Pamela Curr is the campaign coordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and has worked with detainees from Woomera, Christmas Island, Maribrynong, Baxter, Curtin and Port Hedland detention centres. Curr first became involved with asylum seeker issues in the early 2000s because of her concern about the changes that were made to asylum policy and mandatory detention under John Howard. As an advocate, Curr heard first hand accounts of the mistreatment, neglect and abuse of asylum seekers detained in Australia and offshore.
More information on Pamela Curr
- Pamela Curr, The Drum (ABC) – a short profile on Pamela Curr and her work advocating for and supporting asylum seekers and refugees.
- “A Warehouse for Human Beings”, New Matilda, 2012, Curr writes on the newly implemented ‘No Advantage’ policy, the realities of seeking asylum, the futility of deterrence and Australia’s responsibility as a global citizen.
- “Coming of Age in Immigration Limbo”, The Global Mail, 2013, Curr comments on the difficulties faced by boat arrivals, especially unaccompanied minors who come of age while their asylum case is processed and are no longer supported by the government as a minor.
- “Inside the motel rooms asylum seeker kids call home”, Crikey, 2010, Curr writes on ‘Alternative Places of Detention’ where asylum seeker children were detained and the effect those places of detention have on children.
Transcript of Interview
27 June 2006
Interview conducted by Anna Farago
MS FARAGO Hi, my name’s Anna Farago. A-n-n-a F-a-r-a-g-o. I’m conducting an interview with Pamela Curr. P-a-m-e-l-a C-u-r-r. We’re doing the interview in Brunswick in Victoria, Melbourne and the date is June the 27th 2006. Pamela, maybe could you describe how you first got involved in asylum seeker issues and how you learnt of conditions in detention centres?
MS CURR Yes, it goes back quite a way. I’d always been concerned about the idea of the mandatory detention centre up in Port Hedland in the early 90’s but it was a long way away and I didn’t seem – feel I could do much about it. Then as time went on when there was change of government in ’96 and Howard Government came in there was a steady tightening of things, which really came to a head around 2000, 2001. I was asked to go to Maribyrnong by a lawyer in W.A. with a lawyer here to get some affidavits for people who’d been, Iranians, who’d been transferred from Port Hedland to the Maribyrnong detention centre and that was the first time I’d been into a detention centre. And shortly around that time also there was the first busloads coming out Woomera and the first bus was mainly young men who were dumped in a sleazy backpackers hotel somewhere in the city and with very – no resources on a Saturday, and then the third bus that came in carried women and children and they were taken to an abandoned childcare centre in the Northern Suburbs. A friend of mine who was working with the Good Shepherd heard about it and heard that there was a great need for support people because they were just basically going to be dumped there. So, we arrived at eight o’clock in the morning to this place where there were all these absolutely jubilant, happy, joyous people, mainly Iraqis, who had arrived there half an hour before and they were just high on freedom and there were some slabs of white sliced bread and jam and tea bags, it was all pretty low key, being flung about. And they’d been travelling for 19 hours and they had travelled with a cheese sandwich. This was the departure fare from Woomera and they described to me then what happened. These people came around on a Thursday afternoon, they were DIMIA people – Immigration and they called them Mr and Mrs Visa, and they would walk around knocking on doors and telling people they had ten minutes to get to this designated space with their belongings. And the children would run around after them calling out, who’s next, who’s next, is it me, and they would just go around knocking on the Donga doors and people of course were alert to it because it had just started to happen, and basically, the friends that I made one of the young girls, teenage daughter, she worked in the kitchen. So, she kind of had an inkling, the word used to go out from the kitchen how many cheese sandwiches had been made and wrapped. So, they knew that’s how many visas and they were lucky they were the chosen ones and they arrived in Melbourne. There was no accommodation set up for them, government hadn’t put anything in sight. Immigration had met them and gave them their visas and set up bank accounts and actually got them enrolled for Centrelink but after that they’re on they were own and I drove a mother and her two children to a house out the back of Broadmeadows that another woman and her son were staying in and this was temporary accommodation. When I went into the house there were mattresses on the floor. There weren’t enough cups or plates for them to all eat simultaneously. I can remember I was quite shocked that they actually had to take it in turns to drink and that’s the way it was. So, that’s how it started and once you make friends with people and you see yourself in them, in that situation and you walk in their shoes as you try to find accommodation and get them linked up, you can’t turn away.
MS FARAGO And maybe you could describe some of the accounts that these people had given to you at the time of what they experienced in Woomera?
MS CURR That was the early days in Woomera, things were very rough. There were people in tents and there were people in Dongas, there was no air conditioning. It was tough times, women had to line up to get sanitary pads, women had to line up to get the pill and of course, they were so embarrassed, many women didn’t. There was no privacy it was pretty rough. The friend that I made had been a child psychologist in Iraq in a school and so she and a few others set up a kind of school program but it was all very ad hoc. There was no education program in place. They’d also been held incommunicado for some months. Now, people had spent different amounts of time but I think we forget that when they were taken to Woomera they were not allowed to make a phone call to their family, they had no access to newspaper, radio or television. They were literally locked away. And they, initially they were very distraught and then what happened was they had that walk out, pushed over the fences and walked into Woomera Township. Now, the people I was with had been involved in that, they’d walked in and they sat down in the middle of the road in Woomera overnight and they said it was freezing cold. They weren’t allowed to eat or drink. Some, a few locals, rolled oranges and apples to them but the guards kicked them out of the way and then the guards allowed the children to have something to eat but they stood over the parents to make sure the parents didn’t taste it. They had a rough time; they weren’t in detention for very long. See they’d been in six or seven months and I think that was the difference. They were still recovering from their voyage over, which had been very traumatic, some more than others. I remember the Iraqi family, the mother and the two daughters, telling me how they were in this boat coming down from Indonesia. They’d been on the water for four or five days and it was pretty ghastly and everybody was sea sick and then it was about three o’clock in the morning before the light came that a boat was coming up alongside, and they were really terrified because they thought it was pirates and people were crying and weeping and very distressed. And then at about 4.30 the light came up and the boat was right alongside and they looked out and they saw these white men in short pants and long socks and she said everybody laughed and started to pray and they knew that they were in Australia, and I said how did you know, she said because we’d heard about the strange custom of men wearing short pants and long white socks. So, they knew they were in Australia.
MS FARAGO Okay and so where had they actually arrived on shore before they were taken to Woomera, the family?
MS CURR They were picked up and taken to Christmas Island and then they were flown from Christmas Island to Woomera.
MS FARAGO And have they described to you when they first arrived at Woomera, did they know that they were going to a detention centre?
MS CURR No, they were very, it was all very unclear. They were shocked when they got to Woomera because they believed that Australia was a place that would you know, believed in freedom and respected human rights. So, they were really shocked when they got to Woomera, yeah.
MS FARAGO And were the family allowed to stay together while they were in Woomera?
MS CURR It was a mother and her two teenage children and she was absolutely adamant that they stayed together, yes. Yes, she was a strong women, her husband was actually in Abu Ghraib. He’d been imprisoned by Saddam Hussein and naturally they were sheer so they’d suffered under Saddam Hussein.
MS FARAGO Maybe you could talk about other stories that you’ve heard from Woomera and describe how different people experience Woomera in different ways?
