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Oct 4, 2011

Dancing in detention: an asylum seeker’s story

An asylum seeker’s story reveals the human side of the boat debate, an intimate account of how mental illness is fomented in detention centres, writes freelance journalist Jacob Moss.

“It was a couple of bits of wood, it wasn’t a boat and all you could see all around was the sky and the water — this is when I accepted that I would die,” Yaseed Muhammad, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee who has recently been released from detention, told Crikey in the English he learnt during his 17 months detained in Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC), the men’s detention facility near Darwin.

“They say on the boats that you have a 90% chance to survive — in Afghanistan it was certain I would die, when people have a small hole of hope they will try to get through it.”

His eyes lift to a group of detainees comprised of mothers holding placards asking to see their sons from whom they have been separated, pregnant women and children reaching through bars with a peace symbol at their fingertips — they are dancing behind a wire fence.

Yaseed and I are on the other side of the fence among advocates holding a detainee support concert across from the family detention centre, The Lodge, in Darwin.

“You are so lucky to survive — the boat that left before us lost their way at sea and were never heard of again — 103 people were on that boat,” Yaseed said.

Yaseed remembers very well what it was like to be on the corresponding side of the fence, so much so that three months since his release the nightmares and paranoia still linger. “I still cannot sleep without having a nightmare and waking up in my cell in detention and I walk through the streets still fearing I’ll be sent back,” he said.

Coming from one of the most turbulent provinces in Afghanistan, Urzugan, Yaseed’s story reflects the common desperation of an asylum seeker to escape one form of captivity even if it means entering another, or death.

“My father was killed when I was 17, my brother kidnapped and killed — I was beaten many times by insurgents,” he explained. “I exhausted all options before getting on the boat — I went to Pakistan and tried to come legally but there are over 3 million refugees in Pakistan — if you were to wait in some refugee queue you would never be processed — I came to save my life.

“If you can just imagine for a moment being locked up with nothing to do and not knowing every day what your future is, and the worst part is the fear that you will be sent back. Many people in my time there were cutting themselves and self-harming — they are frustrated and feel alone, as if nobody knows they are alive — and nobody is informing them about what is happening. Being locked up for that long — and many are there for a long time, much longer than me — it makes you do funny things.”

Yaseed also spoke of several instances in which Immigration officers would subject detainees to one-hour interrogation sessions in which they would “harass and deceive” them into agreeing to be sent back to the country from which they have fled.

“They would come and take you, sit you in a room on your own and tell you that you would be returned, that all ways are closed for you and it would be easier if you just signed the form, which would mean you agree to be sent back,” Yaseed recounted.

“Most days Immigration officers would come and tell us that we would be returned — they tried to make me sign the form a couple of times — they persisted for one hour and kept telling me I had no hope but I wouldn’t give in. Two people I knew signed the form and were returned — this is why detainees are self harming and cutting themselves — when one would come out of that interview we would wait for them to do something strange to themselves.”

Yaseed was rejected on two occasions — he was told he could not be processed without the sufficient documentation to prove his country of origin, which he could not supply.

“I come from one of the most volatile and remote regions in Afghanistan so it is very difficult to get any sort of document — I wrote to the Red Cross to get the paperwork for me but they could not,” he explained. “This is when Immigration officers told me I would be definitely sent back.”

Yaseed said roughly 95% of people on his boat were rejected on their first interview by Immigration. “We had arrived just after the government made a 360 in their policy late in 2010 — before that almost 100% of asylum seekers were accepted we were told by others before us,” he said.

Meanwhile, based on the stories that have been relayed to him by friends, Yaseed believes the government’s resurrected Malaysian solution is inhumane and will prove ineffective in deterring the boats.

“Friends who were taken into detention in Malaysia told me horrific stories. They said detainees — families of women and children as well — were made to strip naked in front of each other on arrival and were left like that for days,” he said. “I also don’t think it will stop people from trying to come here — these are desperate people and there are more and more of them.”

For the first time during the interview, Yaseed’s eyes light up when I ask what a support concert like this would mean for the detainees on the other side of the fence.

“It gives you such hope to know somebody is listening,” he said. “When I look up at these people in detention, especially the children, all I think is that these are the people of Australia’s tomorrow, but they are leaving detention crazy and mentally sick.

“You need to dance like these people are or else you lose yourself.”

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4 thoughts on “Dancing in detention: an asylum seeker’s story

  1. fred

    What is there to say? Thanks for publishing this true story?
    I have heard so many stories of persecution that doom people to being “genuine” refugees and so many horrifying descriptions of the torment and torture in our detention places for ten years.

    Why are we doing this, locking up future Australians, young people with a life time of work and commitment to our free and democratic society ahead of them? Who would not be negatively affected by the loss of their liberty, their right to work and toprovide for their family after 18 months in immigration prison on Christmas Island and then Scherger detention centre 40 minutes drive from Weipa?

    My memory of dozens of broken men who were finally medivaced from the detention prisons in remote Australia to a hospital in a capital city during the reign of John Howard , still haunt me. And we are doing it again, having learned absolutely nothing from the brutal inhumane legacy of Ruddock and Vanstone.

    Who is advising the Minister ( and the Cabinet Ministers who have a say on this policy), and why are they not taking the advice to end mandatory indefinite detention of non criminal asylum seekers later overwhelmingly confirmmed to be refugees needing permanent protection?

    Look out for any media reports on the view of the Amnesty Chief visiting Australia. He reflects how the rest of the civilised world regards our breach of the human rights of asylum seekers/refugees. Maybe the new enthusiasm for foreign affairs by our monocultural PM will expose her to the dismay and puzzlement of our international friends who thought we were laid back and egalitarian and embraced cultural difference!

  2. zut alors

    Mandatory detention is a scar on Australia’s reputation.

    What is the point of tormenting and permanently damaging hapless refugees? And if there is no point, why are we permitting it to continue?

  3. nicolino

    Serco and the toadies who parade as civil servants in the Immigration Department tell the government what they think they want to hear. Australia’s reputation as a fair and decent country has long been irreparably damaged by both Howard and Rudd/Gillard.
    We are very definitely lining up behind a certain Mr. Hitler in our treatment of “others”.
    May be we should ask our original citizens what they think about the boat people back in 1788.

  4. Mary Rose Liverani

    It might be cheaper for the Government to invite Australians to foster refugees during the period when a refugee is waiting to be assessed for re-settlement. Foster families could be paid an allowance made conditional on their fulfilling a program designed to enhance the refugee’s chances of achieving a two year stay in Australia where they can recover their physical and psychological equilibrium and be in a better position to apply for resettlement elsewhere if they are not granted permanent residence.

    Moreover, every developed nation that decides to attack or occupy any other country for whatever reason in such wise as to cause death, injury and destruction of property in that country should be obliged to sign in advance a convention guaranteeing to take any refugees dispossessed as a result of the belligerent activity.