A Flexible Minister meets Unbending Injustice

I’ve been trying to quickly catch up on some news and I just read on the ABC website that Minister Vanstone “is considering amending the Migration Act to ensure Immigration officers have more flexibility when dealing with cases.”

Personally, I’d be happy with just a greater level of basic competence and a genuine desire to assist, instead of vilification and obstructiveness. More flexibility might be good too, but ‘more flexibility’ can also be a euphemism for ‘more power’. It is a fact that the Minister already has literally unlimited ‘flexibility’ under the current law, but she is the one permitting the calculated and deliberate persecution of asylum seekers on Nauru to continue.

Given that the Minister already has the power under the Act as it stands to put an end to the travesty on Nauru, we’ll all see soon enough with these cases whether or not this is a genuine desire on the Minster’s part to improve things or just more empty bluster.

I first visited Nauru in July 2003. At that time there were over 400 asylum seekers detained in the two camps – one called Topside and the other State House. By my second visit in January 2004, there were 283 people remaining, with State House all but empty. Since then, many have finally gained refugee or humanitarian visas – mostly to Australia or New Zealand. Now only 54 asylum seekers remain, all of them living at State House camp, with Topside camp and its facilities put into mothballs.

There have been over 1200 people detained on Nauru since the camps were set up in 2001. Well over half of those have now received visas, mainly to Australia and New Zealand, with a few to places such as Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Close to 400 agreed to accept assistance to return – mainly to Afghanistan.

On my previous visits, there was enormous pressure to meet with as many asylum seekers as possible and I could not see everybody. This time, everyone who wanted to meet me could do so. Over two days, I met with 38 people out of the 52 currently there, and chatted with a few others at lunch and dinner time in the camp. (2 people are currently in detention in Melbourne for major medical treatment)

One of the men I met was an Iraqi who was on board the infamous ‘children overboard’ boat – SIEV 4 – that sank and was rescued by the crew of the HMAS Adelaide. He showed me a photo (water damaged from when the boat sank), the only one he has, of his 6 children who he has not seen for over 4 years. I felt a bit ashamed as I recalled feeling sorry for myself on Sunday night when I was leaving home to go to the airport because I’d been away all week and had only got to spend a few hours with my little girl and knew I wouldn’t get to see her again for another week. A number of the ‘single’ men there have wives and children they have not seen for 4 or 5 years – in some cases they receive no news of them at all.

Every individual I met has a tragic tale they can tell, each one compounded by having spent the last three and a half years of uncertainty in this remote and very isolated location. It is hard to single out particular stories, as it might imply that one is more special or ‘deserving’ than the others.

However, it is impossible not to make special mention of the children. 6 of them remain – all Afghani – from 2 families. There is a 2 year old boy, born on the island, the only toddler there. There are two little girls, both called Zahra, aged 7 and 8, who will have memories of little else in their lives, but who know the memory of seeing all their other friends leave.

One of their fathers remembers the experience last year when the letters came in with DIMIA’s news of the latest decisions. Every other family with children received positive news, yet he was faced with having to go back to his children to try to explain why they had been rejected, why they could not go. He described the day when all the other children left and his little girl went from room to room where all her friends had lived and came back asking where they had all gone and when was she going to join them. Every time I think of that story it chews me up – perhaps imagining my own little girl in this circumstances gives it a bit more poignancy – but I can only imagine what it does to the heart of this man, day after day.

One of the little girls looked me in the eye and asked “when can I leave this place? Why have my friends got visas and not me?” That was hard enough for me to deal with – I shudder to think how hard it would be for her father having to answer the same question time after time. The only hope I take from it is remembering another little girl asking me exactly the same questions in a detention centre in Australia – I had no honest answer then either, but she is now free with her family and living in Adelaide.

There are only two other boys there – aged 9 and 15. I remember being told last time I was here by the head of the IOM mission, who had experienced many camps in different parts of the world, that he believes teenage children are damaged even more than the younger ones by being stuck long-term in these situations – going through puberty and the development of their adult identities in such a toxic human environment.

This thought hit me when I was meeting the sole teenage girl, a 14 year old, not only with no other teenage girl there, but with only her mother and two other women in the entire camp as an adult female presence amongst more than 40 adult men. Her isolation is palpable, and I noticed at the meal times she sat with her parents away from everyone else at the end of the dining hall, with her father or cousins getting the food to bring to her.

There is one Iraqi couples there, (the couple currently living in the detention centre in Melbourne for medical treatment is also Iraqi). The woman in this couple is also acutely isolated, as there is no other woman there now who speaks her language. They gave me copies of their medical records – it is not appropriate for me to give any details, but it is clear this couple is suffering enormously.

There is also a Pakistani man who has no other detainee there who speaks his language, two Bangladeshi and two Iranian men who also feel isolated even within this small remaining group.

It is hard to be immersed in such suffering and not be affected by it even when you know it is unavoidable. Some delay in assessing complex claims and establishing facts is understandable. However, it is impossible not to get angry when I know that many of these people are the victims of a deliberate policy of minimal assistance from the Australian Government which has had the inevitable consequence of hugely greater costs and hugely greater suffering for no good reason at all.

It was not until after my second visit in 2004 – more than 2 years after the asylum seekers had been intercepted at sea by our Navy and transported to Pacific Island camps – that a migration agent was allowed into Nauru to meet with the detainees and assist them with their claims. It was not until towards the end of that year – after more than 3 years in detention – that many of their files, containing the full details of DIMIA’s decision making processes for each person, have been able to be fully examined and looked at by an agent on their behalf.

This is why is has taken over three and a half years, without freedom and in an extremely isolated environment, for some of the claims of these people to now be receiving their first comprehensive assessment by DIMIA following a properly prepared and researched claim for protection. I will be thrilled if and when some of them end up getting positive decisions, but also outraged that it will have taken 3 years longer than it needed to have.

It shouldn’t need ‘more flexibility’ to produce the basic justice that many on Nauru deserve – it just needs basic decency and a simple commitment to due process, the rule of law and a fair go. If we get back up to that simple standard, we’ll be making a big jump forward for asylum seekers and for the administration of migration matters in general.

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  1. I reckon that we should put Amanda Vanstone in one of those detention camps to test the “more flexibility”!!!

  2. Hey- Why Doesnt the Government lease out the detention centres to run a noew Big Brother or Survivor reality TV program. Maybe then the Australian public would realise how harsh the detention centres are.
    Keep up the good work Andrew.

  3. Keep up the good work Andrew. I’m very proud of what you’ve been doing. I hope some positive changes happen in the next two weeks.

  4. Just found your blog from a Crikey link – good stuff!
    Re: detention centres. If we *must* have detention (which I certainly don’t agree with), then the least I expect of DIMIA is for it to process the cases in a timely manner. 3 years is a ludicrous amount of time. If I took that amount of time to complete one project at my job, I’d get fired! Even if DIMIA employees can’t muster up any compassion, they could at least get off their arses and do the job they’re paid for.

  5. Anon
    Thanks for the comment(s). I doubt I’ll be running for Prime Minister any time soon, but people would recall I was Leader of the Democrats at the last election and we polled the worst we ever had in our history, so I’m not getting too carried away. Getting re-elected in Queensland at the next election is my main task and that’s going to be hard enough

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