Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Razor Wire Looking Glass

Greg Egan has written a great piece overviewing Australia's detention of Asylum Seekers. Nicely written and informative.

Here's the first part:

Port Hedland is a sleepy, sun-drenched town, 1300 kilometres north of Perth. Early in September I travelled there for the fifth time, a year on from my first visit.

Each time I return it's as if I've never been away. The tranquil streets and cloudless sky must seem idyllic to someone in the right frame of mind, but whenever the heat and silence start to lull me into a pleasant daze, I remember the words of one of my friends who lives here all year round. He had trouble sleeping, he told me, because his room felt like the grave. For him, the sense of being stranded, untouched by time, isn't restful at all. It's exactly like being buried alive.

The immigration detention centre lies at the eastern end of town. The former BHP single men's quarters, now enclosed by a high fence topped with razor wire, is surrounded by ordinary buildings: a library, a school, a recreation club. This facility is known officially as a "reception and processing" centre, but there hasn't been much reception or processing going on here for a while. These days it's more like a human warehouse. Nearly everyone here has been locked up for close to three years, and many for more than four.

Four years without freedom is a long sentence in anyone's language. Some people who tell their families back home that they're still in detention after all this time are simply not believed. "Did you rob a bank?" they're asked. "Did you kill someone?" How could anyone be imprisoned for so long, just for crossing a border to ask for asylum?

There are people here who began their incarceration at the age of four, at nineteen, at twenty-six, at thirty-four. The ordinary possibilities of childhood, youth, marriage, and parenthood have either been lost to them completely, or distorted beyond recognition. There is no stage in life when a loss like this can be borne without damage; you might as well try to remove a pound of flesh without spilling a drop of blood. Worse, immigration detention does not mean serving a fixed term, with days you can count off with mathematical certainty. The sentence is open-ended.

Everyone here has been told by the government that it's safe for them to return to their homelands. Of eight Afghanis I know who've gone back, unable to bear detention any longer, six found the situation so perilous that they had to flee again. People returning to other countries have been arrested at the airport and imprisoned without charge or trial. In at least three cases documented by church groups, rejected asylum seekers returning from Australia have been murdered. That's the choice we're offering people: be delivered into the hands of your enemy, or stay here and rot in prison.

It's hard to imagine just how corrosive that kind of stress must be. Many people here are on antidepressants and sedatives. Many have been driven to self-harm. But even those who aren't plainly psychologically ill are exhausted, debilitated, by the impossible situation they're facing.

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