MS CURR Yes, those were the early days and they were harsh but they weren’t so long. What happened then is I got to know people and I used to get phone calls from people as they start to develop trust and you know, telling me about things that were happening and then through 2002 and 2003 things got really bad in Woomera as people had been in detention for two years, two and a half years and they were starting to lose hope, many were becoming mentally ill, there were children who were becoming deeply distressed. You might remember the Afghani unaccompanied minors threatened a mass suicide and they were taken seriously because they were adamant that’s what they were going to do if they didn’t get out and they were released into foster homes. Some of them were re-detained when they turned 18. There were instances of, well there was a particular little girl who because extremely ill and the state child authorities in South Australia recommended that she be released from detention with her family and so did a number of psychiatrists. And that wasn’t listened to and then they were transferred to Maribyrnong because they were told, they said that if this child stayed in Woomera it was likely that she would die. She was pulling out her hair and scratching her skin, she was incontinent and she was deeply distressed and I came across that family in Maribyrnong. Perhaps, we could talk about that later.
The other issue that perhaps hasn’t been talked about was the use of isolation. In Woomera it was very arbitrary. It wasn’t documented in the same way that it was in Baxter but people were put in isolation and I remember one man who spent 13 days in the isolation cell and I rang the doctor every day for 13 days and begged him to go and see him because there was a regulation in the beginning, that if a person was put in isolation they had to be seen by a medical officer every 24 hours. That subsequently changed so that it could be a medical staff or I forget the terminology but it basically included nurses as well and the doctor there said he did not believe in the isolation unit. He disapproved of it and so he would have nothing to do with it which meant that no one in isolation was visited by him. But what he did do was he was also the superintendent at Woomera base hospital, when things got too bad and when people were really cracking he could transfer them and the department couldn’t stop him because he had the right to transfer who he deemed fit or necessary or unwell enough, into the Woomera base hospital and so that’s what he did, and that was a kind of a circuit breaker. The department, when they moved to Baxter, broke that nexus in that they contracted health care out to private contractors and they were independent of the hospital and they didn’t have the same right. ”
But the other thing that happened in Woomera was the use of strip searching and this is not widely discussed because the men feel very embarrassed and ashamed. But when I used to talk to them they’d say things like they’ve taken my spirit or they’ve stolen something from me and there were a lot of illusions and then slowly some of them started to tell me what was happening, and after the fires in Woomera there was a period where the strip searching went on fairly constantly. It’s something that’s been happening through the detention centres, all of them, at various times and it hasn’t had a lot to do with events, it’s had to do with the determination of the staff at the time. It’s a way to break people really and there was one man in particular, a young whom I met at Tullamarine for 20 minutes on his way through. Now, he was from North Africa where rape is often a method of torture and he was asked to – they were all lined up and had to go into a room that was screened off and had to strip and, sorry, the microphone is dislodged I’m very sorry about that, I hope you can get that out. ”
MS FARAGO That’s all right, that’s fine keep going.
MS CURR He was asked to strip down and he took everything off except his underpants and then he couldn’t do it. So, they locked the – closed the door and they left him in the room and they came back he was in that room for eight hours. They came back every hour and said are you ready to take them off now and he said no and he told me that in that time he decided that even if he was going to be killed he was not going to remove his underpants. He just couldn’t do it and at the end of eight hours they came in, they patted him down and they let him go and three days later he signed to be a voluntary deportation or removal as the department calls it.
Now, they couldn’t actually send him back to his country of origin, they deported him to Syria. At that time the Australian Government had some sort of a deal with Syria and they could deport anybody to Syria and he was – I met him as he came through Tullamarine on his way off to Syria where he was sent on an eight week temporary document. At the end of eight weeks he was going to be illegal in Syria, he had no passport and no forwarding documents. So, the Australian Government was using this mechanism to get rid of people but they knew that those people had no legal status when their short term document was up. So, really Australia has participated in the people smuggling business. ”
Things were really bad and I hope that eventually that period of time will be documented because what I heard happened was families were made to lie down on the floor for hours on end, that there was a lot of handcuffing, that no meals were served, no drinks were given. There was a lot of real punishment of people and people who had nothing to do with the lighting of the fires.”
MS FARAGO So, the events or the descriptions that you’ve just given relate to the fires, maybe explain why the isolation was used, were they kicking out certain people?
MS CURR Isolation was used before and after the fires, it didn’t have a great deal to do with it, isolation was used for anybody who misbehaved but I believe that it was also used as a way, a means of control. Let’s not forget there were a large number of people there and they had to have them fearful and controlled and the way they did that was by selecting certain people and punishing them. As a way of pointing out that if you do this, this is what will happen to you and I know some of the people who spent a lot of time in isolation and who were punished and they’re many of the mildest, gentlest people. It’s very hard to imagine why that would’ve happened. So, yeah, no, the punishment was quite arbitrary really.
MS FARAGO Right, yes, okay. Maybe you could describe differences that you’ve heard between experiences detainees had in Woomera and those that were at Curtain for example?
MS CURR Yes, sure. The experiences that I’ve got is not just from the detainees they were also at times staff would ring, there weren’t many. There was a nurse who was very disturbed by what she’d seen at Woomera and she would ring me from, I think she lived in Queensland, she would ring me and tell me things, I think as a way of relieving things. [A portion of this interview has been removed for legal reasons] When the Freedom Bus went around they persisted and persisted they were not allowed to visit at Curtain but what happened was a select group of people were taken to a nearby air base and the Freedom Bus, two representatives were allowed to meet them and exchange gifts.
MS FARAGO Could you just explain what the Freedom Bus was?
MS CURR The Freedom Bus was a bus of people of all ages and stages who drove around Australia to all the detention centres and I think that was in the year 2000, 2001. Really a remarkable enterprise they went to Woomera they went across to Perth and up to Curtain and Port Hedland and they were allowed to see people but not in Curtain. In Port Hedland they threw messages and food parcels and biscuits and all sorts of things backwards and forwards across the fence. And I met people who say they made friendships with people at that time that have endured till today [A portion of this interview has been removed for legal reasons]
I have heard some nice things that, you know, just occasional things such as the Afghani people in Curtain managed to grow an orange trees from pips, orange pips. Really, quite remarkable and when the trees were just less than a metre high, they were just growing, the Immigration staff went in and dug them all up because they said they were hiding weapons under them. ”
They also, in Curtain people were kept in isolation for a very long time, there is some footage of Afghani’s quite disturbed and distressed and being dragged out by their feet with their heads bumping on the road as they collapsed out of Curtain. Terrible things happened. That footage that came out of Curtain was a miracle. What happened was these Afghani men had been locked up in these rooms for months and they were going mad. They were banging their heads against the wall, they were bleeding. The guards went and opened the doors and they had this thing about videoing everything and what happened was some of the men collapsed and there was one man, they thought he’d died actually and his friends were frantically trying to resuscitate him. And somehow the video camera got bumped and the cassette fell out and one of the very enterprising detainees picked it up and threw it high over the fence into the other compound where somebody picked it up and they hid it. They hid it for about six months and the DIMIA staff and the guards worked the camp over. They took up floor boards, they dug, they looked everywhere they did not find that video cassette and I don’t know to this day how it got out but it got out and Channel 9 showed it. It’s very rare for us to get an insight into to what happened at Curtain. ”
[A portion of this interview has been removed for legal reasons] I don’t think this has ever been addressed but there is on record a Federal Court case, it’s available online, where the judge states very clearly that he recognises that the complainant, that the detainees, asylum seekers, had filed, after the RIT hearing, they had filed in the Federal Court 13 days later, there’s a 28 day period, you’ve got to file otherwise you can’t. He had put the documents into the DIMIA office, there was a little box on the DIMIA door at Curtain, it had been stamped and yet those documents didn’t reach the Federal Court until the 35th day. Now, the judge went through the process and said, I acknowledge that in this case this man has done everything in his power to comply with the court and to file the documents in time and that he has been prevented from doing so by agents of the Immigration Department but under the legislation I have not the power to hear the case because it was filed out of time. ”
Now, it’s there in black and white. I’ve had staff tell me that they know that papers were shredded in the Immigration office. Detainees would sign things and they were shredded and I’ve had detainees tell me that they were told they couldn’t file because they had to pay $1,000 to lodge and they didn’t have $1,000 [A portion of this interview has been removed for legal reasons]
MS FARAGO Okay, with you described the office of DIMIA within the detention centre at Curtain, could you explain how that process maybe provided advice or not advice for the detainees? Was there someone always present in those offices or was it – – -?
