For forgotten asylum seekers, riot is the only way to be heard

Posted by admin on Mar 29th, 2011

Abdul Karim Hekmat, March 29, 2011. Sydney Morning Herald

We get impatient at the slightest delay – imagine being in detention for years. In the past several months, there have been increasing non-violent protests at detention centres across Australia that have not been getting much attention. Unlike the people in the Middle East, they do not want to topple a regime, but like them they desperately want freedom. As a former detainee, I can see why they riot, self-harm or escape into the wilderness, even temporarily. I was an Afghan refugee who fled the Taliban regime and spent five months in the Curtin detention centre in 2001. Philip Ruddock, the former immigration minister, described Curtin as the ”most primitive” processing centre. Ill-equipped and without proper medical facilities and accommodation, it housed about 900 detainees.

The centre was so remote that we felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere. Incidents of self-harm, attempted suicides and hunger strikes were too common at Curtin.

There was not much to fill our spare time – no entertainment, no newspapers and no television – and we were completely cut off from the outside world. I could only see the red dirt, barbed wire and fences. Hungry to know what was happening outside, I once approached a security guard who was reading The West Australian newspaper. I asked him if I could borrow it. He lowered his glasses and responded in an authoritative voice: ”I am not allowed to give the newspaper to the detainees.” Being kept in the dark was pretty much a condition of detention during the Howard era.

Then, in April 2001, there was a violent riot at Curtin and the police fired tear gas to disperse the rioters. Only a handful took part – some of the rejected and suspended detainees who had no hope left. What triggered the protest was the Department of Immigration suspending dozens of refugee applications for five months for no reason. Feeling ignored and disappointed, they demanded to be heard by going on a rampage and burning the camp.

Most asylum seekers protest out of desperation and despair. They hope to get the attention of the authorities and the public for their plight. But it has a negative effect. First, rioters are seen as saboteurs and criminals – much of the public perception about refugees is formed from the violent images seen on TV.

Second, it allows the government to take action responding to the public’s concerns. In response to the recent riot on Christmas Island, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said character would be an important consideration for granting visas to those involved.

However, what each asylum seeker goes through each day in a detention centre has remained largely invisible to those outside, unless riots happen. The most difficult part of being in a detention centre is the waiting and being in a state of limbo. It is a particular kind of waiting; you can do nothing to speed up the process.

Imagine waiting for a bus or train and it’s late. Within a few hours, you would become uncomfortable and protest against the inconvenience, or rant against those responsible for the delay. People inside detention centres wait for months and years. They don’t know exactly how much more time they will spend there and become fearful that the outcome will be devastating.

Inside the centres, feelings of frustration and despair run very high. It is like a virus that everyone catches whether they are new arrivals or old timers. Anxiety blocks out your efforts to be normal and rational – not to mention the feeling of fear that runs through a detention camp. Everyone dreads going to an immigration office when asked, because most of the time it is not good news.

As detention times get longer, I fear that detainees will end up with mental health problems. Many asylum seekers – such as my friend Muhsen, who spent four years in detention – suffer psychological problems because of prolonged detention.

Long-term detention leads to detainees resorting to self-harm or suicide. For example, 20-year-old Miqdad Hussain, an Afghan of the Hazara ethnic minority who died at the Scherger centre in Queensland this month, is one of five asylum seekers who have died in detention in the past year.

The cost of detaining asylum seekers for a long time not only takes a terrible emotional toll but a financial one. Riots and protest are inevitable in prolonged detention.

Currently, there are almost 7000 asylum seekers in detention centres. They have uncertain futures. Hundreds have been recognised as refugees but are waiting for security clearances. In my experience 10 years ago, refugee status was not granted before the security clearance, but came with the clearance.

No evidence has yet been found that asylum seekers coming by boat are a threat to national security. A faster process for security clearances offers hope to those in detention. It could also prevent overcrowding and reduce disturbances in detention centres.

It is time the government processed applications faster to end the agony of people who have gone through so much to escape violence in the first place.

Abdul Karim Hekmat is a writer and youth worker. He will be in conversation with Melbourne’s Anglican Archbishop in a forum on refugees at Federation Square tomorrow.

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