The Other Side Of The Fence

The other side of the fence

Connie Levett
The Sydney Morning Herald
July 19, 2008

The question is not whether we detain asylum seekers, but on what terms, writes Connie Levett.

Morteza Poorvadi numbed his lip with an ice cube, then punched the needle through, cross stitching his mouth, back and forth, six times. The right side of his mouth was drawn tight; the left not so much, leaving space to slip in a cigarette. Stitching his lips together, at Villawood detention centre in 2002, was one choice the teenage Iranian asylum seeker felt he could make in a world where he felt his voice and all other choices had been removed.

“We wanted to draw attention, and stitching our lips together would draw attention in the outside world. It's not something you do if everything is good,” he said this week. “It didn't do anything for us but it did change the system. If we did not do these things we would not be where we are now.”

Now, when Poorvadi speaks about detention, people listen. He recently briefed the parliamentary committee on migration, giving a detainee's view of Australia's mandatory detention regime. The 24-year-old spent four years in detention at Port Hedland, Woomera and Villawood after he arrived on Christmas Island as a 16-year-old in 2000. His family was duped by a people smuggler into coming to Australia, having expected to go to England, where there were family connections already. First there was Malaysia, then Singapore and on to Indonesia, where the smuggler told them they could not go to England, but could go to Australia. “The only thing I knew about Australia was Iran beat them to get into the World Cup. And Skippy, we had that on TV in Iran.”

“We were one of the first groups in Woomera. The fence rose around us. The guards told us it was to keep us safe from the wildlife. We believed them, we helped them [build it],” he said, shaking his head at his own gullibility.

Over the next four years, he took part in the Woomera breakout, sewed his lips together at Villawood, and sparked a riot by detainees in Port Hedland after guards in full riot gear tried to separate him from his father. The footage of the separation and subsequent conflict, smuggled out of Port Hedland, is on YouTube.

“There was a point of hopelessness, of thinking why am I alive,” Poorvadi says. “They took away everything I was living for – friends, education, freedom. That time from 16 to 20, it's the time when your personality develops. That one year in Woomera did the most damage to me, there was nothing there, not even a book, a newspaper. The first book I got was a Bible. I slashed my wrists, drank shampoo, did a 12-day hunger strike, sewed my lips. It became a bit of a game for us, ticking the things you have done off a list.”

Addressing the parliamentary committee in May, he said: “As an ex-detainee, one of the points I am very concerned about is detention – just detention. Detention is necessary for this country. We understand that. We cannot let anyone in without knowing who they are. I understand that. But for how long? That is the point.”

The “how long” question is at the heart of a new federal parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention in Australia, for which public submissions closed yesterday.

The Labor MP Michael Danby is chairing the inquiry, which will investigate how long a person should be detained, when a person should be released, the transparency and visibility of the centres, and preferred infrastructure options for contemporary detention centres. It is far from the first inquiry into immigration detention since the Keating Labor government made it mandatory in 1992. Critics question what another inquiry will achieve.

“If the Government has not worked out now why detention is wrong, another inquiry is not going to tell us,” says Stephen Blanks, secretary of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties. “Nor will an inquiry really change the mood of the people, in terms of its revulsion at what mandatory detention has done to the people.”

Public attitude to mandatory detention is a moot point, however. With both major parties supporting the policy at the last federal election, it got scant attention from the pollsters. The Democrats' annual youth poll in mid-2007 showed two out of three young people surveyed opposed mandatory detention of asylum seekers; but earlier polling suggested strong community support for the hardline policy. The Labor Party took an each-way bet into the election, criticising the harsh extremes and economic costs of the Howard government's punitive immigration detention policies, but trumpeting its own tough package of border security measures.

Under the Howard government's Pacific Solution policy, taxpayers spent more than $1 billion processing fewer than 1700 asylum seekers in offshore locations – more than $500,000 per person, according to an Oxfam report last year. And more than 80 per cent of those asylum seekers were eventually accepted as refugees and allowed to settle here. A newer $396 million detention centre on Christmas Island can hold 1000 people, but stands empty. Danby, who inspected the Christmas Island centre last week, described it as a “giant Liberal steel prophylactic, a rusting stalag in the Christmas Island jungle and a monument to the folly of the previous government”. The Labor Government, however, has no plans to decommission the centre.