MS CURR I couldn’t tell you exactly how it worked but I can tell you that Immigration were in no way there to provide advice or to offer support or to facilitate. They were there to deter and deny right through that process and I believe even today the aim of the Immigration Department is not to discover or to prove or to recognise that a person is a refugee it is rather to deny, to deter a person from pursuing a refugee claim.
MS FARAGO That leads me maybe to ask you about what facilities you know of that existed in Woomera and Curtain that former detainees or detainees have described, what was it really like for someone to live in a place like Woomera or Curtain?
MS CURR I don’t have a very clear picture of Curtain because I only have it in bits and pieces from people who were very distressed. It depended which compound you were in and it depended whether you took it quietly and kept your head down and didn’t get noticed and if you didn’t you were singled out and you were punished as an example to the others. So, the experience is very much on the sort of people they were and for some of the Iraqis many of them were professional people, they were middle class, probably a bit like us. If they’re getting a raw deal they’re not going to take it quietly they complained, they were articulate. They demanded better treatment and so they suffered accordingly. In some ways the Afghani’s, particularly the Hazaras, their method of survival in Afghanistan was around keeping their heads down because they were so persecuted and in some ways it was less difficult for them but not always I mean, if you look at the Bakhtiari family. Now, they’re clearly – they were singled out for punishment, I mean there was Ali Bakhtiari, recognised as a refugee. His wife follows later with the children and because of this thing about no family reunion, absolutely no capacity, they were kept locked up in Woomera. When you think about it Immigration knew they knew that Ali Bakhtiari was living in Sydney and he’s spending his money trying to find his family in camps in Pakistan and Immigration didn’t tell them. You know, really, one day it’s got to come out.
But the other thing is about just the basic conditions like trying to get information to your lawyer. Let’s not forget there were no lawyers allowed in until Jeremy Moore pursued and pursued it until he got into Woomera, sending faxes, a dollar a page. People didn’t have any money how could they send faxes, you know. The phones, I mean right till this day the phones are so minimal in number that in those days you could ring for four days before you got onto your person. The phone would be continually engaged because there’d be one phone per compound.”
MS FARAGO So, have you had the experience of trying to call and talk to someone who was in detention?
MS CURR Yes, many times.
MS FARAGO Maybe describe how that happened or not?
MS CURR Well, you ring Baxter, let’s say you ring Baxter and you have to know in the old days you had to know their number, you couldn’t just ask for them by name, you had to know the compound and quite often they’d just say there’s no phone or there busy can’t get through, that’s it finish. So, you just keep ringing and ringing and ringing. We shouldn’t forget about the numbers, that was the other thing that everybody had a number, and of course it really came out in Woomera when they had this kind of show Christmas thing where they brought Father Christmas out and they were giving each child a present and they had the media there to make it look all very jolly. And they called the kids by number and the kids would come up and suddenly the Immigration staff thought, this doesn’t look good. So, they stopped it and they just gave the presents out at random but you know it’s like somebody help up a mirror.
MS FARAGO We’ve talked about Curtain and Woomera maybe talk a little bit about Port Hedland and how you were involved in that detention centre?
MS CURR Port Hedland, I became involved when I met the Iranians who’d been transferred down here. We also forget it was time when people could be arbitrarily transferred at a moment’s notice. It was another method of really unsettling people, making them nervous. A lot of the stuff in the camps I believe was designed to get people to sign to go back. The government thought yeah, we’ll force them out. They didn’t realise how, you know, little trust the people had about going home. They would’ve gone home, I mean, in some ways surely it stands out that if people are prepared to endure these appalling conditions they must have something really to fear or they’d just say, blow this, and leave.
But one of the things they used to do and they did it a lot in Port Hedland was they call people up to the office by loudspeaker. The person would go up to the office and then he wouldn’t come back and then they would, guards, would go into his room and pack the belongings into a black plastic bag. Now, in the beginnings of course, nobody quite knew what was happening but as time went on they knew. Black plastic bag was a sign that somebody was either being deported or transferred. So, of course later on as we got more organised they would ring us and we eventually formed NADA the National Anti-Deportation Alliance and we had various ways, and eventually we got quite good at blocking. But in those early days people would be called up and my three friends were called up it was May, and May in Melbourne can be quite cool. These guys had on cotton shorts and t-shirts. They were taken out of their beds at five o’clock in the morning by guards. They had nothing on their feet, they were put in a plane and flown to Perth and then put in another plane and flown to Melbourne. I remember they told how cold it was to walk through Melbourne Airport with a t-shirt and shorts on. I mean, there was no dignity allowed for these people and how they felt, dressed like sleeping clothes, walking through an airport without their possessions. That was the other thing they used to do, was they used to transfer them, leave their possessions behind and then they would spend months trying to get their possessions back and when they did all the valuable things would be gone. Because some of these had bought radios, they worked in detention, a dollar and hour, saved up and bought a radio. They’d been given things later on people started to give them computers and television sets and things, these things always went missing, always. So, in Port Hedland people were often transferred up there or out of there at a moment’s notice. ”
So, you know, when you think about it you’re together with a group of people, friends in a place that’s very inhospitable and you’ve got no control over your life and at a moment’s notice you can just be pulled up and dragged out. I’ve got lists of names in my book of people who were just arbitrarily dragged – sent off to another detention centre and they’d ring up and they’d give me the names and numbers, and then we try and find them, because of course the other great worry was that they’d been deported, removed. ”
The other thing that happened up there was there were a couple of big removals. I’ve been told this and I’m not quite sure but there was a group of Palestinians, about 17 or 18 Palestinians, who were flown out of Port Hedland. Now, I was told that they were told they were accepted to Canada and that they parted for a few they were pretty happy and they went very willingly on the plane and then they didn’t go to Canada, they were taken to Syria and I know that 15 of them were detained by the Syrian officials for about 13 weeks and then released. We don’t know what happened to them in the end. ”
There were others, there was a deportation of a Palestinian man, he got to Dubai and the Dubai officials refused to allow him to continue the journey because they looked at his documents and they said these are false you must have other documents, the Australian Government would not let you leave the country with such shoddy, false documents and he had no other documents. They searched him, couldn’t find them and they sent him back to Australia. ”
Now, what had happened and this did happen a few times, the Australian Government said to Palestinians, if you get a passport or a travel document we will send you home and these guys were desperate to get out of detention. So – and the Australian Government knew for 30 or 40 American dollars you can buy anything in the Middle East. These guys would be buying documents just to get themselves out of detention and the Australian Government was pressuring them to do it and that’s what they did and this guy who bounced back I don’t know what happened to him in the end. ”
The other thing that happened in Port Hedland was some pretty serious health stuff. The medical facilities were appalling, there was a man Mohammed Salai(?) who died on the table in Perth. Now, he’d been sick for months and they just ignored him. He got steadily more depressed and lost weight and eventually they took him to Perth and he required some abdominal surgery but the anaesthetist said he was so depressed that he would not give him an anaesthetic. So, they had to find a way to reduce his depression quickly, and I heard about this and it’s documented, the psychiatrists had a terrible choice to make. The way to reduce depression is through shock therapy, electric ECT, Electro-convulsive Therapy and this man had been tortured with electricity and they had to make a decision and they did that and he was operated on and he died on the table. ”
There was another boy, a boy, 12, who developed an eye infection was badly treated. He didn’t get good treatment and it continued it got worse and it got worse and he lost the sight in one eye. He is now released and he’s practically blind. At one stage I was rung one night because this boy’s father was so distraught that he was unable to get the proper care for his child. He’d been prescribed these drops and the Immigration staff just couldn’t be bothered getting them and he knew that his son was deteriorating and he couldn’t see, he couldn’t breathe, he was in pain, and the father went into the kitchen and wrapped the electric cord from the kettle around his neck and tried to hang himself. Well, he wasn’t very successful and one of the other detainees stopped him and rang me and said look, he’s just desperate. ”
There was something in Port Hedland, the medical facilities were appalling, the doctor’s god knows where they came from and you know, there was just neglect really. I mean, it’s not peculiar to Port Hedland, it happened in other places. And, you know, we after what there were 11 deaths of varying, either suicides or others, in detention so you know. You think it’s a place with so called 24 hour medical care they didn’t do too well, did they.”
