June 2021


Australian purgatory

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Susan and her children, Ballarat, 2021

Susan and her children, Ballarat, 2021. Photographs by paralogos (@paralogosau)

The permanent damage of temporary protection

When Zaki Haidari was a boy, two giants overlooked Afghanistan’s Bamyan valley. They had for centuries, but wouldn’t for much longer. It was March 2001. In their attempts to annihilate the ancient, “idolatrous” Buddhas of Bamyan, hewn from great sandstone cliffs in the 6th century, the Taliban were both barbarous and comically inept. Initially, they strafed the giant statues with machine-guns, but their bullets were ineffectual. They upgraded to artillery shells and rocket-propelled grenades, but still the damage was negligible.

The Taliban’s solution was to conscript local men at gunpoint and force them to destroy the national treasures. Dozens of Hazara men were collected, given hand-drills and explosives, and ordered to abseil down the faces of the giant Buddhas. Dangling from ropes, the Hazara men drilled holes, stuffed them with plastic explosives and scaled down to the ground.

The Taliban dreamt of bringing down the cliff itself, but this proved absurdly ambitious. They settled for the destruction of the statues. When the dust settled, they celebrated by firing their rifles in the air and sacrificing cows. “I regretted it at the time, I regret it now and I will always regret it,” one of those Hazara men told the BBC many years later. “But I could not resist, I didn’t have a choice because they would have killed me.”

The destruction sparked international anger, but the Taliban scoffed: the West were more concerned about statues than they were about the Afghan people. For many in the West, the vandalism was the first time they had heard of the Taliban, but the group’s repulsion from the capital by local and international forces was just months away.

Zaki lived less than a two-hour drive away from the town of Bamyan in Behsood, a village of a few thousand people in the province of Maidan Wardak. He was six at the time. “My home town – we have high mountains, green lands in summer and beautiful rivers with fresh water,” he says. “Although the winter is really cold, it is still beautiful with snow that covers the whole village with white.” Behsood, like Bamyan, was a Hazara enclave, but unlike Bamyan, its province was a Taliban stronghold. Behsood villagers were surrounded by their enemy, and journeys to the capital – Kabul is 155 kilometres east – were extremely dangerous.

In one of the world’s most lawless countries, the lives of Hazaras – an ethnic and religious minority in Afghanistan – are especially parlous. Mostly Shia Muslim in a Sunni-dominant country, Hazaras, with their ethnicity likely tracing to Mongolia, are also physically and linguistically distinct. In the 1890s, they suffered genocidal slaughter and have remained outside the prevailing Pashtun/Sunni political dominance.

In 1996, when Zaki was one, the Taliban had mostly consolidated its power nationally after two years of Pakistan-assisted incursions on cities and villages. To the Taliban – Islamic fundamentalists, with origins in the mujahideen guerrilla forces that had repelled Soviet invasion the previous decade – Hazaras were kafir, or infidels.

The Taliban were ferocious. In one attack on the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, they drove utes down streets, from which they sprayed machine-gun fire “at anything that moved”, according to a Human Rights Watch report. They targeted Hazaras, and went door to door, executing boys and men by shooting them in the head or slitting their throats. Hundreds were piled into truck containers and driven into the desert, where they asphyxiated. No distinction was made between combatants and civilians. To impose further cruelty, the Taliban forbade the burying of corpses – thus denying their victims the quick burial mandated by Islamic rites – and they rotted in the sun and were eaten by dogs. Estimates on the number of deaths vary – it may have been as high as 20,000.

“Hazaras are not Muslim, they are Shia,” the newly installed Taliban governor of Mazar-i-Sharif declared. “If you do not show your loyalty, we will burn your houses, and we will kill you. You either accept to be Muslims or leave Afghanistan … Wherever you go, we will catch you. If you go up, we will pull you down by your feet; if you hide below, we will pull you up by your hair.”

Six months after the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas, Al Qaeda executed its September 11 attacks, and the United States declared war on the Taliban. But if the Hazara people were tempted to hope for their liberation, they would soon discover that wasn’t likely. Hazaras enjoyed some qualified improvement to their liberty, but while the Taliban were beaten back on occasion, they never really went away. “You have the watches, but we have the time,” is a proverb more than one Taliban prisoner has shared with their American captors in the past 20 years.

Today, the Taliban is more powerful than at any time since 2001, and in the past few years hundreds of Hazaras have been shot, decapitated or blown up by the group, or by the equally brutal Daesh. And in April this year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that all remaining Australian troops would be withdrawn by September, in concert with the United States. A negotiated return to power for the Taliban seems likely.That people must flee such a nightmarish threat to their survival is certain. Yet even after Australia receives asylum seekers by holding them in detention for cripplingly long periods of time, in conditions known to exacerbate trauma, we have a system in this country of then condemning many to a punishingly interminable limbo – life on a temporary protection visa.

