Gerard Henderson wrote an article in the Age recently. In it he
If asylum seekers are not "parents with a poor attitude
of mind" or terrorists, just who are they? On available evidence
just rather desperate people who have staked their savings on the
prospect of a new life
Five months ago I began to visit people at the Maribyrnong Detention
centre in Melbourne. I now know the people Gerard Henderson describes
in his article. What has happened to our language, that in this
present crisis all the words used to describe the people I now know,
say absolutely nothing of the reality of their present situation,
of their means of arrival, of their motivations, and particularly
of their character. Nobody I know has "staked their savings"
on anything. When I think of my friends "desperate" is
not a term that ever comes to mind..
This word "desperate" is now so reminiscent of images
associated with the word "refugee", as to be almost indistinguishable
from it - people throwing children overboard, people drowning off
the north coast, people hanging themselves from the razor wire Woomera
fences, and lips sewn together with strips of bed-sheet.
This word " desperate" is an infected word that all sides
of politics consent to use. Is a desperate person fearful and unpredictable,
or a victim, prepared to take any scrap? Refugees watch from the
sidelines, this spectacle that is supposed to have something to
do with them.
In April this year Maribyrnong Detainees went on a hunger strike
over conditions in the centre. During the protest they looked the
best I have ever seen them. "Why are you crying?" Ali
Baktiarvandi said as we were leaving the visiting centre after the
fifth day. "This is good," he said.
For people whose lives are now the only bargaining tool, to go
on a hunger strike is an act of the utmost power and control. This
act subverts the hold the Federal Government has over every aspect
of their lives. It is done in the knowledge that DIMIA takes seriously
only one of its many responsibilities - to ensure that refugees
do not die in detention centres.
A hunger strike attacks this bottom line, to bargain for life's
other necessities - access to open air, adequate food and shelter,
and the right to be protected from violence and neglect. I might
call this act of desperation "collective political action".
Words like courage, strength, endurance, integrity and hope come
I have seen lots of pictures of "genuine" refugees. I
like these the best. The Melbourne Times did a good one earlier
this year. A black and white caricature of a group of refugees.
Did you know that refugees are very small - midgets in fact - have
you seen the dark grooves under their eyes and the way they go about
in huddles, looking forlornly out from underneath their headscarves?
The people I have met inside the detention centre do not look like
this. Some refugees are actually quite big. Mr Abdul Baig is a good
example. I was first given his name by a refugee advocate. "
Just use Mr Baig as a first contact," she said. "I don't
think he's really the genuine article
" Perhaps this assessment
was made because Mr Baig is not a midget, or because Mr Baig has
a tendency to laugh himself to the point of tears and then has to
lie his head back and wait for calm. Perhaps refugees don't laugh.
I went to the Detention centre and met him and have visited him
When Mr Baig comes to visits he wears a bomber jacket. He says
he does this to give trouble to the guards. It has about 15 pockets
and the guards have to search every one. Mr Baig smokes a pipe and
keeps tobbacco in a tin. One day Mr Baig broke a chair in the visiting
centre just by sitting on it and he blamed it on Philip Ruddock,
who he says does not know how to make proper chairs.
Mr Baig is a man who has always gone his own way in life. He is
fiercely, recklessly independent. This is why Mr Baig has a bullet
in his leg. Back in Pakistan the people he opposed in his village
elections stole all his possessions, demolished his house and hospitalised
When he speaks to his family they cry and cry. "I knew I should
not speak," he says of the rally he addressed in Pakistan,
" but there was a crowd all looking at me and I just could
not stop.." In the detention centre, he can't stop talking
either. "Be careful," I say. "Careful?" he laughs.
" I'm not afraid of that pack of bastards! What are they going
to do to me, put me in prison you reckon?" In many ways Mr
Baig has survived the most debilitating aspects of indefinite detention
- the hours, the pointlessness, the humiliation - by creating a
job for himself. Now he spends day and night assisting people prepare
their refugee cases.
Like a lot of men, Mr Baig likes to talk and has tendency to talk
right over the top of you when you're speaking. This is usually
to tell you a story completely unrelated to what you've been trying
to say to him. Mr Baig tells lots of stories and they are often
stories about driving accidents. Once he had an accident with a
buffalo. He flew right over the buffalo and the motorbike skidded
under the buffalo and the buffalo just kept on walking. Then there
was the accident in Saudi Arabia, in the middle of a sand storm
when Mr Baig almost killed himself. He woke up and there was a huge
hairy head lying onto top of him having broken through the cracked
front windscreen. It was a camel. " Poor camel" I said
when he told me this story."You care more for the camel than
for me!" he laughed. "Ah, you are a true Australian!"