MS FARAGO Now, you’ve actually had first hand experience visiting Maribyrnong. Maybe you could just describe when you first went to Maribyrnong, what you saw and we’ll talk maybe about how it’s changed but initially maybe describe in detail what you saw and what you felt when you were there?
MS CURR Well, in the beginning there weren’t the electric fences and you know, not electricity in Maribyrnong, that was in Baxter, but the razor wire and all the gates and the airlocks and all that rubbish it was pretty easy actually. In fact, what, in 2001 some activists drove a truck in their put a ladder up against the wall and climbed on the roof. You can’t imagine that happening now but when you went in you had to produce ID, driver’s license, give your details, have these bracelets put on, you had to fill out forms every time same thing, relationship, all this rubbish and you have to put friend, you can’t put anything else.
One night I was there with this elderly man and he had a young student staying in the house and she’d been taken into detention for breaching her student visa and he wrote ‘house parent’ and the guard said ‘Well, you’re not getting in mate’. They’re very rough and ready and I said to him just put friend and he said, why, I’m the house parent, I said, no, but you have to put friend. So, he filled it in and he was allowed in but I know others not allowed in. ”
So, you went through scanning machine and all this rubbish. You’re not allowed to take anything in, no food, no pens, no paper, no nothing. Of course, we delight in thwarting those things. You’re not allowed – really it’s like prison visiting I imagine.”
MS FARAGO So, when you are going to visit someone in particular, do you go and find them yourself or where do you actually go?
MS CURR You go into a visit centre there’s a room and the person is called out and if the guards feel a bit anti, if you’ve been a bit you know, haven’t been friendly at the desk they take a long time to call them out. Things have changed a lot now, see the numbers were very big then, there was some, a particular guard who often ran the visit centre and she delighted in making things as unpleasant for people as possible. They have all sorts of rules such as, if you take food it be only be taken in clear containers, chocolate can’t be taken because it can’t be wrapped in foil. Look, just a multitude, like you know, they change the rules too. One week you can four pieces of fruit, the next week you can only have five you know, this sort of constant shuffling and changing of the rules I mean, I think for the detainees it must drive them crazy. I mean, we only go in there for an hour and a half and you leave that place and you feel so angry you want to just kick the walls because they’re rude, they’re obnoxious, they’re obstructive and there’s all this pettiness you know.
MS FARAGO Are you able to have private conversations or is that – – -?
MS CURR Yes, but you sitting in a big room with glass walls or you could go out into the courtyard but that’s all over now. The guards sort of mooch around too you know, and make a point of smoking out there near you and stuff like that. So, you know, you’re very much under surveillance.
MS FARAGO You described a courtyard and you said it’s no longer there anymore?
MS CURR They’ve been doing alterations, I haven’t been but I’ve heard recently that the courtyard’s gone. There so called visit centre was supposed to be enlarged but that doesn’t seem to have happened. Maribyrnong is one of the smallest and the most – they’re closed. There’s no open space see, after Viliami jumped off the basketball pole they locked that outside area, no one was allowed to go. I remember we, when you think about it’s so petty.
We spent 12 months advocating for access to the outside area and they would do things like say, yes all right, we’re going to open up the outside area. So, they would take one detainee with two guards outside for half and hour and they were stand out there with him. How jolly was that. You know, it really is mind boggling to think of the small petty ways that they can make life difficult and miserable. I remember one night after visits on a Sunday night I came home and I got a phone call from one of the Iranians and he said look, after you left, you know, there’s been all this discussion about how the centres are not really punishment. Ruddock’s great line was they’re just a convenience really, what did he call it, I just forgotten the phrase but anyway he was at great pains to point out it wasn’t because Ruddock’s a lawyer and he does know that constitutionally it’s illegal to lock people up without a trial and without due process. So, this guy rang me and he said look, they’ve given us a list of 25 occupations, pass times, hobbies he said, that we could have and we’ve been asked to tick the boxes and you see whether you wanted very much or just a little bit or whatever. And so, he went, he said now, there’s this one called pottery he said, no, poetry is that making pots? No, I said poetry and you know, the Iranians are very good at poetry. Then he went through and there’s rock and roll dancing and one of the wags had said only if we get partners and all these yoga, cooking et cetera, et cetera. And then one of the Pakistani guys who spoke very good English said there was a space at the bottom for suggestions so, he put in three suggestions and one was pole vaulting, the other one was tunnelling and the third one was abseiling. So, they do have a sense of humour.”
But you know, the other thing about Maribyrnong you’ve got four people, sometimes five, sleeping in a space that is three metres, the beds what was is 3 metres by 2 metres. I’ve seen photographs of the rooms because the guys are not, they take pictures and gave them to us. Double bunks, a tiny space between the two which often a mattress was put on the floor, a space for one chair. No doors so that at night if they hung blankets up they were ripped down because the lights are left on in the hallway and if the guys go to sleep and pull the blankets over their heads so that they can sleep, the guards come in. It depends sometimes each hour, sometimes they don’t, pull the blankets down and shine a torch in their faces. ”
See, we forget even now talking to you we forget the many ways and this is what they did with families too. Out in Woomera and Port Hedland they would do these night checks three, four, five times a night. Imagine having little children they crash into the Donga and demand the tag you know, they all have these tags and of course the kids used to lose and then they’d get into trouble and shine torches in their faces. So, night after night you would have broken sleep. That sort of thing, it demounts to torture, really.”
MS FARAGO Yes, so we were talking about Maribyrnong and
the changes. Maybe describe the type of people that
you know that are currently in Maribyrnong and those
that were previously in Maribyrnong, has it changed the sort of – – -?
