December 7, 2021

Asylum seekers

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

By Abdul Karim Hekmat
Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Photograph © Sam Biddle

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Like other refugees, I am both a survivor and a witness.

As a child, I survived war and conflict in my home country, Afghanistan, often waking to gunshot fire during the civil war that broke out after the Soviet communist regime collapsed. I was internally displaced from a young age. In the 1990s, I survived the Taliban, who persecuted and massacred my people in Bamiyan, the Hazara heartland, and in Mazar-e-sharif. I then had a near-death experience during a five-day voyage to Australia: our boat’s engine failed, leaving us stranded in the middle of the Indian Ocean, battling storms in the night. After Australia’s navy found us, we were transferred to Darwin and then Curtin detention centre, in the middle of the Western Australian desert, where I spent months in despair, where I was stripped of my name, my identity – reduced to a number: 2671. Finally, in 2001, I was released on a Temporary Protection Visa.

A few months later, I was a witness to two events that dramatically changed Australia’s refugee policies. First, a wooden fishing boat – carrying predominantly Hazara refugees fleeing the Taliban’s brutality – became stranded in international waters north of Christmas Island. The boat’s engine failed (just as our boat’s had). The 438 people aboard were rescued by the Norwegian ship MV Tampa. The ensuing Tampa affair captured headlines in Australia and around the world. Following the rules of the sea, Captain Arne Rinnan of the Tampa headed for the nearest land, Christmas Island, but the Australian government refused to allow the Tampa to bring any of the refugees, many of whom were in very poor health, ashore. On the same day that SAS troops boarded the Tampa to prevent it from sailing closer to Christmas Island, Prime Minister John Howard tabled a Border Protection Bill that made such boardings legal and gave the Australian government sweeping powers to refuse entry to people seeking asylum by sea. The refugees were taken to Nauru for processing, under the First Pacific Solution.

Just days later came the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington. In the aftermath, Australian politicians labelled us – refugees – potential terrorists. Tapping into a fear of asylum seekers, John Howard went on to win the “unwinnable” election in November 2001.

Australia – indeed, the whole world – shifted after September 11. My world also changed radically in the wake of these two events. My younger brother had fled the Taliban and was supposed to follow me in seeking asylum in Australia, but he changed his plans when Australia closed its borders in the wake of Tampa. My brother travelled to Europe instead, where his odyssey ended – he was thrown into the water on the Greek coast, where he died. My visa did not allow me to leave the country, so I was unable to travel to Greece to find out what happened and get justice. I have been wracked with guilt ever since.

Life under Howard was traumatic, especially following the loss of my brother. I was grieving him and dealing with the uncertainty of my visa conditions, which did not allow me to travel or sponsor family members – just like the over 30,000 asylum seekers currently in Australia who can’t bring their family members to Australia. The impact of those years left me with deep emotional wounds. However, I was unable to record the trauma that I and other refugees felt under Howard’s government, as I did not have the language skills and was constrained by my status as a Temporary Protection Visa holder.

Over the years, I have witnessed Australia’s preoccupation with refugees who arrive by boat. Fear and paranoia surround the idea of “boat people”, as if Australia will be overwhelmed by an influx of refugees. In reality, the number of people who arrive in Australia seeking asylum is a trickle compared to other countries. Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Pakistan more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees and Iran more than 3 million refugees, mostly from Afghanistan: the recent takeover of the country by the Taliban displaced thousands. We witnessed chaotic situations at Kabul airport as many sought to join millions of other Afghans in diaspora. The number of refugees in Australia is tiny in comparison. Under Howard, from 1999 to 2001, about 10,000 asylum seekers – 5000 a year – arrived by boat. These were mostly people who had fled Saddam Hussain in Iraq or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Under Labor’s Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, 50,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat. Yet despite the small number – 10,000 asylum seekers a year – Australia implemented the strictest refugee policies in the world.

After the Tampa affair, Howard’s government passed laws that became known as the “Pacific Solution”. These included excising many of Australia’s islands, including Christmas Island, from its migration zone, meaning asylum seekers had no automatic right to apply for refugee status if they arrived there.

A collective amnesia took hold during and after the First Pacific Solution. Very few testimonies of asylum seekers who were transferred from Tampa to Nauru appeared in the Australian media. The Australian public were not exposed to the cruelty of life on Nauru.

The stories and images of refugees were manipulated to achieve political outcomes. Sometimes this was as overt as politicians suggesting that asylum seekers deliberately threw children into the sea as a ploy to get rescued. Other times it was stealthier – our faces were hidden from the public and the government tightly controls who is able to tell our stories.

