Stepping off the plane, Mohsen Soltany was confused – he didn’t think the weather in the United Kingdom would be this hot. Baffled, he questioned the immigration officer.
“UK?”. No – not the UK. He was in Perth. Perth, Australia.
Soltany arrived in Australia in 1999 via Malaysia – or Singapore, he’s not sure – on a journey which started in Iran and traced through Turkey. A people smuggling network arranged his flight to Perth, a city Soltany had no knowledge of before his arrival.
Not that he would get the opportunity to acquaint himself: after declaring himself a refugee, Soltany was transported directly to Perth Detention Centre. His next four years were spent behind the razor wire in various Australian immigration detention centres.
Staying in Iran wasn’t an option. Soltany loves his country, but firmly believes he faced certain death after trying to expose government corruption.
Through his work, Soltany – then a politically active man in his late twenties – was exposed to the corrupt dealings of the government, and was also privy to information about Iran’s infamous chain murders. After penning an anonymous letter to a newspaper condemning the government, Soltany’s house was searched by officials. Although not home at the time, he says “I knew I had to leave”.
While Soltany’s unplanned arrival in Australia is symbolic of the vulnerability of asylum seekers, it is perhaps also illustrative of how government policy – however strict – cannot deter people from fleeing danger and seeking refuge here. Most of those people, like Soltany, will arrive by plane. And many will spend months, even years, in detention centres.
Ian Rintoul first knew Soltany as a name in Villawood Detention Centre. Rintoul makes it his business to know who is behind the razor wire: he is spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, the group at the epicentre of Sydney’s refugee campaign. His involvement in refugee issues stretches back to the early 1990s, but he pinpoints the Howard era and rise of Pauline Hanson as pivotal to his participation in the movement. When he claims that in recent years government policies on asylum seekers have both “improved and worsened”, his laugh reveals the irony is not lost on him.
“While superficial characteristics and administrative things have changed, the fundamental underpinnings of the refugee issues in Australia haven’t changed”, Rintoul declares. He believes that Gillard government strategies – such as mandatory detention, “stopping the boats”, and regional processing centres – mean “we’re back with all the essentials of the policies we had under the Howard government”.
Rintoul considers the “absolute punitive quality” of detention as one of the worst aspects of asylum seeker policy. Nearly 4,500 people are currently held in Australian immigration detention facilities, with a further 1,300 under residence determination in the community. Rintoul cites overcrowding, a lack of services, and social isolation as instrumental to the self-harm and mental health problems within the detention centres.
Amnesty International has also criticised the conditions in detention centres, deeming them “unacceptable”. The organisation inspected several Australian detention centres and reported that detainees are “at grave risk of self-harm and mental illness”. It claims that morale is deteriorating and attempted suicides are on the rise. Of particular concern are conditions at Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, where stays are lengthy and the incidence of self-harm is increasing.
28-year-old Rachel Connor* has been to Christmas Island. As a volunteer English teacher at the detention centre for six weeks in 2010, she witnessed the fragile mental state of many of the detainees.
“The truth is that almost all of the refugees suffered from some form of mental disturbance from being in the centres, as well as the complex history of trauma they carry from previous experience”, reports Connor. She outlines some of the restrictions placed on the detained asylum seekers, such as “timed and monitored” recreation time. She says that detainees are not free to come and go, and that parts of the facility seem “like a prison”.
Nevertheless, Connor believes her English classes had a direct benefit on the asylum seekers, as she says the routine task of practicing the language gave them a focus, “in a context where every day feels the same without progress. Myself and many of the other teachers knew that a lot of our students would not wake up in the morning if it weren’t for our classes”.
Connor’s students told her it was the only thing they looked forward to in the day.
Soltany’s four years in detention were spent divided between Perth, Port Hedland and Villawood detention centres. Sipping tea in his inner-city lounge room crammed with musical instruments, the now 40-year-old musician and poet contemplates the years he lost. Soltany wavers between calm reflection and palpable anger. At times his rage spills over and projects him off his seat. His brow furrows as his voice rises, and his gaze fixes on a point somewhere else – somewhere beyond the room.
“I went very mental”, he admits. “They’re not respecting very basic human rights in detention”. Contacting the media and attempting to speak out about the conditions became a constant undertaking for Soltany. “Any channel that we could get the numbers, I would tell them – this is happening, we are on hunger strike, people here stitched their lips. I told them what was happening”, he says.
He witnessed and experienced physical violence and was also placed in isolation. Released from detention in 2003, Soltany now possesses permanent residency. He is in regular contact with many detainees in the centres, and says the conditions are “still bad”. But Soltany is adamant that the worst feature of detention is the uncertainty.