MS CURR Very much, very much. There was a time when there were quite a lot of asylum seekers there. There was a time when there were people living there for two and three years. You could imagine living in those tiny as one man said, you know, there’s no place in this detention centre there’s no place where you can even cry on your own, you know. The shed, it’s just so crowded, but certainly it’s changed now. The people who are going through are often overstayers, the numbers are much smaller. See, there’s often 40, 50 in Maribyrnong now, there as time when it’d go up to 90 you know, and it’s a place I think it was designed for 76. So, you know, it was very crowded. There were quite a lot of detainees they’d be transferred down out of other centres and there was that constant sort of, movement and royalling of people around the detention centres, very unsettling stuff.
There were times when there were little kids, women and children in there. I think of an Afghan, a young Afghan women, with three children she actually had the third baby here, her husband had been killed, disappeared in Afghanistan and she was there for two years and she went back, went back to nothing. God knows if she’s still alive. ”
There was an Iraqi family there and I know we advocated from May through till October to try and get those two little girls, 13 and 8, into school. Now, how hard was that. There’s a school not three kilometres away, and the State Government didn’t bother about it. We tried everything, State Government, Federal Government, Immigration Department, those kids didn’t go to school for months. Just appalling stuff they wouldn’t get away with it now because you know, more people are aware but they got away with a lot because Australian’s hearts and minds were turned against these people and they didn’t think of them as human beings. They didn’t think of them as parents, as children, they didn’t think what it would be like to have their children denied the right to go to school. Denied the right to go out and have a laugh, have a bit of fun.”
MS FARAGO I think towards the end of the interview we’ll talk about the current situation and maybe get you to comment on that. I know you were very involved, having heard from some asylum seekers about their concern for someone they’d met in Baxter?
MS CURR Yes.
MS FARAGO And that turned out to be Cornelia Rau. Could you maybe in detail describe how you heard of Cornelia Rau?
MS CURR On the 29th of November 2004, I had a phone call from a detainee and the following day from a visitor and they told me about this young women who was in Baxter, who they said had mental problems or was sick. There was something wrong with her, she shouldn’t be there. What had happened was the detainee had got back in the van after going to the dentist, I think it was in Port Pirie and found this young women there, and he thought she was new so, he was talking to her about what it was like in Baxter and what would happen, trying to be helpful. And then he said, she’s strange, and as it turned out we thought that she had just arrived in Baxter in the 29th of November in the back of the van but that wasn’t so. She’d actually been in the family compound and then she’d been put over in to management because she didn’t behave according to them.
Now, the people described to me is that she’s acting very strangely, she talks to herself, she cries a lot, she’s very unhappy, she walks into people’s rooms and just walks around as though she’s not in someone’s space, she takes her clothes off. Strange, she just takes her clothes off for no reason and they thought that she was very unwell. In fact, a women detainee I spoke to said to me you know, she didn’t cause any harm but it was very strange for us to see a women take her clothes off, but she didn’t hurt us, you know. ”
Anyway, that was November, December I was told that she was a German citizen. That’s what they thought she was, a German citizen. So, initially I rang the German Embassy a number of times. I rang – there’s a distressed nationals desk in Melbourne and that apparently is the area to ring and I asked them if they were aware of her, whether they would go and visit, that she clearly needed their support and I really ran into a brick wall you know. They were polite but non-committal. ”
Eventually, someone did acknowledge they knew about her and that they were looking into it and I said but look she’s really ill and then I went away on holidays to Mullumbimby and I got a call. I’d sort of, kept an eye on it and one of the local rural Australians for refugees said look, I think she’s gone. We asked Immigration where she was because we couldn’t find her and the detainees didn’t know where she was and so someone from Immigration one of the guards said, no she’s gone. Which was a lie, she hadn’t gone at all and she popped up again. I remember on Boxing Day and by that stage I’d rang a German journalist I knew and I said look, this is what’s happening and he said he had connections with the Embassy. I said you ring them and see if you can get anything out of them and that’s what he did and they said yes they knew about it but they didn’t thinks she was German and they didn’t know who she was. And then I rang her because all we knew that her name was Anna. She told the – some guys that she was 19, she told others she was 25 and they didn’t seem to question it a great deal and she said her name was Anna Smit or Anna Brotmeyer(?). Now, when I rang her I spoke to her, she was – she faded in and out, she seemed unable to follow the thoughts but she told me that she was in 1986 which made her 17, 18 the age of my daughter and then she told me a whole lot of different dates and places and she also told me her name was Anna Brotmeyer which was the first time I’d heard. ”
So, I rang Immigration and I said look, I have this information can’t you do something about her out of detention, she’s clearly mentally unwell. Look, they weren’t interested. I contacted IDAG, the Immigration Detention Advisory Group, HERIOC, the Ombudsman, every body you could name. Peter McGauran’s office, Vanstone’s office, everybody and nobody would do anything. ”
I came back from holidays she was still there and she wasn’t – she was deteriorating. I was hearing a lot of stuff about her by this stage she’s in red one, she’s eating dirt, she’s distressed, the guards are having to physically push her back into the room. As one guy told me she’s not getting her rights, I mean, I think this is terrible he said when you’re in red one you go on this regime and you’re allowed out of your room for two hours a day and she was only getting half an hour a day and he said she’s not getting her rights. Then the guys were telling that the guards were watching her showering because there were cameras in the room. There was just a whole lot of really awful stuff going on and that’s when I went to Andrea Jackson and asked her, I had also put some stuff through the German internet, backpackers, travellers. I’d sent a thing to Germany to the newspapers. I really tried everything and then I went to Andrea Jackson and asked her if she would put an article and then on the Friday Chris Rau rang me and said, Anna’s my sister, Cornelia.”
MS FARAGO Pamela you were talking about how Cornelia Rau’s sister got in touch with you after her story came out?
MS CURR Yes, and that really had the – opened up the detention centres in a way that many terrible things before hadn’t, there was something about blonde, blue eyed Cornelia, ex-Qantas Air hostess, you know if you were writing it as a spin doctor you couldn’t have better. The fact that she had been and she was an Australian resident, the fact the she was detained in a detention centre and lets face it, it was legal. It was all legal and she was sick, she’d first of all been detained in prison and then detention centres under our immigration system really shone a light into detention centres.
