Archived News Item

The situation for asylum seekers in Australia


This is a further excerpt from “The People’s Inquiry into Detention”. This has not been a good period of our history and it is hard for many of us to accept the truth of what has happened. However, in order to really understand the experiences of the so-called boat people now living amongst us in our towns and suburbs, we need to reflect on these accounts.


A life fuelled with little cruelties

A theme which emerged from the evidence presented to the People’s Inquiry was how often those detained were humiliated. A mental health professional who worked with asylum seekers in Woomera and Baxter told:


Each story on its own risks being dismissed as not very important if you only hear one of them, but when you link them all together you recognise that a detainee’s life is just fuelled with these little cruelties. I think that’s one of the things that drive people mad in the detention setting.


On entering the detention centres, all asylum seekers were given ID cards and assigned numbers. They used their number for all official transactions within the centre.


The first day we were given a number and I was told that from now that’s how I will be known. You will be ABC123. That was one of the most difficult things for us because having your normal freedom taken away from you and at the same time you lost your name. One of the most difficult things for me too was that there were three different headcounts. There was one at 6 in the morning, one at midnight and another one at 2 in the morning, so no matter who you are, even a baby, they will have to wake you up, you show your card or you shout your number loudly.


At a brief initial interview with DIMA, asylum seekers were “screened in” or “screened out” of the protection visa process. Those who appeared to have a prima facie case for asylum were provided with legal help to lodge an application for a protection visa. Those “screened out” of the process were kept in separate areas of the detention centres so that they could not be told by others how to access legal help. Many asylum seekers were held in separate “closed camps” and were not able to access telephones, newspapers, TV or mail for periods of up to 12 months. Many of these people eventually did access legal help and were later recognised as refugees.


A former psychologist at Woomera explained the “screening out” process:


During that [first interview], detainees have got to say the magic words. There are

phrases they have to use… they’re in fear of their life, they are requesting asylum, they have to state in some way the nature of the fear of going back to the country they have left. This is when the problems really started, when they’re screened out, they’re all segregated. You’re not allowed to tell them they have been screened out, you’re not allowed to tell them their rights. You’re not allowed to tell them they… in actual fact can… reapply. 81


Having survived their boat journeys, one of the first things asylum seekers wanted to do was to contact their families and tell them they were safe. “Screened out” detainees were unable to do this while they were kept in isolation. Even those “screened in” early in 2000 at the Woomera detention centre were unable to contact their families because there were no public phones in the centre. Mail contact was also frustrated.


An asylum seeker who spent time in Woomera told the People’s Inquiry:


We told them that we would like to maintain contact with our families. So we wrote letters and we gave it to the people in charge of the camp. They didn’t take any action about sending these letters for around four months. We were waiting for correspondence from our parents, and we found out later that they kept these letters. So we have done a hunger strike for three days. Later on they gave us a set formatted letters with little square and all we can write in that square. Nothing but a short segment suggesting we are fine and okay and in Australia. That action was only in place six months after our detention.


One phone was installed six months after we were transferred there. At the beginning there was nothing. It was after a long, huge pressure before they installed that. You have to buy a phone card of $20 which can last only seven minutes. And there is only one phone and you have to go in a long queue. There was one phone for the whole camp, approximately 1500 persons.


An Adelaide solicitor who visited Woomera described the physical conditions:


… Persons seeking medical attention (including painkillers for broken leg, raging fever, tonsillitis, etc) each have to queue in the open for up to 11/2 hours to obtain their medication in front of the nurse. Nails may only be cut by the nurse, who will do ONE person per day, women must queue each day for their ration of tampons/ disposable nappies, there is no baby food or formula, one woman with a six month old baby who was struggling to maintain breast feeding was advised to feed the baby powdered chicken stock mixed with water, food is beyond description; many will not eat it.


Asylum seekers were also subject to daily humiliations. A nurse who had worked at Woomera in 2000 told a public meeting in 2002 about instances she had witnessed:


I’ve seen and heard the guards laughing at the pain and suffering of the people imprisoned in Woomera. Singing to the Iraqis who have had a rejection; “I’m leaving on a jet plane, goin’ back to see Saddam Hussein”. Witnessed the guard making a detainee beg for soap. No English did this woman speak, she had learnt the word soap from someone. To the guard she said, “soap”. The soap was proffered and withdrawn when she reached for it, again and again until she said please. Imagine being intimate with your husband to have a guard burst into your room at any time, and then imagine the further humiliation when he shares his story with anyone who’ll listen. 84


Excerpts from: “The People’s Inquiry into Detention”




The Mercy Refugee Service Community Links Project in Sydney has certainly struck a chord for many in our wider community who have been touched by the complexity of the settlement transition for refugees arriving in Australia. This program has been operating for eight years and has wide support from service providers, government agencies and the families we assist. Mercy Refugee Service has been successful in attracting some funding from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to pay a co-coordinator, some administrative assistance, and to pay travel re-imbursement to the volunteers. We also need to engage in fundraising efforts to support other components of the project.


The program recruits, selects and trains volunteers, usually from northern Sydney and “˜the peninsula’ who travel to support refugees living in western and south western Sydney. This could mean a drive of up to an hour for our volunteers to visit the families they work with, yet this “˜ask’ is met with barely “˜a bat of an eyelid’ as our volunteers understand that they need to go to where the need is identified.


Our clients come to Australia through the refugee and special humanitarian program, which incorporates the women at risk category. Whilst the government’s intake for the last few years has focused on the African continent, we are now welcoming a large number of Iraqi refugees to our community.


As the project grows we attract a wide range of volunteers who are not only sympathetic to the hardships faced by our refugee families, but who are also galvanised to support and advocate on behalf of the families.


This year, as in most previous years, we have provided an initial training period over a weekend and evening, covering topics such as the refugee journey (from their home country to Australia), issues for the refugees after arrival in Australia, dealing with torture and trauma, setting boundaries for the volunteers and expectations of the volunteers role. The program provides ongoing training throughout the year to ensure the volunteers continue to be supported and educated and equipped to address the needs of their “˜families’ and to provide a forum for exchanging stories, information and to give recognition for great work done.


There can be no time limit placed on a settlement period, and complex issues such as torture and trauma, disrupted education and language barriers continue to impact on every aspect of a person’s life. A recent study conducted in Western Australia highlighted the tremendous strain that people are under when arriving in a new country, and how issues such as unemployment, changing family roles, trauma and the struggle with the English language are all impacting on family relations, family breakdown and inter-generational conflict. Our volunteers spend time every week with a family to try and link them with the wider community and service providers to help support them through these unsettling times. After each training session between 16 to 20 new volunteers are placed with some of the most vulnerable families. We are grateful for the contribution that they make and their dedicated commitment to learning, supporting, advocating and reaching out to help individuals empower themselves in their new environment.


This is indeed Catherine’s model of ministry in practice and is indeed true Mercy work. Currently, Lorraine Phelan RSM the Mercy Refugee Service Manager is in the process of establishing a similar program in Wollongong.


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