Despite the “issue” of asylum seekers filling headline stories for years, the real stories of people seeking asylum have rarely been communicated. Asylum seekers are mostly presented as a mass of faceless people on rickety boats. They are incarcerated behind bars, either on the Australian mainland or in offshore centres, out of sight and out of mind. After Tampa, the Australian government instructed the navy not to “humanise” asylum seekers. Without the public knowing the full story of horror and trauma people arriving by boat go through, it’s hard for them to feel empathy and easy for doubts to be sowed in their minds. Thus refugees – especially those arriving by boat – remain blemished figures in the eyes of the Australian public.

It is hard for refugees to speak directly to the public and have their faces shown, because of government control. This starts at the border, continues in detention centres and extends even once they are in the community. For example, in 2014, when Scott Morrison was the immigration minister, he enacted a Code of Behaviour, which controlled the behaviour of asylum seekers released on bridging visas. Under this code, asylum seekers find it hard to speak to the media or tell their stories for fear of having their visa revoked or being sent back to detention centres.

Those who were sent to offshore centres under Howard’s government, in the First Pacific Solution, remained hidden from the public view. A friend of mine, with whom I parted ways within Indonesia, on the way to Australia, was sent to Nauru. I was not able to establish contact in 2001, before he was sent to Afghanistan. A decade later, he was resettled in Australia through the UNHCR program. He is retraumatised when he recalls the oven-like conditions on the inhospitable island, the despair and the ill-treatment by Australian authorities, who pressured refugees to return to their home countries as there was no hope for resettlement in Australia or anywhere else. 

Given the ways the Australian government deters asylum seekers from raising their voices, witnessing is the only tool left for us to record and communicate our suffering and trauma to the sympathetic public. For the past decade I have brought refugee voices to the public through opinion pieces, journalism and art. I have recorded the testimonies of asylum seekers under the Coalition government for the past seven years. I feel a duty to do so, in order that this period in Australian history is never forgotten. For me, witnessing is a moral undertaking, as it is for refugees Behrooz Boochani and Abdul Aziz, who have spoken and written about imprisonment on Manus Island.

What I have witnessed over the past few years – the experiences of those asylum seekers who’ve shared their stories with me – is dehumanising and unspeakably horrific. The dehumanisation starts when asylum seekers arrive at a camp or centre – they are stripped of their identity and replaced with a number. Their capacity to engage with the outside world is severely restricted – for instance, access to phones and other means of communication is often tightly controlled. Some refugees on Nauru developed muteness in response – without words, they are even easier to control. Under the harsh conditions of the detention centre regime, brutality is the norm, and it can take asylum seekers a long time to be able to talk about their experiences – some are not able to speak at all because of trauma and how they have been dehumanised by the Australian immigration system. Thus, their capacity to bear witness has been diminished, if not extinguished.

Destroying asylum seekers’ sense of self is at the heart of the ideology underpinning Australia’s immigration detention system. Asylum seekers, some of whom experience extreme trauma in Australia’s detention centre, have their personalities disintegrated, a dehumanising process that those held at Auschwitz experienced. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explained how there are three stages of such disintegration: first, the destruction of the “juridical person”; second, the destruction of the moral person through dehumanisation and by cutting them off from the outside world; and finally, the destruction of individuality and autonomy.

For four years, I spoke with a couple in Nauru who lived in a Kafkaesque situation. For a period of a month, they were medevacked to Australia after one of them descended into catatonia. Doctors from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) and Nauru hospital refused to treat him in Nauru, so his partner was compelled to take the matter to court with the assistance of lawyers in Australia. The Australian government delayed their medical evacuation for weeks, leaving his partner in doubt whether he would be medevacked at all. It did not happen until the couple’s lawyers took the matter to the Federal Court.

In 2017, I met another Hazara asylum seeker, who was injured in Nauru. His medical evacuation to Australia was delayed for weeks. He was transferred to Australia at the last minute. Doctors saved his life, but he lost his pancreas. At the hospital, he had two security guards by his bedside. He told me he was not allowed any visitors or to speak with his family for six months. By the time he was released, he had almost lost his sanity and was at breaking point. “I want to jump from the bridge,” he told me.

