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Issue #1474      29 September 2010

Tragic asylum seeker history repeats itself

The suicide of a Fijian detainee in Sydney’s Villawood detention centre has demonstrated that the Labor government’s adoption of the same asylum seeker policies as those of the former Howard government will result in the same tragic outcomes.

On Monday September 20 last week Josefa Rauluni, a 36-year-old Fijian man facing deportation, jumped to his death in the Villawood Centre. Tamil, Iranian and Chinese detainees (including a pregnant woman) then launched a series of demonstrations in protest at their long detention and climbed onto the roofs of the Centre, bearing makeshift banners that called for help and freedom.

One had to be forcibly restrained by fellow inmates from following Raulini’s example. In actions strikingly reminiscent of detainee protests during the Howard era, other detainees deliberately injured themselves. One was later taken to hospital in a coma. Sixteen Iranian and Kurdish detainees embarked on “dry” hunger strikes, refusing both food and water, and two were taken to hospital.

Josef Rauluni had come to Australia to work picking fruit in the NSW town of Griffith two years ago. Despite loneliness, he worked hard and sent money back to his family in Fiji, according to his cousin Searna Naikelekele. She herself had spent three years in Villawood, awaiting the outcome of an appeal against a deportation order that would have separated her from her Australian-born children.

There is great demand for fruit-picking workers, and Raulini found himself as a welcome resident. He apparently believed, not unreasonably, that after his visa expired the government would gladly accept him as a permanent immigrant.

Instead, he found himself locked up, unable to support his family and facing a return to unemployment, poverty and possible threats from the dictatorial Fijian government. Numerous appeals to immigration authorities fell on deaf ears.

The government’s response

The Villawood protestors were eventually persuaded to come down, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) agreed to help process their applications quickly. However, the government has been keen to deny responsibility for the tragic outcomes of its policies. Although it emphasises that its policies are more humane than those of the former Howard government, they are in essence the same. They still treat people who arrive unannounced on rickety boats as criminals, who have to be kept in isolation in order to “protect” the Australian community. The key policy elements of mandatory detention and off-shore processing have been retained.

Rather than adopting a more truly humane approach by way of detention in or near mainland cities for minimum periods, the government is intent on expanding the appallingly isolated Curtin Centre, 50 kilometres from Derby in the Northern Territory, and is still trying to persuade the very reluctant East Timor government to accept the presence of an off-shore detention centre.

The government appears to be unmoved by the tragic events at Villawood. Even before the protests, access to detainees was being curtailed, with refugee advocates only allowed to visit in groups of four. After Raulini’s death Villawood was temporarily shut down to all visitors, including lawyers for detainees. The government has reduced the opportunities for immigration lawyers to interview detainee clients, and has banned them from taking in mobile phones and laptops.

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen offered Raulini’s family a perfunctory expression of sympathy, but followed it with the grossly insensitive comment that “His removal was part of normal compliance requirements”. Later, echoing the Liberal’s policy line, Bowen declared: “Anybody who thinks that a protest will change the way the Australian government deals with their application to stay in Australia is wrong … We do not respond to these sorts of protests,”

Refugee advocate Frances Milne commented: “The demonisation of asylum seekers is taking us back to the culture that was so horrendous at the time of (illegally detained inmates) Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon”.

Louise Newman, professor of psychiatry at Monash University declared: “We are seeing the tragic repetition of the same risk factors that we know are predictive of the sort of problems we saw in Woomera and Baxter.”

Some valuable advice

Prison psychologist Jeanette Gibson has observed that in some ways the detainees’ situation is even more traumatic than for convicted criminals, because of the lack of facilities. Moreover, detainees face enormous barriers of language and culture, and have no definite release date. Visits to isolated centres are infrequent, and authorities often limit or temporarily ban visits.

There are currently 753 Afghan asylum seekers in the Curtin Centre, and extra accommodation will be constructed to accommodate another 500. Ms Gibson fears that the continued use of Curtin will have a terrible effect on detainees. Describing the landscape as totally alien, the experience of detention as traumatic, and the isolation as intense, she recalled a remark from a Red Cross worker whom she met there that: “We had more access to refugee camps in Iraq”.

She commented that asylum seekers have committed no crime by just simply turning up on Australia’s doorstep, and that in contrast the thousands of Vietnamese who arrived after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 had their applications treated and were released into the community very quickly.

In her book Thirty-Eight Days in Detention, concerning her experiences working at Curtin during the Howard government era, Ms Gibson said: “It seems governments have learnt nothing about the mental distress and anguish caused by that place. I don’t want to see it repeated. The human price was too high.”

Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, declared: “No one takes such protest action unless they have serious fears for their lives. A review is necessary particularly given (that) the Minister will introduce complementary protection legislation before the end of the year.

“We call on the Minister to place a moratorium on all deportations and to review all current asylum cases to establish whether they fall within the bounds of the new legislation. The crisis in Villawood is a direct result of maintaining mandatory detention and off-shore processing. As long as the Labor government maintains these policies it will be guilty of abusing the human rights of asylum seekers.” 

Next article – Editorial – US-Australian Alliance – Bedrock of imperialism

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