One of the Sri Lankian detainees said to me, you know, Cornelia was an angel for us but she doesn’t know it. Because even the things – the terrible things that have happened to children, nobody – Australian public have distanced themselves. They have created a them and us and they don’t see that they’re people like us but Cornelia changed that and then there was the subsequent – the Palmer enquiry. Now, Cornelia came out in the first week of February, we shouldn’t forget that at that stage even with all the shock of locking up mentally ill people etcetera, and the disclosers that came out around Cornelia, that a Adelaide barrister Clare O’Connor had to go to court in order to get mental health treatment for her clients, and it was only when the – in the court case in April that eventually immigration relented and allowed these people to be transferred into the Glenside Hospital in Adelaide. ”
After the Palmer report there were a lot of recommendations concerning the mental health care of detainees, and the department – the Immigration Department stated that they would – that the culture – they identified a culture that needed changing, culture. No human beings were responsible, it was the culture. If we look a year later, lets have a look and see what’s happened. Immigration promised that they would reform their cultural, they made agreements about detainees getting better health care, better mental health care and what have we seen in that time. ”
The Glenside ward became, there were at one stage I think, 15, 16 patients in their all from Baxter Detention Centre. There was a special ward the Rural and Remote Board. The guards who initially were on their doors and beside their beds lolling around, were pushed further and further back by staff so that it really opened up and it became a proper mental health facility where people were being treated with an aim to helping them get better. Quite a lot of detainees were released on a variety of visas into the community and it looked for a time as though the department was acknowledging that it was no longer acceptable to keep people locked up when it was affecting them and making them sick and that when psychiatrists and doctors made recommendations that persons needed to be removed from the detention centre for the sake of their health that that was the right and proper thing to do. ”
Most recently what we’ve seen, which I think is very disturbing, is that almost all the patients except one were removed from Glenside and transferred back to detention a number of them at the, expressly against the treating doctors advice. [A portion of this interview has been removed for legal reasons] They were transferred back to detention, one man only lasted 48 hours before he was then sent 1,400 kilometres north to Queensland to a private psychiatric facility. The others have been transferred from Villawood and there they are up to the Toowong Private Hospital, which is now the hospital of choice for the mentally ill in our detention centres. ”
[A portion of this interview has been removed for legal reasons] The big issue for the government is that when you lock people up for years and years and they do not know when they’re going to get out they go mad, they become ill, they become depressed, psychotic and they become extremely ill. ”
It is an issue for the government because they know that by continuing this system that they’re making people sick. And then you look at the government legally they have the right to do it because they have sought that right all the way to the High Court where it has been granted by the High Court judges who have said that it is quite legal to detain a person in an Immigration Detention Centre in Australia for the term of their natural life. I think that is shocking but that is what we have in place, it’s legal, it’s not moral.”
MS FARAGO Yes, as a ex-nurse I guess there’s for you this sense of duty of care and the government’s duty of care and yes, maybe you could just speak about how you think professionally coming from the background – – – ?
MS CURR Well, as an ex-nurse I am really shocked at the collaboration that has occurred at times between health personnel and the Immigration Department. Now that’s an easy thing for me to say now, I don’t know whether I would always have felt like that but it seems to me as though we are losing our moral compass. We are losing the ability to detect what is ethical and what is not ethical and I say that knowing some of the things that have happened. In one instance I know that the way in which we got a young boy out of the Port Hedland Detention Centre when he was going blind and was not getting the correct care and was going to go blind was because one gutsy eye specialist stood up and said publicly what he believed was happening and said that the child would go blind unless he was removed from that centre at least to a city detention centre where he could get the specialist care he needed.
For that – he said it on Channel 9, a Channel 9 director rang me afterwards and said I’m just telling you the letter that we received where the Immigration department wrote to Channel 9 and said that this doctor was unethical because he had betrayed his patient’s trust, how dare they. Now that’s what you see when you see gutsy people standing up. I’ve seen it most recently with a women who came from Nauru. She had been sent down here on two occasions. She had a lot of health problems and because on the second occasion the doctor said you cannot send her back to Nauru she will come back again and she will be even worse, she cannot get the care she needs and he stood by his words and he went public, the Immigration Department backed off. So you see brave people standing up to them but then on the other hand you see other instances. ”
Most recently in Brisbane, an Afghan family and a nine year old child have been held incommunicado in secret in Brisbane. When they were in a public hospital in Brisbane and an Amnesty representative and a member of the Afghan community went to see the family and to offer them support, two guards blocked their way. The superintendent of the hospital complained to the Immigration Department about the disturbance of having people, community visitors, going to see people and guards and as a result of that a third guard was installed around the bed of a nine year old child and then the family were removed from the hospital. Not because medically it was time to go but because the hospital found it all a bit confronting and that child then went back subsequently and had surgery and they all participated, nobody would break the silence. They all participated in collaborating with the Immigration Department. Now I’m not saying they’re bad people, what I’m saying is that they have no moral compass and they allow themselves to be bullied. ”
On another instance, there was a man in the Baxter Detention Centre, a young man, who became very ill for five days. On the fifth day, the detainees got very angry because no doctor had been called to see him and they believed he was critically ill. They made a protest where they sat outside his room and they said they wouldn’t go to bed and they wouldn’t leave until a doctor came. So in come the guards all togged up in their riot gear to have a good old time and one of them took a good look at the man in his room lying in the bed and realised how critically ill he was. So the riot thing was called off. They removed the man, took him out to the medical centre, he was swiftly removed to the Port Augusta Hospital where he was taken to theatre and operated on and had his appendix removed but it was too late it had burst releasing puss into his abdomen and his peritoneal cavity. ”
So he was then flown to Perth, to Adelaide, to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where he was put into intensive care and put on heavy doses of intravenous drugs and he was a very sick man for 48 hours. But he was young and he was resistant and he survived. I spoke to the surgical registrar at the Adelaide Hospital who told me that he was so angry that this man had been allowed to sit in that condition in the Baxter Detention Centre, he said he could’ve died and he’s only 28. [A portion of this interview has been removed for legal reasons]
MS FARAGO Another very controversial issue that’s come out of detention centres is the fact that children have been detained. You might want to talk about incidents or experiences of those that you’ve met, or you’ve talked to about how children have had to endure detention.
MS CURR I think the detention of children is really one of the worst things that we have seen happen. Coming on the back of the Bringing Them Home Report which was released in 1999 where we see what we did to another group of children of the other, the other the undeserving other, namely Indigenous people where we scooped up these children took them away from their families and put them in institutions many places where they were brutally treated. Then to think that we’ve done it again now it’s not Indigenous children, now it is refugee children. They too have – what there must be something in the national psyche that, you know, we profess to love families to love children and yet we can do this.
If you think what we did to the children in Woomera, in the early days the way in which they were treated. I remember mothers telling me that they had to wake their babies at seven o’clock in the morning and take them to the dining room in order to get them breakfast. Unless they took the babies to the dining room they couldn’t feed them because they weren’t allowed to take food back from the dining room for their children. They had to physically take them. It was cold out there in the desert, it’s cold in the early morning and their babies hadn’t slept through the night, they’d been woken up with these checks and lights and torches and then dragged out there in the morning. I mean the food for the children was appalling. They weren’t used to the diet that we were giving them. There were all sorts of issues around milk and about you know, basic things for babies and then you come along to some of the really appalling things that happened. Such as the unaccompanied minors in Woomera. ”
A little girl in Woomera who became so desperately ill that she was ripping the skin off her body, pulling her hair out and was suicidal. After 18 months, the family was transferred to Maribyrnong extensively to get medical care for this child. They were in Maribyrnong for three weeks and on a Sunday the family went in for Sunday lunch into the dining room, the mother and the father and the youngest child sat down and realised the girl wasn’t with them. The father – they were so acutely aware of the need of this child, the father got up and raced out of the room and went into their bedroom and into the bathroom where he found the little who is 11, shower curtain around her neck and a bottle of shampoo in her hand trying to commit suicide, jumping. ”
The father grabbed her in his arms, raced into the dining room weeping, distressed. The guards grabbed the child and called an ambulance, the mother and the child then were taken. I went to visit that night and I was there at seven o’clock to see my Iranian friends and they said look, come and talk to this man he’s very, very upset and they told me what had happened and at seven o’clock at night, this had happened at two o’clock in the afternoon, he had not heard from his wife or from the hospital or from anyone about his child whether she was dead or alive and he was sitting there pulling his hands round and round, hyperventilating, he was in a terrible state. ”
So I went home and I rang the hospital. I took a punt and thought it would probably be the Western General. I rang the Western General casualty and I, because I’m used to hospitals you know how to get through and I spoke to the sister in charge in casualty. I said look, could you connect me to the mother of the child and she said no and I said okay I can understand that but I said what I want you to do is I want you to dial the detention centre and give the mother the phone so she can speak to her husband and let him know how the child is. The nurse said to me you don’t know what it’s like, I can’t do that they’re all over us, we can’t do anything. I said who, she said the guards, they won’t let us do anything. Now she wouldn’t tell me how the child was but I knew the child was alive by the fact that, you know, they were still talking about her. ”
They wouldn’t allow husband to know and do you know that the child was then taken off to the Austin Hospital at one o’clock in the morning and the mother was returned to the detention centre. So the father didn’t hear until two o’clock in the morning that his child was still alive. Then the next day there was a whole lot of – I can’t remember how long it took for the mother to get back to the hospital, but the father was not allowed near the hospital for some time a week or so and then they were eventually all admitted to the hospital, to the Austin, but the pointless, senseless cruelty of it. How much would it have cost somebody to say look, your daughters okay, your wife’s with her, she will be back later. No, none of that was offered and I saw it, I was there that night. They have no soul.”