Days before the November election, Julia Gillard, now Deputy Prime Minister, recommitted Labor to mandatory detention, telling ABC radio “that's actually the policy I wrote in 2002 which remains Labor's policy now. We are tough on border security. You have to be. We've always said that if people arrived unauthorised, they will have to be detained for health, security and identity checks.”

Again comes the question “detained for how long?”. Kate Gauthier, national co-ordinator of A Just Australia, says detention is necessary for certain compliance and deportation cases, but “we have to discuss the appropriateness of the use of detention itself”. She told the committee: “The one-stop shop approach to immigration is a failed policy”. Time limits, she said, needed to be codified and applied to detention.

Poorvadi agrees. “We need to impose a time limit. Not three months that becomes six months, not six months that becomes a year. You need a time you can focus on.

“The Iranian government could break our bones but not break our spirit; we were fighting for some reason. In Australia they break your spirit, they make you feel you are nothing, not in control of your life, they tell you when to sleep, eat, watch TV, what time to smoke. They say you are nothing and if you don't like it, just go back.”

Since coming to power, Labor has made several changes to immigration detention policy. The offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island have been closed, the controversial temporary protection visas have been scrapped and there has been settlement of high-profile legacy cases such as that of the wrongly detained Cornelia Rau, an Australian resident who got caught up in a nightmare maze of authorities' inability to identify her.

Many long-term detainees have been moved into the community, or deported. Advocates say no one still in detention, seeking asylum, has been there for more than two years, compared with up to seven years under the Howard government.

“This Government has made some important improvements,” says Blanks, “but there is still no sign of wholesale change in immigration to focus on human stories, and to put human rights at the forefront of the department's operation in the humanitarian area.”

He condemns the decision to retain the former government's policy of excising from the migration zone an arc of islands and other outcrops, raising the question that they may deny arrivals there the right to claim asylum. “It's absolutely wrong for offshore islands to be excised; it's a breach of the refugee convention [1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees],” says Blanks. It showed the Rudd Government wants to keep open its options and continues to think of Australia's situation in terms of a siege mentality, he says.

“Maybe what we need is a 'stolen generations' report, to tell the stories of the people who faced victimisation under the system,” says Blanks. “The stolen generations report is still pivotal 10 years after it was published. These are the same sort of issues. The fact is this Government doesn't want to take the opportunity to do it, and that's a missed opportunity to create consensus for change, or it demonstrates this Government's agenda is not that different to the last one.”

Poorvadi has seen the damage done. “I know a lot of detainees who got out of detention, they have been out in society for seven years and they still claim their pensions. They are not 60 years old, they are 24, 25, 26 years old. That is only because of the depression and psychological damage that they have endured inside the detention centre.”

Remarkably, the system did not break his spirit. He has dealt with his anger at the loss of his childhood and the way government treated him. He is married to a Burmese woman he met in Villawood, and they have a son, Alex, 3. Last month, they passed the citizenship test. He is self-employed in the renovation business, is studying civil engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney, and is a co-founder of the Guildford Evangelical Anglican Church. “We learn a good lesson in Iran: the government and the people are two different things. You can't judge a country by its government.”

Made to feel like criminals

P There are 390 people in immigration detention, including 44 in community detention, the majority of them held at Sydney's Villawood detention centre. In January 2005 there were more than 1000 detainees around the country.

P Today, 298 are being held on compliance issues; that is, for overstaying visas or breaching other visa conditions. Twenty-six were detained as illegal foreign fishers, six as unauthorised boat arrivals, and 38 as unauthorised air arrivals. The total of 390 detainees is made up of 338 men, 38 women and 14 children, who live in community detention.

P There are 130 Chinese, 52 Indonesians, 26 Vietnamese, 19 Indians and 18 New Zealanders. A third have been in custody for more than 12 months and 13 per cent for more than two years.

P Psychologist Paula Farrugia, who has been visiting Villawood since 2003, says uncertainty about duration of detention wears people down. “They are treated like criminals,” she said.

Connie Levett