In 1996, as Osama bin Laden was settling into Afghanistan, John Howard defeated the incumbent prime minister, Paul Keating, and the 42-year-old Pauline Hanson became the independent member for Oxley. In her infamous first speech, Hanson called for the termination of foreign aid, criticised the United Nations, demanded mandatory national service and warned vaguely that Australia had only 10 to 15 years “to turn things around”. And she said: “I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished. I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians … Of course, I will be called racist, but if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.”

For a while, Howard kept Hanson at arm’s length. Of a 1998 speech she gave claiming Aboriginal Australians received preferential treatment, Howard said that it “verges on the deranged”. The same year, Hanson released her party’s immigration policy. “The humanitarian program will be replaced by a program of temporary refuge for those who meet the UNHCR definition of a refugee, with repatriation when the situation resolves,” it read. “The number of places for genuine refugees will remain 12,000.”

In response, Philip Ruddock, then the minister for immigration, said: “What One Nation would be saying is that they have no place in Australia. They are only to be here temporarily … Can you imagine what temporary entry would mean for them? It would mean that people would never know whether they were able to remain here. There would be uncertainty, particularly in terms of the attention given to learning English, and in addressing the torture and trauma so they are healed from some of the tremendous physical and psychological wounds they have suffered. So, I regard One Nation’s approach as being highly unconscionable in a way that most thinking people would clearly reject.”

Only a year later, in October 1999 and with the support of opposition leader Kim Beazley, the Howard government introduced temporary protection visas (TPVs). In fact, they went a step further than Hanson’s “unconscionable” proposal and denied family reunion.

Ruddock tells me he doesn’t recall Hanson’s proposal. “So, I wouldn’t want to offer a view about why I may have answered in that way at that time,” he says. “It may be that I hadn’t fully considered all of the relevant issues. And it may have been that circumstances had changed. So let me deal with the context in which temporary protection visas were introduced. I was the immigration minister, I was travelling frequently to Geneva, I was very much in touch with the UNHCR. And I was very focused on Australia’s refugee program. And these matters need to be considered in the context that we were proportionately one of the largest resettlement countries in the world.

“Today, we have something of the order of 70 or 80 million refugees in the world. We’re not going to take 70 or 80 million people for resettlement, even if they all turned up. And so, we like to be able to make choices amongst that 80 million about who is most in need of help, and you can’t do it if you can’t manage your borders. That’s the bottom line. [ The advice from my department] was, in relation to asylum claimants, that the obligation is non-refoulement. In other words, you do not return a person who is found to be a refugee to a situation of persecution. But if their circumstances change, and it’s safe to be able to return them, you can. And so, the only way in which that is possible is if you have granted them protection temporarily.”

Ruddock fails to mention that when TPVs were first introduced, those who continued to arrive by plane remained eligible for permanent residency. And while he’s correct that TPVs didn’t breach the non-refoulement principle of the UN’s Refugee Convention, his emphasis of it is a rhetorical narrowing of the convention – as if the convention was solely comprised of that principle. There are other principles, such as not discriminating against asylum seekers because of their mode of entry. What’s more, our particular application of temporary protection is an aggressive exploitation of a loophole that defies the spirit of the convention. Temporary protection is not intended to cast select refugees into indefinite legal uncertainty, and Australia remains the only country to apply such visas to individual cases where refugee status has been approved.

So, while temporary protection is not forbidden by the convention, and has been used elsewhere – in Europe, especially – to deal with mass migrations of asylum seekers whom the state cannot adequately assess or accommodate in the short term, it’s meant to be used as an expediency in times of crisis. Australia is distinct, perhaps unique, in its use of TPVs as a deterrent – and as punishment.

In the two years after Australia’s introduction of TPVs, boat arrivals actually increased. Then, during the federal election campaign of 2001, a large Indonesian fishing trawler – designated SIEV-X by Australian authorities – capsized en route to Australia. Three hundred and fifty-three asylum seekers died, most of them women and children. Critics of TPVs, including barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside, said the system bore significant blame for the disaster – many of the dead were following their fathers and husbands who were here on visas that forbade their reunion. One Iraqi man, a refugee living in Australia on a TPV, lost his wife and children. Of their doomed bid for asylum, he told the Sydney Arabic newspaper El Telegraph: “I had no other choice, that was my last option after it became obvious that I had lost hope of seeing my children because of the cruel condition of TPV.”

TPV holders who sought to travel to Indonesia to identify the bodies of family were told they would not be permitted re-entry to Australia if they did.

Locals call it “Death Road”, a section of highway that cuts through the mountainous desert of central Afghanistan. Its peril is described to me by a distinguished Hazara man, Aziz Royesh, who has one of the world’s more incredible jobs – he’s the founding principal of Marefat High School, a liberal school in Kabul’s 13th district that’s reviled by the Taliban.