“You don’t know what will happen, that is the worst part. And you don’t know any day they can come to deport you – that is when people get stressed”, he says. “All the people going to the top of the roof and doing all this stuff, because they think maybe tomorrow… That makes them stressed”.
Rintoul agrees that the indefinite aspect of detention deeply affects asylum seekers. And so does the terminology often used to refer to them.
According to those who work with refugees, and to refugees themselves, terms such as “boat people” and “illegals” are not only misleading but also have a directly harmful effect. Nevertheless, these terms are common in the public domain – despite the fact that over 95% of asylum seekers travel to Australia by plane, and as Connor points out, “there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum”.
Research shows that the terminology does have an effect on public opinion: most people believe that the majority of asylum seekers arrive via boat.
Gode Mfashingabo works at refugee support centre the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). The refugee youth worker believes that these terms have become common as they are “much easier and more provocative to use than any other words”. Mfashingabo says that the media and politicians will use “whatever words necessary to destabilise and drive their point across”.
Soltany says that this terminology “absolutely” has a direct effect on refugees, and that it “hurts deeply – a lot”. He explains that as an asylum seeker he was variously referred to as an “illegal immigrant”, “queue jumper” and even a “terrorist”.
“Where is the queue? You run away for your life – hello, they wanna kill me! There is no queue”, Soltany says. He vigorously rejects the likelihood that the public accurately understands refugee issues. Soltany refers to his poem The Only Hope After God:
“We were the fan for the political fire, Now we find ourselves in the flames”. His poem describes being stuck in a “quagmire of prejudice”.
Mfashingabo, himself a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), agrees that the public perception of refugees is fundamentally flawed. “What they have is pretty much propaganda that is spun through the media”, he claims. “The public has been misinformed incredibly”. Mfashingabo lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for three years after his ethnic group was stripped of its citizenship rights. He cannot return to the DRC as he believes it would “amount to suicide”. He says that some people’s only option is to seek refuge in another country, but what drives that decision is rarely mentioned in the media.
“Nothing serious is being discussed. Out of sight, out of mind”, Mfashingabo says, lamenting an often trivial media which features stories about shopping addiction and skateboarding dogs.
Rintoul strongly believes the public perception is “coloured” by the way refugees and asylum seekers are presented by the media and politicians. He claims that the language is deliberate.
“It’s to create a picture, to create an attitude, to invite a particular way of looking at refugees”, Rintoul says. “When the media do it, it’s not an accident. I mean, there have been Press Council findings that asylum seekers are not illegal and the boats are not illegal and should not be referred to in that way. They are constantly referred to in that way”.
In Rintoul’s eyes, this language and the detention of asylum seekers are techniques of delegitimising them.
Soltany yells into the loudspeaker. His voice reverberates throughout Sydney’s Town Hall courtyard, and is then echoed by 150 protestors. Fijian man Josefa Rauluni died after jumping off a roof at Villawood Detention Centre a few days earlier, and the protest was organised hastily to condemn the government’s policy of mandatory detention. Two of Soltany’s years in detention were spent at Villawood, and he says he was stressed and shocked upon hearing the news of Rauluni’s death. He reveals that he witnessed several suicides during his years in detention.
The suicide of a young Afghan man at Curtin Detention Centre last March was the fifth suicide in Australian immigration detention within a seven-month period. Several months later, a Tamil refugee poisoned himself and died at Villawood Detention Centre. These deaths highlight an intensifying and pervading sense of hopelessness amongst detainees.
Soltany wrote poetry in detention to help express his feelings of despair – “as a companion to my mind”. His poems were dark, prompting his roommate to urge him, “Please write something about hope!”. But Soltany says he couldn’t: “I couldn’t find hope”. He kept writing throughout his time in detention, and in 2010 he released a book of his poetry, Inside Out. His poetry has received wide acclaim, and he has even collaborated on a book with writer Tom Keneally, whom he considers a good friend.
Post-detention, becoming a refugee advocate was a natural step for Soltany. He has also taken on a case worker role for many asylum seekers to assist with their claims. Despite his distressing experiences in detention, he loves Australia and has started to recover from his mental trauma. Music was central to Soltany’s healing process, and is something he is actively pursuing with his band. He hopes that his book of poetry will help people to understand the suffering of those in detention, a place he says crushed his spirit.
Rintoul is in it for the long haul – he always knew it would be a long-term campaign. He says that although the campaign “always” faces opposition from the government, he is boosted by the small successes. He retrieves a piece of paper from his desk – “a little list of unfinished business”. He counts and laughs: there are 16 points on the list, and he says “I think there are two of them that we’ve won”.
Rintoul believes the razor wire is emblematic: that it “cuts” Australian society by embedding a discrimination which impacts on the wider community.
“That razor wire also imprisons us, as long as we allow its existence”.
*Not her real name