For the past two decades refugees have been labelled “boat people” or “queue jumpers” – and treated as a burden. Our presence has preoccupied the whole nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative. Politicians have often capitalised on deaths at sea for political gain rather than make the public aware of the trauma refugees endure coming by boat. Over 30 asylum seekers have taken their lives in Australia in the past six years. The impact of their deaths has reverberated not only through their families but also the wider community, leaving a whole generation of refugees traumatised. Even the suicides and self-immolations of asylum seekers hasn’t sufficiently alarmed the public to change the policies that inflict such irreparable wounds on refugees.

July 2021 marked eight years since the Second Pacific Solution was introduced by Rudd’s government. In 2008, he abolished the First Pacific Solution. Five years later, he resurrected it, declaring that “asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia”.

Under the Second Pacific Solution, information about the life of asylum seekers offshore has been severely controlled. Many refugees have gone through extreme trauma – trauma so bad that some children descended into catatonia and had to be medevacked.

Today, the Australian government continues to keep 30,000 asylum seekers in legal limbo without being able to sponsor their families, be eligible for settlement services or have the right to education unless they enrol as international fee-paying students. They have been separated from their families for eight years and many live in the quagmire of despair. Most have pernicious depression and trauma as a result of their experiences in detention centres or on bridging visas. One vulnerable group are my people, the Hazaras, who in August 2021 watched the sudden takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban. Again, the Taliban massacred Hazaras – this time in Malistan, a district of Ghazni province, according to an Amnesty International report on 20 August 2021.

Many of us live with wounded memories, as much from what we have experienced in Australia as from what we lived through back home. “All wars are fought twice,” Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sympathizer, writes, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Refugees, of course, carry trauma from our home countries due to war and conflict, but the real battlefield for many of us who arrive by boat is the Australian political landscape. We fight to survive Australia’s cruel policies, endure long periods in detention, including being kept in gulag-like conditions in Nauru, and live apart from our families for years. Strict censorship laws mean anyone who leaks information can be punished. In 2015, the Australian government legislated the Border Force Act, which meant that anyone who leaked information from offshore centres could face up to two years’ imprisonment. Through the power of witnessing, we are able to break the system of control: I obtained video footage of refugees from Nauru in 2017 and showed it at an exhibition called The Invisible, held at UTS gallery in Sydney. It showed the human faces behind the myths.

The cruel Australian policies have cost too many lives in the past eight years; 14 refugees and asylum seekers have died in the offshore detention system, including Reza Barati who was killed on Manus Island. Over 12 asylum seekers have died in the community, most on bridging visas. I have been close to many of these cases, as I reported on them. One was Khodayar Amini, a Hazara asylum seeker, who self-immolated in October 2015 after the Australian Border Force raided his home in Sydney to re-detain him. Two months later, another asylum seeker, Mohammad Nazeri, hanged himself on a construction site in Western Sydney because he could not be reunited with his family – asylum seekers are barred from sponsoring family members. In June 2015, a 22-year-old asylum seeker, Mohammad Hadi, hanged himself in a park close to my home in Western Sydney. Hadi was an intelligent guy, an avid reader, who read the poetry of Hafiz, Rumi and Saidi to deal with his despair on a bridging visa – but poetry did not save him. Hadi had been studying at a university in Afghanistan; he fled after his classmate was killed by the Taliban. He arrived in Australia in 2012 and was released on a bridging visa. He wished to pursue his studies but his visa conditions didn’t allow him to study or work. He spent most days at home and plunged into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Six Hazara asylum seekers took their lives in just two years; it increasingly became part of our daily life, a subject of everyday discussion in the community and at home.

For a long time, refugees in Australia have not been in charge of telling their stories because their capacity to bear witness has been severely restricted. Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who was detained on Manus Island for four years, resisted the system by bearing witness to the cruelty of the Manus detention centre. His prize-winning memoir, No Friend But the Mountains, was tapped out on a mobile phone in a series of single messages over time. But Boochani’s case is a rare exception. It has been far more common for others – academics, journalists and artists, who do not have lived experience of seeking asylum – to speak on their behalf.

For too long in this country the stories of refugees and asylum seekers have been told through the prism of the white gaze. The discourse around seeking asylum will only change when refugees are able to tell their stories themselves.


This is an edited extract from Seeking Asylum: Our Stories, published by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in partnership with Black Inc. All net proceeds go directly to the ASRC to support and empower people seeking asylum.

Abdul Karim Hekmat

Abdul Karim Hekmat is a writer, journalist and photographer. His photography exhibition, Unsafe Haven, toured nationally, and his curated exhibition, The Invisible, won the UTS Human Rights Award in 2018.

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