Archived News Item

Life for refugees and asylum seekers in Australia

This fortnight’s report from the Institute’s Committee for Asylum Seekers and Refugees includes a Mercy Associate’s insight into life for a refugee family in Australia, further extracts from “The People’s Inquiry into Detention” and a call to action regarding the Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island.



Many sisters, associates, volunteers and other persons have befriended individuals and families in their time of need. This story is provided by Leonie Turner, a Mercy Associate.


It reminds me of a time in my own life when my whole world came crashing down around me. But then I had friends and family and a whole system which sprang into action – treatment, support, time, love – and eventually I found my way back, out of the tunnel into the mainstream of life.


I believe the refugees in our society are absolutely overwhelmed by the urgency of their situation. Life must go on. The children must be fed and cared for, and at the same time, they face the daunting task of learning a new language and a new culture, finding work, worrying about the family back home in war-torn countries.


Consider Azed’s plight. She is an Ethiopian citizen who fled her own country to Sudan with her parents and young brother. She later marries Solomon, and as she gives birth to their first child, Helen, her mother gives birth to Fetle. Fetle’s father has died in the fighting in Ethiopia. When I first meet Azed, she is expecting their fifth daughter. She is lonely, helpless but oh so happy to be in Australia. She is very concerned for her mother and brother and sister who are now in another zone of conflict in Sudan. The 18 year old brother and 8 year old sister apply to come to Australia on a humanitarian visa. They are refused due to the huge numbers of applications at that time. Then their mother dies and Fetle is in the sole care of her brother Tesfay. He is 18 and takes his responsibilities very seriously. He is very concerned about his sister’s safety. The immigration advice is that an appeal or another application is unlikely to be successful. So they apply for Fetle as an orphan child to join her sister in Australia. Time passes. She is now 13.


The good news? She arrived in Sydney last week. Yesterday she went to school. This is the beginning of a new life for her. Could they have managed without someone like me? No! Azed is overjoyed to have “daughter” number 6. On Mother’s Day, I realised with great joy that I had all these children and grandchildren. Great.




In this excerpt from the People’s Inquiry we learn of the actions of some parliamentarians around the issue of detention centres and the reforms that they were able to introduce.


Changes to detention policy

During the time the People’s Inquiry has been gathering evidence, major changes have occurred in Australian government policy. At the time Cornelia Rau’s incarceration was discovered, many of those in immigration detention and their supporters were despairing that a change of policy would ever occur. Some people had already been held in detention for more than six years.


In May 2005, Federal Liberal backbencher, Petro Georgiou, supported by colleagues including Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird and Russell Broadbent, threatened to introduce a Private Members’ Bill to soften the government’s mandatory detention policy. On June 14, 2005, Mick Palmer presented DIMIA with the draft of his damning report on Cornelia Rau’s detention.


Three days later, the Prime Minister John Howard announced that as a compromise with his backbenchers, changes would be made to detention policy. Families with children were to be housed in the community, those detained, for over two years would be subject to an investigation and report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman that would be tabled in Federal Parliament; initial determinations on refugee claims would be quicker, and applications for permanent residence by holders of Temporary Protection Visas would be fast tracked.


Too late for many

These changes have seen almost all long-term detainees released and some people granted permanent residence more quickly. However, the policy changes have come too late for many. So far ten people have died in immigration detention. Some people will never fully recover from the physical and mental illnesses they developed during their incarceration.


Even those who will cope with the trauma of having been in detention have lost years of their lives before being recognised as refugees, some separated from their wives and children for more than seven years.


Furthermore, the tenuous nature of the reforms was demonstrated when in January 2006 a boat of West Papuan asylum seekers arrived in Australia and were recognized as refugees. In a move widely seen as an attempt to appease the Indonesian government, the Prime Minister John Howard moved to harden policy further. Several Islands including Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef had already been excised from Australia‘s migration zone, thereby denying asylum seekers access to Australia‘s legal appeals process.


Sending asylum seekers who arrived at excised areas to be processed on Nauru and Manus Island had already cost Australian taxpayers $2218 million.


But John Howard now proposed sending all asylum seekers who arrived by boat without valid visas offshore for processing, effectively excising the whole of Australia from the migration zone.


Even those found to be refugees were to be settled in countries other than Australia, a process which could have resulted in their indefinite detention.


Petro Georgiou called it “the most profoundly disturbing piece of legislation I have encountered since becoming a Member of Parliament.” Howard only withdrew the legislation after government backbenchers Georgiou, Broadbent and Moylan crossed the floor to vote against it in the Lower House and it was clear that Senator Judith Troeth would cross the floor to defeat it in the Senate.


(We are very appreciative of the stand that these politicians took on behalf of the men women and children in detention. If you ever have a chance to express your thanks to them, it would be good.)



Have you read or signed the petition calling for an end to construction of an 800-bed immigration detention centre on Christmas Island? To ensure all our voices are heard, it is critical that all completed petitions are returned to the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) by May 31. Send completed petitions to RAC PO Box 578, Carlton South, Victoria 3053.


The petition can be downloaded at Further information about the Christmas Island facility is included on the RAC website:


From: Specific Issues Committee, Asylum Seekers and Refugees (Sisters Sally Bradley, Claudette Cusack, Lorraine Phelan and Mary Quinn). The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue.



Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator