The glass-enclosed visiting room in Silverwater Prison is awfully bleak. Four young men walk in wearing white jumpsuits clearly too big for them. I shake one’s hand and he gives me a shy smile. We’re the same age, but his hair has started to turn gray since being taken from Villawood Immigration Detention Center to Silverwater Prison’s maximum-security unit about three months ago.
He’s anxious, thanking me repeatedly for visiting him. The sides of his fingers have self-inflicted cuts. He mentions to an advocate from Balmain for Refugees that he is worried about his mother, sisters and brothers back home. International calls from the prison are expensive; he could only afford to talk to his mother once for five minutes since coming here.
These young men were allegedly involved in the Villawood riots several months ago. On the morning of April 20, 2011, two asylum seekers climbed on the roof of the main building. Distressed after the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship rejected their applications for permanent protection visas, they protested the lack of information and the length of the decision-making process. Eleven others joined them. During a six-day protest by up to 100 people, a fire damaged nine buildings. (One hunger strike/rooftop protest lasted 11 days).
A lack of context in mainstream media reports coupled with the political demonization of the protesters led to public outrage. Some had been in detention for two years or more. One had watched his mother, brother and sister receive asylum, while his own reviewer rejected his claim twice. Previous peaceful protests and hunger strikes had gone on for months at various detention centers, but these pleas for help were ignored. Living in a detention center indefinitely without certainty of the future intensified asylum seekers’ already-present trauma and hopelessness.
Few politicians were interested in addressing the underlying causes of violence in the detention centers — places referred to as “mental illness factories”. (See news reports here and here.) Numerous Villawood detainees not involved in the violence explained that while they didn’t approve of the actions, they understood the protesters’ feelings of desperation that genuine claims were not being processed in a fair or timely manner.
Several weeks after the Department of Immigration and Citizenship transferred 22 asylum seekers to Silverwater’s maximum-security unit, the Australian Federal Police finally charged seven of the men with actions related to the riots. Charges ranged from “affray” to “damaging Commonwealth property” to “destroying or damaging public property by means of fire during a public disorder.”
With such a negative public perception of asylum seekers, particularly those involved in the Villawood riots, it was easy for the Australian Senate and House to pass an ex post facto (retroactive) law on July 4, (which now just awaits “royal assent” from the queen’s representative). In order to receive a visa in Australia, applicants traditionally had to prove they were of “good character,” by meeting a character test. The bill strengthens the test, allowing the minister for immigration to refuse or cancel an Australian visa for anyone convicted of a criminal offense, including legally recognized refugees.
This “Migration Amendment (Strengthening the Character Test and other Provisions) Bill 2011” is quite significant. It applies law related to the strengthened character test to events that happened on April 26, 2011, over two months before its passage was even announced by Parliament.*
If convicted of causing affray or damaging property, these seven asylum seekers may be punished by a denial of permanent protection in a safe country, even if they can prove that their home country is too dangerous for return. The vast majority of submissions to the Government criticized the bill, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Commonwealth Ombudsmen. UNHCR insisted that, “The fact that a refugee may, out of impatience or frustration caused by his/her predicament in detention, [commit] a criminal offence, does not of itself go to the core issue of that person’s character and suitability for a permanent protection visa.”
Moreover, the Migration Act already enabled the Government to consider past and present criminal conduct for the character test. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship admitted that the current law was sufficient, but that the amendments were necessary to “demonstrate the Government’s capacity to respond to violence in immigration detention.”
The four young men with their polite manners and their too-big jumpsuits look strikingly out of place in this room filled with physically imposing, tattooed inmates. This is the only time they mix with the general prisoner population. According to Silverwater management, the detainees need to be separated from other prisoners. The other inmates share the general population’s hostile views towards asylum seekers and would likely attack them.
I hear four names in quick succession over the loudspeaker. Visiting time is over. One by one, each young man is sent back to his cell. If convicted, they will likely face a lifetime of uncertainty. Unlike the jail time other citizens would face, denying someone a permanent protection visa may have lifelong consequences. The harm these men allegedly caused seems trivial compared to the damage government policy causes to asylum seekers.