Australian Politics

Asylum seekers

The meaning of freedom
Asylum seekers and freedom of speech

“You understand that your life is in our hands. Your death is also in our hands because we won’t let you die.”

Those words, as recalled by an ex-detainee, were spoken by a Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs official to hunger-striking asylum seekers at Curtin Detention Centre in 2001. They illustrate the utter powerlessness of being in immigration detention. If you collapse, said the official, we will put you on a drip – your hunger strike will not make a difference. The message was clear: in detention, you are no longer a human being with free will. Instead, you’re a problem to be managed, an object to be processed.

When people did start collapsing, the guards weren’t happy. What the guards feared, and what the asylum seekers were gambling their bodies on, was the fact that visibility makes it much harder for detention centres to do their job: to be so awful that people prefer to stay in countries where they face torture, starvation and death.

In that context, telling your story – and being heard – takes on a great deal of significance, which is why it is such a tragic paradox that those most in need of the right to free speech are the ones most often denied it.

In recent months, I’ve worked on an oral history project that seeks to document mandatory detention in Australia since its inception in the early 1990s. My colleagues and I set out with the aim of recording the voices and stories of those who had lived behind the wire. Not long after we began making contact with potential participants, we received legal advice that the nature of our project, involving lengthy, in-depth interviews, could lead to the revelation of previously omitted details. And, in the worse case scenario, that would mean that our interviewees would be sent back to countries where they face real risk of harm.

For those asylum seekers who are keen to speak to us, it is the very nature of the refugee-determination process that reinforces their invisibility. An asylum seeker is considered an unreliable witness if, at any stage of the process, there are any inconsistencies in their story whatsoever. It’s a process that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of human memory, especially traumatic memories. Omitting any detail in an initial immigration interview – whether because of poor memory, repression of traumatic experiences, or an unwillingness to speak to a stranger about personally or culturally sensitive topics – can jeopardise a person’s chance of receiving protection. Imagine trying to remember an exact date or the name of a passing acquaintance a decade on without the aid of documents. Then imagine doing so while recovering from the effects of torture, grief and mind-numbing limbo of refugee camp life.

Even if we changed names and removed other identifying details from the published stories, the transcripts of our interviews could be subpoenaed. Worse still, we heard stories of claims being moved to the bottom of the pile, or even detainees being transferred to more remote locations, as punishment to those who dared to speak out.

That chilling effect on free speech spills out far beyond the detention centre walls. Those who have already received protection visas are faced with the awful choice of staying silent or putting at risk long awaited family reunions. Those on temporary and bridging visas – already prevented from participating in Australian life by their work and study restrictions – are further isolated by the ever-looming threat of a cancelled or unrenewed visa.

One refugee advocate told me about her friends, a group of young refugee women on bridging visas, who are so afraid of repercussions that they don’t even attend refugee rallies. Instead they sit at home while the activists march, sending her texts throughout the day: How is it going? Send us some photos!

It’s a bitter irony that we’ve heard so much about free speech for wealthy, regularly published columnists, but precious little about the genuinely voiceless. It recalls Hannah Arendt’s withering assessment of the universal applicability of human rights when it comes to refugees:

“If a human being loses his political status, he should, according to the implications of the inborn and inalienable rights of man, come under exactly the situation for which the declarations of such general rights provided. Actually, the opposite is the case. It seems that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow man.”

What’s particularly heartbreaking is that the stories you don’t hear from detainees and ex-detainees are so often profoundly humanising. There are prison escapes, detainee-edited newspapers, and detention centre weddings.

Late last year, I met with another refugee who had been in Curtin Detention Centre for 22 months. As soon as he got out, he started work on a one-man play about a detainee on hunger strike who has to tell amusing stories to entertain “Mr Belly”, to help make the time go by. Why was that the first thing he did with his freedom? “Every decision has been made for you and you are completely and utterly powerless,” he said. “I wanted to release that humanity in me.”

André Dao

André Dao is the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history organisation documenting people’s lived experience of human rights abuses.


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