineers, plumbers, psychologists, translators, doctors etc.

These carrion feeders have turned to a reality; something that should not be. They've constructed a Hell in a white-hot cooker. Hell should be chaos, not organised like this one. And no matter how unsustainable, the ugly project grinds on, closing in on the recalcitrants who remain.

The Pacific Solution is terminal, but when it dies, we'll have to keep repairing Nauru's only source of water, a broken-down desalination plant and its electricity supply, because Nauruans share a single fate they will become environmental refugees. And they'll be ours. Wages, even public service wages, are mostly unpaid in Nauru, banks are closed, Kiribatis (the workers of Nauru) are returning home after careers of 20 years in Nauru. The local Chinese are also departing, their shops are razed and they feel unsafe, and threatened. Two of them were murdered last year. Nauruans are sullen, sick and drunk. I would be too.

There is no natural port or harbour to bring in goods. After four months, the Australian government realised it must fly in supplies from Brisbane each fortnight if it wanted to keep order or staff. Petrol is siphoned from any parked cars, water is shipped in from the Solomons for the detainees, if it doesn't arrive the IOM claims that it is stolen.

Nowadays, they are granted water for only one hour per day, imagine the competition for it.

Plants won't grow, phosphate dust coats everything, telephones don't work, electricity is rationed, sewage seeps into the coral and flows back in from the sea. There is only one place you can swim.

Our money is keeping the airline in the black, it services the whole of the Pacific, when our solution vanishes, so will the airline that brings supplies, aid and the outside world, to the whole region.

For the moment, we pay Nauru's shipping and phone bills, its medical supplies and the many hospital bills of some of its corrupt ministers who choose our private hospitals for their superior care, and their secrecy.

Our government's dull genius was to invent a lucrative 21st century industry: Detention camps. It wants to franchise the idea in Europe where there are no takers. If I'm not allowed to call them concentration camps, I will say that they concentrate depression, grief and despair, their only achievement or product.

Nauru is so unendurable, that only about 450 detainees remain. Eighty of those were awarded full refugee status over eight months ago, but languish there they must.

Some have protested and moved out of the camp to live in a disused shipping container, I think I know which one, it's high on "rubbish dump road" the island's informal dump, the locals burn their rubbish there as if to add to the discomfort of the already bad air.

Kabul has claimed them back, but the ex-detainees are not free to go home; the roads are dangerous again, especially for Hazara, the mountains around Kabul rain down gun-smoke and rocket fire, and rocks which are still being crushed like biscuits by Americans or warlords or returning Taliban.

Gangs roam Kabul streets, so gangs and night-watchers band together to protect the Kabulis from warlords and thieves, no-one sleeps.

Mohammed Mahdi, ID No. 105, has left Nauru, as has Payadar, ID No. 320 and Ali Shahedi, ID No. 166, for Kabul. "Why?" I pleaded to know. It wasn't the lavish $2000 gift (that was stolen from them on arrival by the police, as they knew it would be). For some, it was the fact that families who'd gambled everything to save their sons were now destitute or at increased risk. Or, as it was gently explained to me, they had only one precious thing left to lose and it was their sanity.

I will never forget those young Hazara, an Afghan minority, men, I think of them and I think of their dignity, their subtlety. I will never forgive those who have sacrificed them. Those men are the young dead and who can claim that we haven't killed them? What damage could those fragile, worn, shipwrecked, war-ravaged souls do to us?

I will never recover the love that I had for my country. My government dumped people it regarded as rubbish on another country's dump, turning it into a human warehouse on a Third World desert island. They hijacked nearly 440 near-drowned human beings and lied to them for three years. What burns in me still, is that Australia remains my home; my house. This government has torched the valuables, the familiar furniture of our shared understanding of human rights and house rules, and has left us in a veneer of lies and self-deception.

Whilst I managed to help one young woman asylum seeker (she lived with us for eight months), I resent bitterly that I was prevented from helping an honest man, Mohammed Mahdi, ID No. 105.

My consolation now is a young Afghan man, training to be a nurse who has been living with us since February, we'd hate him to leave us, he's become family. The Afghan boy and his Australian student wife who got married in our garden are now expecting the first Hazara/Australian baby.

[For details about the Manoora, the Tobruk and other Australian vessels consult Spare Rooms for Refugees website <http://www.users.bigpond.com/burnside/refugees.htm>.]

From Green Left Weekly, October 20, 2004.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.