“When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.” – Oskar Schindler
Politicians’ voices dominate the public discourse about forced migration, asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. During my time in Sydney, I encountered very few citizens who had ever met an asylum seeker or refugee. This is not surprising, as asylum seekers comprise less than 2 percent of the country’s migration intake, and those individuals are detained upon arrival in mostly geographically isolated localities. It’s not easy to relate to invisible people whose voices aren’t heard on the nightly news.
The most powerful illustrations of the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees in Australian immigration detention centers can be found in the artwork created by the detainees themselves. Along with several colleagues, Dr. Safdar Ahmed, an artist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sydney, conducted art classes at Villawood Immigration Detention Center and several other detention centers around the country. Detainees from Villawood, Darwin and Christmas Island detention centers involved in the Refugee Art Project created artwork for an exhibition called “fear+hope,” which ran at Sydney’s Mori gallery from mid-June through early July of 2011. With support from the University of Sydney and Amnesty International, the show received praise from the general public, the arts community, refugee activists and even politicians.
In an interview, Dr. Ahmed told me, “We got a strong response because it was outsider art – it appealed to a broader cross-section of the community, including older-generation Jewish refugees who felt a shared connection to the [refugees’] experience. On one hand, these are powerful works of art, whilst on the other, they contribute to spreading awareness, and let the public know what’s really going on. People were in tears at the art exhibition. But the government calls everything [related to the detention centers] political. Just conveying human stories using asylum seekers’ own agency – that’s an indictment all in itself.”
Serco, the multinational privatized company that runs the detention centers, discourages both employees and volunteers from talking to the media. “There was nothing in the contract [we had to sign] saying we couldn’t take out artwork created by the detainees; an officer informed us of this ‘rule’ late the game,” explained Dr. Ahmed. “This highlights the punitive and disorganized nature of detention center regulations. At the commencement of our classes, the first activities officer with whom we spoke had no problem with the idea of our taking canvases by detainees and putting them in an exhibition.”
During the last week of the show, a well-intentioned activist who attended the show gave a copy of the fear + hope catalog to Chris Bowen, Australian minister for immigration and citizenship. “We don’t know for sure that it was connected with Chris Bowen’s office,” said Dr. Ahmed, “but a few days after it was given to him, we started getting calls from Serco officers telling us that the art classes might be canceled because of the exhibition. Then we got an official letter from a Serco manager, saying our volunteer contracts had been canceled because we took artwork out of the center.” But when Dr. Ahmed called the manager, he was told something different: that the art classes were canceled because the organizers revealed information about participants.
After explaining that the organizers only used the names of detainees who had previously spoken to the media publicly, the Serco manager gave yet another explanation: “Well, you’ve been too political. As a volunteer, you’re not supposed to be involved [this way].” After confirming that they could meet in person, Dr. Ahmed’s attempts to reach the manager for three weeks were ignored. Another Serco official informed Dr. Ahmed that he and his colleagues would not be allowed back in the detention center as volunteers anymore.
The Refugee Art Project’s website has now been blocked from Villawood, ensuring that detainees cannot view their own artwork online. Upon searching for the website, detainees receive a service provider notice, informing them that the content of the website has been blocked because it belongs to a “suspicious” category. (I’ve also received the same notice when trying to search for several well-known human rights websites using the computer at Villawood.)
When I inquire about the heavy-handed reaction, Dr. Ahmed informs me, “This is all about keeping stories under wraps, keeping the public ignorant and angry about ‘boat people’ and ‘illegals’ and [encouraging] that reactive prejudice. [The government is] taking the most helpless people in the world and detaining them for [years] when their families aren’t safe at home. If people knew what was going on, they would be outraged. The cancelation of the art classes indicates the paranoia the government and Serco officials feel about having the public know what’s really going on here.”
The asylum seekers I worked with at Villawood were never “boat people” or “queue jumpers” to me. Then again, I’m not Australian, so those terms aren’t ones I’m accustomed to hearing. The men and women living within the walls of these compounds are clients, yes, but they’ve also become my friends. Most are about my age, and while I’ve never had to overcome the obstacles they have faced, we still have much in common.