Mr Baig's greatest accident by far has been to fall into the hands
of the Australian government. It has literally crippled him. Mr
Baig has been on crutches since the day I first met him. When his
good friend Quereshi was still imprisoned, he found Mr Baig lying
on the floor of his room, sobbing. "Mr Baig" he said,
" Get up. Why are you crying?" But Mr Baig could not get
up. "It's the pain" he said, "It's too much. Ask
them to get a doctor. Please" But it was evening and there
was no doctor and ACM would not call for one. Mr Baig was in so
much pain he had crawl about on the floor. Quereshi would help him
to the toilet and back.
"See, he is fine," a guard said. 'He can get to the
toilet and back. He's fine.' Mr Baig has four bulged disks in his
back and takes 4 panadeine fortes every four hours. Recently he
has lost all feeling in his legs. When I speak to him on the phone
during the week, he is short of breath. "Why are you puffed?"
I say, "Sit down."
'I am sitting down', he says. Stress and sleeplessness has darkened
the skin around his eyes. He looks as if he is always flinching.
Mr Baig has been imprisoned in the Maribyrnong Detention Centre
for 1 year and three months." It's too much" he says.
"It's too much now."
Other detainees, once healthy, now hobble out to the visiting
room. They look pale, startled, as if they have been woken from
bad dreams, only they do not sleep. There are no doors to their
rooms and the guards count heads with their torches at night. Loud
announcements blare over the speakers. Then there is the worry,
the terrifying limbo that might mean two more weeks of this or two
more years of this or more. The days gather no speed, crawling like
an insect over a distance too far to measure. People's hands shake
from the drugs the doctors give them to calm down their thinking.
The visitors "ooo and ah", unable to help.
After a while the visiting seems so ritualistic one might be an
accomplice to their imprisonment. I stand outside the gates with
the other visitors, calling through the intercom. "Can we please
come in for a visit?" we say. All the visitors know each-other
now. We have spent long hours waiting outside during visiting hours.
At first we could walk onto the grounds and wait in the cold outside
the visitors centre. Now that there are so many of us, they make
us wait at the entrance to the car-park behind two steel gates with
razor wire for fringing.
Four of us are allowed into the reception room at a time. We fill
in sheets and stand in a queue with our identification ready. We
sign our names on a form and the guard puts a florescent tag around
our wrists. There is a list of what we can and cannot take in. We
cannot take in flowers, pot plants, maps or street directories.
We can take in one newspaper and 2 books. We can take in 2 sealed
plastic bottles of soft drink, 1.25 litres each. The men had to
go on a hunger strike to get the bottle size increased and to be
allowed out onto a patch of grass outside - now six of them can
cattle out there per day.
One day my friends and I bring figs. " Only six pieces of
fruit" the guard says. So we begin to separate them - six for
each person we visit. "I can see what you're doing" the
guard says. "You're trying to take advantage. It's six pieces
of fruit per detainee per visitor."
"Well there's three of us visiting," I say - " so
that makes 18 pieces of fruit"
"But you're a group" the guard says. "And its six
pieces of fruit per visiting group."
This bargaining over trivialities has the disabling effect of reducing
all one's thoughts to small objects, to thinking in great detail
about the way you might argue an item of food or clothing onto the
list. And even then, it can be arbitrarily revoked. There is a huge
incident over deodorant one day. Mr Baig bangs on the glass. "What
is this?" he cries. "About deodorant being denied?"
"It's shaving cream." the guard decides." Shaving
cream isn't allowed."
"It's deodorant!" Mr Baig screams at the top of his voice
" You fucking racist pig..It's deodorant!"
Then a group of guards is called to restrain him and remove him
from the visiting centre. Mr Baig sits down on a table."Go
on" he says. " Just try and move me!"
In a system like this - how to begin to speak of greater things,
of imprisonment without trial? Who do I call about this? Who do
I write to? And when I do, who answers my letters? Who answers my
When Opposition Immigration Minister, Julia Gillard last visited
the Detention Centre she walked through the rooms but she didn't
look or speak to anyone. On her departure she left behind two flowerboxes
in the visiting centre. One day, Sammy, the 4 year old, imprisoned
for over a year now with his 23 year old mother, knocked one of
the flower-boxes over when he was running around the courtyard.
I watched all the enthusiasm drain from his face. He stood there
looking at the flowers, buried underneath a mound of dirt. He was
so ashamed of what he had done, he hid his face behind his hands.
He looked as if he had just committed the worst crime in the whole