Forty years ago my grandparents arrived in this country escaping the economic and political upheaval of 1970s Argentina. The prospects of a similar military coup, as seen in Chile on 11 September 1973, were very high and my grandparents, like many other South Americans of that time, fled to the promising land of Australia. Arriving in Sydney on a cloudy morning with three young daughters and three suitcases, they were settled into one of Sydney’s three migrant hostels: East Hills, Randwick and Villawood.
Migrants never understood why they ended up in different hostels. My grandparents were moved into East Hills while many other members of the South American community were put into Villawood. As a young child my mother remembers visiting family friends at Villawood and overhearing stories about torture, kidnappings and disappearances from the refugees within the centre.
Four years ago, an Afghani architect, Omar*, escaped the country’s civil unrest, fleeing to Indonesia before paying $10,000 to be smuggled by boat into Australia. However, on the fifteenth day of a 21-day voyage, with no water and little food left, the Navy intercepted the boat and he was sent to Christmas Island for four months, before being transferred to Villawood, where he remains today.
Opening in 1949, Villawood was the largest migrant hostel in Australia. A great symbol for multiculturalism and acceptance after World War II, it contained accommodation, dining halls, a TV hut, movie hall, recreation hall, sports ground, classrooms, childcare centre, shop and a post office. But, the arrival of the first refugees in ‘76 saw a new mentality arise, and refugees were anything but innocent victims seeking asylum to escape war, persecution or natural disaster. They were to be treated with extreme suspicion and imprisoned. This ushered in a new era of treatment for refugees as the hostel closed and reopened as Villawood Immigrant Detention Centre (IDC) in ‘84, a place of unwarranted oppression, a far cry from the former hub of acceptance that welcomed my grandparents just eight years earlier.
The issue of asylum seekers – by definition: people who are seeking international protection but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined – has divided the Australian political landscape. With the United Nations (UN) estimating there are 42.5 million people displaced by persecution and conflict worldwide, the relatively affluent Australia is looked to fulfill not only their obligations as a signatory to the UN’s Convention to the Status of Refugees (1951), but also a moral duty to these displaced asylum seekers. In 2011 only 0.7 per cent of the world’s refugees were resettled and currently Australia is doing very little to help the cause.
From the time of my mother’s arrival in Australia to now, the attitudes towards these refugees have changed significantly; slogans like ‘We’re full’ and ‘Keep the terrorists out’ have been adopted, consequently rejecting the idea of refugees seeking safety as a necessary human right.
Globally, Australia is ranked 47th for hosting refugees according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Currently the UN resettles 20,000 people with a legal refugee status each year in Australia, and so our country is listed in the top three nations most likely to accept a legal refugee. However, for the asylums seekers who aren’t able to apply to the UN, those whose refugee status won’t be approved by our government, and those who need to escape and seek protection immediately – Australia does not welcome them.
In 2012, Australia accounted for just over a mere 3 per cent of the global share of asylum seeker applications. That year, there were 17,202 arrivals of asylum seekers in Australia by boat. While this may seem like a large number of refugees, according to the UNHCR 23,000 people leave their homes each day.
For the past ten years, the influx of people in Villawood have been refugees arriving by boat, among people who have overstayed their visa permit or had it cancelled because of failure to comply with visa conditions. What has brought the most attention to the centre are the numerous accusations of human rights violations. In 2008, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission said the high security section of the detention centre was ‘prison like’ and demanded it be closed immediately.
It was an overcast Sunday afternoon when I visited Villawood IDC. She strolled in before me on light feet, buried under plastic boxes of her own homemade food, greeting me cheerfully with: “you could’ve gone in without me, you know.” Marlene Carrasco is a refugee activist, running the group Advocates for Refugees in Sydney, having migrated to Australia during the same Chilean coup of ‘73 as my grandparents. She visits every Sunday with her own group, and this weekend, I decided to join her.
The security guards referred to Carrasco by name, and she greeted them without the bitterness I expected from one who is fighting so passionately against the institution. Our phones and recording devices were confiscated as we were scanned for anything we might be trying to smuggle in.
Carrasco is dedicated to giving a face and a voice to asylum seekers. “Australians need to understand that these are people in this centre too,” Carrasco tells me, as we enter the facility. Passing through the outside seating area, Carrasco asked a young man how he was, to which his reply was “alive”. “Building relationships between these people is what I aim to do,” she said as I sat down with Omar in the common room.
“Congratulations,” I said; he had just gotten married on the Wednesday to a woman outside. They had fallen in love during her many trips to the detention centre as a volunteer, and after two and a half years, he proposed to her. The ceremony, only allowed on a weekday, was attended by 80 people including detainees and the general public. He is only allowed to see his wife during visiting hours and until his application for asylum is accepted, this will be the extent of his marital relationship with her. His friend, Hassan*, is also getting married the next week to another volunteer.
When I spoke to Hassan I asked him if he had concerns about marrying someone he couldn’t spend time with every day. “I love her. I don’t want to stop just because she is outside and I am inside. I can live too,” he told me, a testament to his resilient optimism against the seemingly glum direction our government has taken towards asylum seekers like him.
