In amongst all the excited commentary about Liberal Senator Judith Troeth crossing the floor over yesterday’s detention debt abolition bill, Crikey asked some refugees what the passage of the bill means to them.

Since 1992, refugees have been required to pay the costs of their mandatory detention. Less than 3 per cent is ever recovered.

Refugee Kasian Wililo and his wife Emily live in NSW and have two young children with another one on the way. Kasian Wililo, a former detainee of Baxter Detention Centre, currently has an outstanding debt of $161,000.

Emily and Kasian told Crikey:

As you can imagine — the last seven years for Kasian has been full of trauma, systematic abuse, insecurity and fear of an uncertain future, with two and a half years spent locked behind physical bars, and five behind bars of temporary visas and a depressing debt for his incarceration.

Despite this, Kasian and I have held firmly to our faith in God that all will eventually be well… Since Kasian’s release, we have managed to move forward with our life — having two gorgeous boys Harry 3, and Moses 1 1/2 (and another baby due in October).

We have been able to buy our first home and settle into jobs that we love. Amidst all of this has been a deep pain and anxiety over the consequences of this massive detention debt. The result of yesterday’s outcome in the Senate to pass the bill to abolish the debt now means that Kasian’s seven year process of trying to find security and identity in Australia will now be a reality.

It means that he no longer has to exist on a Temporary Spouse visa, but will be able to move forward with our application for the Permanent Spouse Visa (that has been stalled in the system for two years while we refused to pay the debt.)

Once the Permanent Spouse Visa is granted we will then be able to travel overseas, hopefully early 2010 in order to reunite with Kasian’s family whom he hasn’t seen since he left Tanzania in late 2002. After 12 months he will be able to apply for citizenship finally!

On a deeper level, the abolition of this bill symbolizes a gesture of compassion and carries the weight of an apology from our government who is saying that it’s time for a new day in our immigration policies, let’s close this dark chapter of our nation’s history — which is monumental on a national scale; and a catalyst for healing and hope on a personal scale for our little family.

Iranian refugee Masoud Shams was in detention for four years, from September 2000 — September 2004. During his detention his punishments included solitary confinement, once in an unlit soundproof padded cell. The UN Human Rights Commission has acknowledged that Masoud’s rights were abused, noting Masoud’s extended stays in extreme isolation.

Around a year after he was released, Masoud, who sought refuge after arriving from Iran, and his wife Evelyn received notification of his outstanding Commonwealth debt: $257,225.10. Plus $4,857.50 in legal costs.

Masoud has been on a ‘temporary’ spouse visa, “which means he can’t leave (has no passport) and he can’t stay unless he pays. His permanent visa is ready but will not be released to him until he has agreed to a payment arrangement,” Ms Shams told Crikey back in December last year. The government had earlier indicated to Ms Shams that a payment plan should be possible by including her wages and the couple’s home into the calculations.

Evelyn and Masoud told Crikey:

It’s an awesome relief. This debt has basically felt like a punishment. Masoud always felt like he was punished for coming here and this was just another punishment. A double whammy. And it almost felt like a punishment for marrying an Australian because they raised a bill against Masoud on the basis that he was not a refugee [he was on a spousal visa instead, his brother was granted refugee status.]

The debt was more of a psychological burden than anything else. From the moment he was released on a bridging visa Masoud was issued with this debt, so he had a level of guilt [that never left him], he felt that all he’d done was bring yet another round of problems to our relationship.

Psychologically [this debt] has weighed on Masoud as a signal that he will always be unwelcome and barely tolerated. The fact that there’s now been a vote to say this is not fair completely changes the psyche of it. It says there really doesn’t have to be anything personal about this, so many people have suffered with the notion that no one wants them here and this debt has been just another signal of that [sentiment].

When we appealed the initial decision to charge Masoud for his detention we had a fairly blunt letter coming back, saying well Masoud, you might not have any assets in order to pay this bill but we’re sure your wife does. It seemed like a grab at an Australian citizen’s assets. Rather than just targeting a refugee, it struck us as a very overt grab where there was a chance of perhaps acquiring some of the debt…

Nobody who is on the run ever gets an advertisement to tell them that they will be charged for their detention. People are not in a position to know this information before they come so there is no point. All of the information that Masoud learnt about where he was going, he learnt from the people bringing him here. He didn’t even know he was coming to Australia. It’s very naive to think that genuine refugees are in any position to do any homework, and to choose a nation. It doesn’t work like that.

Masoud is still waiting for his visa. He’s been in the country nine years. After two years of marriage he was eligible for a permanent visa and they have refused to issue it because we were appealing the debt. To this day he still does not have a visa.

Masoud is desperate to see family back in Iran. He even sought out temporary travel papers from DFAT so that he could meet up with his family in a third country but he was denied.

[We’ve had no correspondence from the government or the Immigration Department] about the bill. We’ve just read about it in the paper. Masoud got desperate about five, six months ago, he said ‘I can’t wait anymore.’ He signed papers to say he was prepared to undertake payment of the bill. But he has had no feedback and still doesn’t have a visa.

But there are those worse off than us. I know of a man who sent his wife and children back home because the family were suffering so much in detention. He eventually got a visa and then received a bill for his detention. He applied for his family to join him in Australia and was denied, he was told that they couldn’t come over until he had paid his family’s detention debt.

He wasn’t able to afford to pay the debt so he’s been forcibly separated from his family. Masoud and I are lucky…