Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature

Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
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Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature
Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature Home : Politics Phil Cleary's view on Australian politics, people, vfl and afl football, music, history and literature

 

 

A refugee tale - by Rachel Judd

Gerard Henderson wrote an article in the Age recently. In it he said :

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 to mind.

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 ever since.

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 his wife.

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 calls?

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 world.




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