I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the Villawood detention centre. Most of what I knew came from mainstream media, which usually ignores a particular perspective: that of the refugees themselves.
“Queue-jumpers”, “expensive”, “unwelcome”, “should be sent back” are common themes. This rhetoric reduces asylum seekers and their experiences to nothing more than blood-sucking parasites looking for a warm place to nestle.
“Boat people” make up only 3% of all refugees coming to Australia. The rest arrive in planes. Where’s all the hype about “plane people”?
Even when they’re taken into account, Australia will only accept about 13,500 refugees a year. On a per capita basis, that doesn’t even put Australia in the top 10 countries for refugee intake.
I went with a group of refugee rights activists to visit Villawood on April 21. There was a time when refugees were housed in the community, not detained. People who have lived next to the detention centre for decades told us refugees used to be part of the community while they were processed, free to shop and wander about at will.
Then came the fences, barbed wire, metal detectors and other “security” measures.
Once we got past the absurd security, it was time for us to hear the perspective of some refugees. Hearing some of the stories made me sick to the stomach, thinking about the government’s callous treatment of people fleeing persecution. The mythology of Australia’s past has conveniently forgotten that we are a nation made up of “boat people”.
We met a young Tamil man from the area between territories controlled by the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. After the Sri Lankan Army’s brutal war against the Tamils last year, he was accused of being an LTTE informant.
Someone charged with being an LTTE member can be jailed for 20 years, he said. A person found to have supported the LTTE may be jailed for five years.
About 300,000 Tamils were kept in concentration camps following the war, and at least 80,000 still remain, almost a year later. Those who get out may find their houses destroyed or settlers from the Singhalese ethnic majority in their place.
After prolonged harassment by the army, this man decided he had to flee Sri Lanka. With 39 others, he fled on a boat heading straight to Australia. As he described to us how the boat sank and 12 people died, he began crying.
The survivors were picked up by a cargo ship and transported to Christmas Island, where they languished for seven months. He now waits in Villawood to be deported back to Sri Lanka.
I have just moved back to Australia from New Zealand. I acknowledge the government there is not a saint, by any means, but attitudes towards asylum seekers and refugees couldn’t be more different.
Asylum seekers are not treated as political footballs by politicians and the mainstream media. As a result, New Zealanders are generally more pro-refugee and find the anti-refugee sentiments expressed in Australia appalling.
The visit to Villawood was confronting and reinforced my belief that action to support refugees is vital. Listening to the young Tamil men, I realised just how horrendous the Australian government’s actions (and inactions) are compared to the situation in New Zealand.
Villawood detention centre is dehumanising and degrading. The wire fencing and ambivalent security staff make it feel more like a boarding kennel than somewhere human beings live.
These people have a right — and a desperate need — to be heard, believed and given protection.