Many readers have asked, “Why is the concept of ‘queue jumping’ such a hot-button issue for Australians?” In short, the concepts of “freedom and a fair go” are etched deep in the Australian national consciousness. Central to these values is the idea of the “queue,” operating under the principle of “first come, first served.” Ideally, the queue operates in an impartial manner, ensuring that each person has the same opportunity to receive the desired service, depending only on his or her place and preparedness to wait in line, as Katharine Gelber, human rights scholar and honorary professor at the University of New South Wales, has written.
Most of the arguments the anti-asylum crowd puts forth accuse asylum seekers of “jumping the queue,” even though these men, women and children are legally entitled to seek asylum this way under the U.N. Refugee Convention, which Australia signed and even helped write. Australia generously voluntarily resettles refugees from UNHCR camps. These two groups often get conflated, but the resettlement program does not preclude Australia’s responsibilities to process asylum seekers that are indeed arriving legally on their shores.
These arguments don’t change the reality: Fellow human beings have fled their homes and traveled to Australia’s shores. Fearing persecution, they are asking for help, but the government wants to deny them entry. Listening to the political debate about these “queue jumpers,” it seems that we’re afraid of asylum seekers because they are so different from us.
But maybe we’re actually afraid because they’re too similar. If you have to look someone in the face, converse with them, hear their stories, listen to them talk about their family, you have to acknowledge their humanity. It makes it harder to ignore them, to harden yourself against this “other person,” much harder to demonize them for doing what they felt they had to do. Khalil Gibran wrote, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Acknowledging people’s humanity and understanding their suffering doesn’t feel good. It hurts. It’s easier to convince yourself that it’s something people deserve and if you’d have been in their place, you would have handled things differently.
On my last two nights at Villawood, I remain at the compounds until the end of visiting hours. It’s still Ramadan and on both nights, I am invited to share in the iftar evening meal when Muslim detainees here will break their day’s fast. Visitors, most of them former Villawood detainees who were declared refugees and released, bring hot food to share with the asylum seekers still here, people who became their family while in detention. On both nights, I feel as though I’m witnessing a strangely perfect moment during these community dinners – a time at Villawood where I see these people, who have suffered so much, truly happy.
After dinner at the Stage 2&3 visitor center, one of my friends, a brilliant artist featured heavily in the fear+hope exhibition, hands me a going away present. It’s a beautiful portrait, painted with instant coffee powder. Lacking proper materials now that the classes have been canceled, he’s placed it in a plastic bread bag to keep it from being damaged. This is the same painting I’ll guard fanatically on my flight back to San Francisco, after bossily instructing the Sydney airport officials conducting my “random” security check “not to touch it.”
The next evening, at the Stage 1 maximum-security compound, I have iftar with a big group. One young man hands me a bag filled with containers of food – his dinner. I protest that I can’t take it. He insists, adamant. It’s my present, he explains. Later, on the train ride home, I’ll find a thank-you letter inside the bag, one that his friend helped him write in English.
The guards let us know that visiting hours are over. We don’t say goodbye, only that we hope we’ll meet again someday outside the walls of Villawood. As contradictory as it sounds, I have found inspiration and hope from my friends here, in this place where such injustice exists. Their resiliency and courage kept me going. No matter where life takes us, I’ll still be standing by their side as they seek justice and recognition.
“There are no goodbyes for us. Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart.”
– Mahatma Gandhi
Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this blog, share it with others and contribute to the comments section. Your suggestions, words of support and efforts to garner awareness about asylum seekers, refugees and mandatory detention in Australia have been inspirational. My colleagues at the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties and Balmain for Refugees have been incredible mentors – I am grateful for their encouragement and guidance. Finally, I am infinitely thankful to my friends, the brave men and women at Villawood Immigration Detention Center and Silverwater Jail, who let me share their experiences with Berkeley In the World’s readers. If you would like to contact me going forward, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.