'How long must we wait?' — desperation grows at Christmas Island


"How long must we stay like this, don't they realise our hardship?", a Tamil detainee in the Christmas Island detention centre asked when he called Green Left Weekly on April 8.

The detainee has been in the centre for 10 months and still has no idea of his fate — or when it will be resolved. There are more than 20 Tamil refugees from his boat that arrived last June locked up, with no answer on whether they will be granted a visa or have their claims rejected.

Every Thursday in the overcrowded camp, the list of detainees who have been granted visas to stay in Australia is announced. Every Thursday, the detainee and others like him receive no answer.

The detainee and other Tamils from his boat, who have fled persecution and genocide in Sri Lanka, are at the mercy of ASIO. Every time they speak to immigration officials, they are told their position depends on whether ASIO grants them a "security clearance" or not.

They were told this would take two weeks. This was almost two months ago and they still have no word.

When the detainee first called GLW in January, he was desperately waiting for news he had been granted a visa. Now, after 10 months in hell, with no idea what will happen, he is desperately waiting for any decision at all.

He told GLW: "I feel like even to go back [to Sri Lanka] would be better than staying here, even if it means I die."

The Tamil refugees have fled a regime that last year, in the final months of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that fought for an independent Tamil state, had the Sri Lankan Army kill tens of thousands of civilians.

In the aftermath of the war, hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were incarcerated in concentration camps, in which torture, rape and disappearances were widely reported.

The detainee has no idea why he has been forced to wait so long for a security clearance. He said he lived in government-held areas in Sri Lanka, not territory held by the LTTE.

He said his family had nothing to do with the LTTE and his father was simply a fisherperson.

It is unclear why it even matters — the LTTE no longer exists and its issue was with the Sri Lankan state. Australia already has a sizeable Tamil community that has never posed any threat to Australian society.

The detainee explained the desperate lengths the refugees have gone to in an attempt to find safety. He said his boat trip "was not a pleasant journey, it was very hard. We came through oceans, you know.

"There were times we were starving, we had no food, no water. But we came here thinking of protection, that someone will give us a helping hand."

He said the detainees make many calls trying to get information on their cases, but to no avail. "We have been doing everything officially, but we have no damn results.

"We get no results from anyone. We are waiting here without knowing anything. How long are they going to work like this?

"We are living here with no hope."

The detainee said desperation was rising among incarcerated Tamils. He said three Tamil detainees were on hunger strikes — but not making any demands. They were simply staying in their cells and refusing food because they no longer saw the point in eating.

The detainee said this was just one example of self-harm by detainees and he expected more desperate acts to occur.

"A lot of people are going mad on Christmas Island. I expect a lot of things to happen here, due to the conditions."

He rang the GLW offices again at midday (Sydney time) on April 9 with news that proved his point. He had just been awoken by other detainees and told that a Tamil refugee that had come on his boat — and likewise been jailed for 10 months with no end in sight — had attempted suicide.

Two Tamil detainees had been talking. When one went to make a phone call, the other turned bed sheets into a noose and hanged himself from a security camera.

He was cut down by guards and rushed to a medical centre. The detainee told GLW they had no idea of his condition.

The detainee told GLW: "We live in an imaginary world, nothing seems to be real. We see immigration compounds and a little grass — this is our life now.

"They are keeping us like animals, it is like a zoo — a stupid life, man. How long do we have to wait?"