MS FARAGO It’s this real kind of issue with just basic communication isn’t it, you know. It seems that within the detention centres there’s this right or maybe I shouldn’t go into it, but the way that people have the right to communicate to people in their care is different from just basic human rights of finding out where you’re at.
MS CURR No, well and I suppose we should remember that in the early days the guards in the detention centres were ACM staff and they were rotated through the prisons to the detention centres, prisons, to the detention centre and they resented the refugees because the refugees don’t think of themselves as prisoners. They believe that their human beings and they’ve got human rights and they say we are not criminals we’ve done nothing wrong and so of course the guards resented that because they weren’t coward. They resented and they stood up to the guards and that’s why I think there was so much trouble.
MS FARAGO Pam, we might just change tact here a little bit and could you explain what your current role is and how you’re now hearing about detention from people that you deal with professionally in your current role?
MS CURR I’m campaign co-ordinator with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. We are the largest agency offering services to Temporary Protection Visa holders and Bridging Visa holders. People who get permanent protection we assist them for six months while we’re getting them into mainstream services. Our centres operates on a wing and a prayer, 96 percent of our funding comes from philanthropy, donations and fundraising. We get a small four percent grant from the State Government. We have around 11 paid staff, some full time some not and we have over 600 volunteers. Technically, it shouldn’t work but it does through good will it works.
We’ve taken the view that while we’re providing services and we do, we provide medical services five days a week, counselling, psychiatric, we have food bank, we have lunch everyday, we have a drop in centre, we have legal services. While we’re providing those services, we also see that we must challenge the oppressive system that requires people to live under this regime. So that’s – my role is to educate the community, to lobby government, to work with the media, to expose, to advocate on behalf of and to campaign. To look at the discriminatory systems, the oppressive systems and to campaign against them and so we’ve been involved in campaigning against mandatory detention. We were campaigning for permanent protection for the Iraqis, we had an Iraqi campaign. We campaigned against Temporary Protection Visas, we would campaign for work rights, for Bridging Visa holders. There’s a whole range of campaigns and then there are the smaller things that happen and I’ve been involved in advocating for people and using that experience to look at the systems that are imposed on people.
For instance, in February 2005 Cornelia was released from detention and she was clearly mentally ill. At the same time there was a young man, a 19 year old boy from a minority group, from the Middle East, who had been tortured and he was in detention at the same time as Cornelia. It took us heavy advocacy work from the end of April until the first week of June before we could get him out. This boy had been tortured in a way that his hands were misshapen, his back was crocked. Anyone spending anytime with him could tell that he was in an extremely fearful state and yet every day guards and Immigration staff walked past him and ignored him. He was in his room rocking backwards and forwards for months, feed by another family who left in March and he really was in a terrible state. It’s I think – it demonstrates the lack of accountable, the lack of humanity that they could just ignore this boy and just turn off and let him. He was getting thinner and thinner and once more, it wasn’t as though they, you know, didn’t acknowledge that he’d been tortured. ”
In his case notes when he was refused refugee status, they acknowledged that he’d been tortured. We’ve moved to the stage now where once torture used to regarded as a prima-facie reason for acknowledging that somebody was in need of protection, but no longer. Many of the people in our detention centres have been tortured and of course having this treatment on top of that is what makes them so mentally unwell. So that boy – that was I worked with Sister Jan Keo(?) from (indistinct) from Canberra together we lobbied. The detainees also helped us, we had some young fellows and they’re very adept with IT and they took photographs of this boy’s hand and they took, with his permission, and we sent those to the politicians and of course the undercurrent was if you don’t do something we will have to go to media, we’ll have no choice. ”
That’s in some ways the way we work is trying to encourage the government to do the right thing. But we’re also saying to them and it did work for a while because they were in such a bad light following Cornelia, they were inclined to do the right thing but most recently there was a couple in Baxter and the wife was four weeks off giving birth to her child and I was saying can’t you release them from detention so she doesn’t have her baby in the detention centre and they said there is a ruling for children and families but not for unborn children. So I said what you’re going to take her to the Port Augusta Hospital and she’s going to have her baby and the next day you’re going to wheel her to a plane and send her to some city around Australia, surely you can do better than that. Now you would think that is logical but it took us weeks and weeks before we could that couple out of detention. ”
There have been other cases, everyday I hear the justification from Howard’s cohorts about asylum seekers coming here by boat or by coming by plane unannounced that we’re blocking real refugees from seeking asylum in Australia and they bring up the Darfur situation. See all these people in Darfur are suffering and they don’t have the same opportunity. Well the government did have an opportunity, an 18 year old boy from Darfur who had escaped a massacre in Teena(?) a massacre which is documented. They only have to Google it and they can see pictures, movies of the Janjaweed and the militia, fire bombing the houses and shooting people. This boy escaped that. He arrived in Australia by a miracle and what did they do, they took him out to Baxter and put him in an isolation compound for six days by himself. Eighteen years old, left him there and when he cracked they went and interviewed him and refused him a visa. From Darfur, a place where there’s an acknowledged genocide in progress, but not acknowledged by the Australian Immigration officials they’re too thick. ”
The judgment we’ve read, the officer clearly couldn’t discriminate between the two conflicts in Sudan. There is a conflict in the South in which there’s a tentative peace process in place and then there is the conflict in Darfur to which the world has no answer. The UN is begging for people to go in and nobody is doing anything and hundreds of thousands of people are dying and yet Immigration said it’s quite safe to go back to Sudan he could live somewhere else. They couldn’t even Google his name, his name and designates his tribe it’s listed on the Amnesty site. You can just Google it and they say this particular tribe are at risk, most at risk. You know, the Immigration Department are staffed by idiots you’d have to think sometimes or they are so filled with the need to deter and deny that they just overlook the reality. ”
When these politicians say yes we’re denying people from Darfur, I say well you had your opportunity and you’ve denied him. Anyway, again we campaigned and because of Cornelia and because, you know, we said it’s not going to look good everyone knows there’s a genocide in Darfur. The one teenager who managed to knock on our door and ask for our help and we turn him away, they knew it wouldn’t look good in the media and they released him. But, you know, this is what my work involves and there are other people around in other agencies doing this work. Some of it’s behind closed doors, a lot of it actually, sometimes it makes me very frustrated, I wish that we could say we could paint the public picture but the fact is, the Immigration Department have really got us. They know that the most important thing is the client, the detainee, the asylum seeker, the individual’s rights and what you can achieve for them and often if you go public the Immigration Department is a highly vindictive group and they will slice people off. So we have to go behind closed doors and we have to shut up. Sometimes about things that we really would rather not but we have no choice.”
