Seeking asylum from inside an asylum

In a recent trip to Darwin, Lisa Visentin visited the Northern Territory’s three immigration detention facilities and spoke with asylum seekers detained inside. This is her investigative report.

“How much money did you pay the people smugglers?”

I am inside the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC), one of three detention facilities located in Australia’s remote northern capital. It is a late afternoon in mid-September and the muggy Darwin air is thick with mosquitos and moisture; the telltale sign that the sluggish heat of the oppressive “build-up” season is only weeks away.

But you wouldn’t know this inside “Interview Room 1”. An oversized air-conditioner is blowing an arctic gale into the small white-walled room, which is empty except for a white plastic table and four white chairs arranged in an interrogation-panel on one side. From the outside, the room is but one door on a long demountable block punctuated at varying intervals by other doors, each one mounted with a sign designating it as Interview Room 2, 3, 4 and so on. Every room appears to be completely white, as though the theme of “asylum” has been misinterpreted and applied to the décor. In fact, the whole facility exudes this bleak irony – its purpose is not sanctuary but institutionalised confinement.

The block is located beyond the first procession of security cages, but before the impoundment – a kind of frigid demountable no-man’s-land between freedom and detention, and the furthest checkpoint a civilian visitor can go. Beyond the next set of cages, one person a week is trying to take their own life. Outside our room an employee of Serco, the company contracted to run Australia’s immigration detention centres, stands guard.

Inside the room, mounted in the top far corner behind a panel of glass, is a heavy-duty security camera capturing the man sitting across from me in its direct line of sight. Before answering my question, his eyes flick hesitantly upwards to the camera, acknowledging its intimidating imposition upon our conversation. “$18,000 US”, he responds, explaining that this sum, which was paid in cash to a people smuggler in Iran, bought him passage on a boat from Indonesia to Australia. Recounting his voyage, he tells me that there were 160 people on his boat, each paying somewhere between $15,000 – $22,000. In one of the many idle hours inside NIDC he crunched the numbers – the people smugglers made over $2 million from his boat.

“This is the real evil”, he tells me, before adding “but to anybody who endangers your life, money is nothing”.

Mr X*, a pseudonym to protect his identity, is an irregular maritime arrival, a suspected unauthorised non-citizen, a boat-person, a queue-jumper. To some politicians, who are either ignorant or deliberately deceptive, he is an “illegal”. In human terms, which seem to be infrequently used in this encaged world of bureaucracy, he is an Afghan Hazara man fleeing what the Australian Government and the rest of the world is coming to recognise as the ethnic cleansing of the Hazara people by the Taliban.

Another man I spoke with, Kazim Darwish, an Afghan refugee who has been living in Australia since 2010, had never encountered the terms “queue-jumpers” or “boat people” before arriving here.

“I think it’s offensive terminology that politicians and the media are using because, for the ordinary Hazaras who live all their lives as refugees without any identification, there is no access to any department of the United Nations in Afghanistan or Pakistan. There is no queue. We don’t have any alternative way other than boats to come here”.

This creation and dissemination of political labels is only one example of the officious nomenclature which has become a systemic feature of Australia’s refugee processing regime. Serco staff, for example, refer to detained asylum seekers as “clients”, as though indefinite mandatory detention is now to be understood as a contract for services, solicited upon arrival.

Our legal system refers to asylum cases not by the name of the applicant but by their Government-assigned number. If Justice Gaudron’s comments in the matter of the applicant known only as S302 are any indication, the High Court is unimpressed by this enforced procedural discourtesy: “I am afraid the law forbids me to identify you by name. I do apologise for that”.

When kept segregated from the Australian community, usually behind razor-wire, and often in the easily-forgotten outskirts of already-remote towns, this dehumanising politico-speak has been immeasurably successful in repacking an issue of humanitarianism as one of procedural pragmatism.

Yet sitting across from me, Mr X was not a consonant followed by a numerical sequence, but a diminutive, softly-spoken man, whose round face accentuated his distinctly Asiatic (Mongolian) appearance; the very features that make Hazaras easily distinguishable from the dominant Afghan Sunni population, and readily identifiable to the Taliban. After I explained to him that I was merely a member of the Darwin community, and not affiliated with the Department of Immigration or the Government, he spoke to me candidly about life in Afghanistan, his boat journey and his now-monotonous existence inside Australian detention. He told me about his wife and two young children, girls aged 2 and 4 years old, whom he left behind in Iran; how he uses his allocated internet time of one hour per day to speak with them via Skype; how he can see them, but because cameras (including webcams) are strictly prohibited they cannot see him; how he cries after each conversation because he is worried his daughters will forget what he looks like. He asks me what Darwin is like because, despite having been detained in the city since mid-July, his knowledge is limited to the cross-hatched view of sparse-bushland beyond the razor-wire, the blistering tropical heat, and the alluring expanse of rolling blue sky above. I explain to him that the photos I had hoped to show him of Darwin and my family were seized by Serco on the way in – an excessive “security measure” given that NIDC detainees are not criminals.

Tapping his head with his index finger he tells me what numerous independent reports and inquests have confirmed ad nauseum: “nearly everybody inside is sick”.

Far from the exception, as mendacious political posturing would have you believe, Mr X’s story is the quintessential narrative of Australia’s detention system. Currently, Hazara people make up 18% of the 7670 people currently in immigration detention, making them the largest ethnic group coming to Australia by boat, while Afghani nationals are second only to Sri Lankan nationals as the most represented nationality.

Herein lies a hypocritical paradox plaguing Australian’s immigration detention system. This month marks the eleventh consecutive year of the deployment of Australian forces in Afghanistan, in service of the stated goal of dismantling the Taliban regime. The same regime which has made a routine activity of killing Hazaras, recording many of their mass-slaughters and posting the videos on YouTube. Put simply, the Australian Government and the Hazara people share a mutual enemy in the Taliban. Yet this fact is one which escapes any mention when it comes to Government rhetoric on asylum seekers.

In fact, the revival of offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island, in what is now being dubbed the Pacific Solution Mark II, is predicated on the idea of deterring these very people, whose country our forces have invaded to fight a war against the same militant regime from which they are now fleeing, from seeking refuge within our territory. It’s exclusionary politics masked in thinly-veiled humanitarianism, and exploited by deliberately misleading rhetoric for political advantage. The Government hopes the Pacific Solution Mark II will achieve the political expediency embodied by Abbott’s sloganeering (“stop the boats!”) while ostensibly pursuing Gillard’s more noble goal of “stopping the deaths at sea”. All evidence so far suggests that it will do neither, costing a fortune in the process.


Read Lisa’s follow-up piece on the Pacific Solution Mark II here.



Listen to Lisa’s  asylum seeker radio feature, which includes commentary from Julian Burnside and Nick Haslam (psychologist and Director of Researchers for Asylum Seeker (RAS)), here.

You can follow Lisa on twitter here.


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