“I just wait day by day, until someone can tell me I can leave,” said Budi*, an Indonesian asylum seeker who has been detained for two years. He was particularly happy when Carrasco arrived, greeting her warmly. “I’ve been here for four years. Nothing has really changed. I just wait and I can’t do anything,” said Omar, as we share some food Carrasco brought in to share with all his friends.
As I spoke to the detainees, it became apparent that little has changed in the stories my mother heard from Villawood Migrant Hostel in 1974, and the stories of asylum seekers in Villawood IDC today. Even Carrasco herself recalls the stories shared when coming to Australia with many refugees. “I heard about the torture and death my family witnessed and I have never been able to erase it from my memory.”
Carrasco soon highlighted that many of the refugees aren’t in control of their lives and that’s where many of them struggle inside the centre – from what they eat to their sleeping schedule to what their future holds. The statistics seem to reflect this as an issue of mental health for asylum seekers, which has resulted in a number of suicides, suicide attempts and self-harm inside Villawood IDC. According to Suicide Prevention Australia in a report to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the number of suicides in IDCs in the last 18 months suggests that suicide rates may be at least ten times in excess of the general Australian rate, and three times that of young adult men, the age and sex group at highest risk.
After a long few hours hearing the travel stories of these detainees and how little happens in their current lives, I left feeling emotionally exhausted. It was sad walking through the gates back to the promising land my grandparents were given and leaving behind these men and women who were promised the same yet treated differently.
In early April over 60 protestors and activists clashed with police outside Villawood IDC as a number of detainees were transferred on buses to the Western Australia IDC in Curtin, with the government citing “construction work” for moving them. Marlene was among the protestors. So too was University of Sydney student and activist Clo Schofield, who says the transfer was a deliberate move to isolate detainees from their support networks. “Asylum seekers are being shifted away from metropolitan centres, where they are intermingled with citizens and have access to adequate services, and being placed in areas rural, remote and offshore,” said Schofield.
Schofield described the protest as “immensely disturbing”, condemning the excessive use of police violence towards the activists. “They twisted the wrists of arrestees, dragged them along the ground and unnecessarily body-slammed non-violent protestors.” University of Sydney student Brigitte Garozzo, who was also there that day, had her wrist dislocated by police. “We were distressed, the people being forcibly transferred were distressed, and the police were using excessive force. We were sleep deprived, the people on the buses were holding their cuffed hands above their heads, and victims of police violence were screaming and crying. It was hard,” Schofield commented.
A member of Students Thinking Outside Borders, a politically independent refugee ally group, Schofield promotes the use of the term ‘Future Australians’ to refer to asylum seekers, refugees, boat people and detention survivors. “To us they are not the stamp that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection places upon them; their journeys are their own and do not need bureaucratic, officious validation…Together we’re creating the world we want to live in, and that’s one where people fleeing persecution can be safe, flourish and grow old.”
Among some of the asylum seekers transferred were people who had spouses, partners, close friends, and allies living in the area. Allegedly one of the asylum seekers to be transferred was previously a detainee at Curtin, but was moved to Villawood due to the necessity for access to mental health facilities. Speaking out about the protests and asylum seeker rights to media, Schofield was still getting abusive calls from 2GB listeners about her comments. “I received 14 abusive phone calls, and there have been a number of nasty comments directed at [the Students Outside of Borders] blog. There is a small intense minority still not against the treatment of asylum seekers.”
The University of Sydney Anti-Racism Collective (ARC) were also at the blockade against the forced removals from Villawood IDC. Having been involved in a number of rallies promoting asylum seeker rights and guaranteed resettlement in Australia, the ARC is a student organisation standing for a pro-refugee campus and believe that a just refugee policy can only begin by welcoming the boats.
Schofield, also a member of the ARC, has too been inside the walls of Villawood IDC. “Villawood is disturbing both in how normal it is, and how absurd. People often feel really traumatised after leaving Villawood. It’s hard to see people who have been through so much, trapped, restless and uncertain of their futures. But it’s not a zoo, and they aren’t a spectacle,” Schofield commented. With the plight of asylum seekers worsening as more conflict continues elsewhere and reluctance to accept refugees is growing, further exemplified by new political policies, public support continues to build from refugee groups to universities to families. But it must not stop there.
“It is the responsibility of all Australian citizens to listen to the voices from inside detention centres, reject these brutal laws and to stand up against these policies. I think that there are many different ways to resist the ALP and the LNP’s horrific human rights abuses, and many ways to support people in detention. Not all of these ways are protest, and not everyone should choose protest as a method of resistance and compassion,” said Schofield.
A month ago, my family celebrated 40 years since being welcomed into Sydney. My grandparents, who are 81 and 86, live happily today with six grandchildren who are proud young Australians, including me. But while the phrase “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share” is still included in the second verse of the Australian national anthem, until Australia truly opens its doors to refugees and asylum seekers from around the world, whether by boat or plane, I will refuse to sing those lines.
*Names have been changed
Originally published in BULL Magazine, May 27, 2014.