MS FARAGO I’m interested to hear – I think now we’ve talked quite a bit about what happened to asylum seekers while they were in detention, are you in your organisation seeing a lot of ex-detainees and how detention has affected them and how is that manifesting now, now that they’re in the community?
MS CURR This is the next issue for us and we certainly are seeing it and we’ve been endeavouring to get some research projects, we’re making contacts with universities and with faculties to get people, we need data. We know what’s happening but in order to achieve change, you know, we’re talking to hardhearted you’ve got to produce the research data and that’s what we’re doing. We produced a report ‘Dumped at the gate’ where we detailed the experiences, you know, post Cornelia, many of the long term detained were released from Baxter. They weren’t released in one group, they came out in dribs and drabs often with no notice, you know, they’re called up in a hour and they’re out the gate an hour later. Now at Port Augusta they’ve organised themselves. There was a time when people would be literally dumped at the gate and it’s, you know, four, five kilometres from the nearest town out there in the desert. It’s happened at Maribyrnong too but people pick them up, they get into a motel overnight, Immigration pay for that now and the next morning Immigration put them on the bus to Adelaide and then they are either flown to the capital city of their choice or they stay in Adelaide.
But what happens is that they come out the gate with their bags and if they have no money they’re given $220 and that’s to tide them over until they’re linked up with Centrelink. What we found is that when we’ve met people at the airport, at Tullamarine, Immigration come along and sign off on their visa it takes five minutes and then they’re on their own. Immigration tell them to go to Centrelink, they don’t know where Centrelink office is, go to Medicare, get a tax file number but they literally have to do this on their own. The first night out, unless they’ve got friends, they’ve got nowhere to stay. We’ve had a situation where a Chinese man came out six o’clock at night in Tullamarine, I had my mobile turned off, the Immigration Department officer rang me wanting to know what to do with him because he didn’t speak English and had to no friends and knew nobody in Melbourne and so she put him into a motel for $80 in Elizabeth Street and got me at eight o’clock in the morning and I said well bring him down to us at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and that’s what she did. Because she has no resources or facilities or is to do anything more than that. ”
Then we got a Chinese community speaker in and we got him to Medicare, tax file number, Centrelink and then he had no where to stay. The Brigandines are fantastic, they have a convent at Ardeer and they have some houses, they had a spare bed so we got him a place to stay, we got him some English classes. But we’re not funded and the community is having to pick up the government’s responsibility because they set in place a system that basically is denying asylum seekers the equal rights. The other thing that’s a real problems is that they are put on to this discriminatory special benefits. Now it’s 89 percent of what you or I would get if we were unemployed but it’s got a whole pile of discriminatory mechanisms attached to it, for instance they lose dollar for dollar for every dollar they earn. Now somebody who’s just come out detention who has been locked up for four or five years, six or seven, they’re not used to working, they’ve never lived in this country, they don’t know their way, the best way into employment is to get them into part time employment. ”
But for instance we had a young man who earned $120 a few weeks ago. He was thrilled, he’d enjoyed the work, he got $90 in the hand, he lost $120 off his special benefit so he’s actually worse off for working. Unless they can get full time work it’s not in their interests. Housing, housing in Melbourne is hard if you’re an Australian. I’ve got a young niece who is looking for a place and has been looking for three or four weeks, she’s Australian, she’s got references, she can’t find a place. These young fellows they can’t find places to stay. I’ve been out with families looking, some of the rat holes. They can’t afford more than $160, $170 a week and then they’ve got to convince an agent when they’ve got no references, never lived here, no job, to let them rent a place. It is so hard and then they get into a place like these young boys that I’m going to see this afternoon, they’re sleeping on the floor with one blanket each. We’ve got some mattresses, I mean, the hearts of Australians their are many with good hearts and you’ve only got to put out a cry and out it comes, mattresses television sets, washing machines but of course that takes a mechanism to get the stuff there and that’s what we do at the ASRC. It’s about getting people resourced physically but then the mental state. ”
One of things – people come out of those compounds in Baxter, they get lost. You send them somewhere they just can’t get lost all the time. Imagine living in this little space, you could only see the sky and you can’t find your way. Of course, English is not their first language so it’s hard and then I’ve had people say to me look, in the daytime I know it’s not true but at night when I got to bed I keep dreaming that Immigration are coming to get me, they’re going to take me, and it’s very hard they can’t sleep, they have nightmares because they feel that at anytime, particularly on the Temporary Protection Visa it’s got no permanency and of course the other thing is family reunion. Men say you go to the supermarket and who do you see, you see mothers and children and I think of my children. It’s very hard for them.”
MS FARAGO Maybe you’d like to finish up with a special person or message?
MS CURR Yes, I actually have a poem but I can’t find it written by a father who had to take his baby back to Baxter in the days and went to the hospital and picked up his wife and child and took them into the Baxter compound but I guess as things stand now we’ve still got a big fight on our hands. Look what the governments trying to do at the moment, reintroduce Pacific Solution 2. The Australian Government has got people posted very untidily all around the world. At the moment we’ve got – we’re paying IOM to warehouse people in Indonesia. We’ve just moved the three West Papuans who were up on Horn Island they’ve been sent to Papua New Guinea, we’ve paid Papua New Guinea to take them. The family, well we’ll leave the family for the moment. There are two men still on Nauru from Pacific Solution 1.
The Temporary Protection Visa is still in existence denying people family reunion, denying them the opportunity to really make a life for themselves. The Bridging Visas, the denial of the right to work, we haven’t talked a lot about it but at our centre one of major groups are people on BVE. No right to work, no right to Centrelink and they get locked up if they’re found working. So of course they’re coming into us for food bank and medical and all those things and some people have been living like this for years. I believe that our Migration Act needs an overhaul. The 1958 Migration Act is a bastardry, piece of bastardy really. It’s been amended and changed always for the worse. I believe that we need a Royal Commission into what has happened over the last six years because there have been so many instances of cruelty, of oppression, of denial of rights that it is undermining us as a society and unless we face up to it and unless we address it, god help us in the future. ”
We look at reconciliation and the Indigenous issue, we were moving forward to a stage where we were acknowledging and we were wanting to change the way Indigenous people were able to live in this country, to assist them, to walk beside them and we’ve stopped and now we’ve started on another group. At a time when more than ever we need human beings and where we need to be able to work together to develop means of trusting each other, of acknowledging the differences and not wanting to punish people for being different but acknowledging the differences and the richness that it brings to our lives. I mean, my journey with the asylum seekers of course many of them have come from Middle Eastern communities of which I’m not familiar with and it’s opened my eyes to many of the misconceptions and I see the richness that they can give us. That capacity for family, for pulling together, for sharing which we as an individualistic Western nation are forgetting how to do. ”
There are many ways in which they can enrich our culture, so I guess I’m hoping that in the future Australians wake up and force their government, because let’s face it real change doesn’t come from government it comes from the people and from the hearts of good people that we wake up and we change what we’re doing now.”
MS FARAGO Thank you, thanks very much.
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