Some of Royesh’s students ride this route to come to his school. “Taliban are in control of around 30 kilometres between Maidan Shahr and Behsood,” Royesh says. “Nearly every week, two or three cases of Taliban attack on the road result in the beheading or abducting of Hazara passengers. Mostly they search the passengers to find a single clue implying their relation to the government: student’s ID, contact number in their cell phone, an address with the name of a government official, their hairstyle, their clothing. People take a high risk to travel through this road. There is another, longer way to Bamyan and Kabul through Parwan province, which is at least 10 times longer than this way.”

In 2011, Zaki Haidari’s older brother, Ali, boarded his bus for university in Kabul. The route was along Death Road, as it always was, and to survive the Taliban checkpoints he knew to travel with little, dress simply and to lose any evidence of being a student. But that morning, Ali made a fatal error. Hurriedly putting on an old jacket, he didn’t realise that one pocket held his student card. He was searched, the card was found, and he was beheaded.

The family’s pain was crippling. Zaki’s father was a medical doctor, and the first from his family to go to university. The matriculation of Ali had made him so proud. An education was something to fight for, despite the danger.

Zaki’s father continued to make trips to the city, to collect medical supplies for his practice in the village. His family implored him to take care. Transporting the medicine, or even possessing the lists of supplies, could be sufficient reason for his execution. One day, a year after Ali’s death, Zaki’s father failed to return home. They never found his body, which was unusual given the Taliban’s preference for displaying their mutilated victims.

This wasn’t the end of the family’s nightmare. In 2012, a letter arrived from the Taliban. Their family was guilty, it said, of collaborating with the Americans. The letter requested that the eldest surviving son – Zaki – be sent to them. The implication was obvious: Zaki would be murdered too, and only then would the family’s “debt” be forgiven.

That was it. It was time for Zaki to flee. He was 17 when his mother secured his passport and a deal with smugglers. She felt she had no choice. On Zaki’s last night with his family, his mother encouraged him to sleep. He couldn’t, and in the morning a man came to take him to the airport.

Zaki’s journey was long and frightening. He spoke little English and didn’t yet know his destination. His first port was India. There, he was kept in a small dark room for days – so long, in fact, that his eyes had difficulty adjusting to light when he was released. From there he travelled to Malaysia, then Indonesia. He felt like a cork tossed in rapids, but from Jakarta he could finally call his mother and tell her he was safe – for now. Then it was time to trek through jungle to the secret location of his boat, the one destined for Christmas Island.

Zaki reached the fishing trawler, and it was the first time he’d ever seen the ocean. There were 90 people loaded upon a boat made for 40. “We left that night about midnight, and it was very windy and it was raining,” Zaki remembers. “Everything got soaked. I was scared because I didn’t swim.

“Then the next night, it was just getting dark and the boat stopped. A few hours later, we noticed that the smugglers were panicking and crying. And then we find out that the [motor] was broken. It could not move the boat anymore. They tried to fix it throughout the night, but they couldn’t.

“I was completely shocked. My brain stopped working because I was thinking that I’m going to die here. This is it. There was just only our boat and water. We could not see a single thing except water. That ended up taking five nights and five days, being on that broken boat with no food, very little water. I would say those were the toughest days and nights of my life … And I was thinking that I’m not going to see my family ever again. They wouldn’t see me or find my dead body. I’m gonna sink here and I’m gone forever.”

On the fifth night, the Royal Australian Navy rescued them. They were transported to the Christmas Island detention centre.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd took office and made good on his campaign promise to abolish Howard’s TPVs. On the night of his sudden removal as prime minister, just three years later, he bitterly warned the Labor Party against “lurching to the right” on immigration policy.

After a decline in the latter years of Howard’s government, boat arrivals had increased under Rudd then Gillard. Politically besieged, Labor effectively – if not formally – revived TPVs by suspending the processing of asylum claims from “irregular maritime arrivals”, in the sterilising nomenclature of the time. And upon his return as leader in 2013, Rudd immediately ratified policies he had previously denounced, such as offshore detention.

As opposition leader, Tony Abbott had long sniffed blood on the issue, and promised – endlessly – to “stop the boats”. In his successful 2013 campaign he pledged to bring back TPVs, and as prime minister he referred to the thousands of people who had arrived by boat during these years as the “legacy case load” – making the point that he had inherited the problem from Labor. He immediately sought the reintroduction of TPVs that would apply, retrospectively, to the 30,500 people who had arrived before July 2013.

During debate of the subsequent Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014, the Abbott government played hardball. Some of those involved in negotiations told me of ministers storming into the offices of crossbenchers, placing photos of asylum seekers on their desks, and telling them: “He’s a child rapist. Do you want him settled here?”

As leverage over the crossbench, whose votes were critical to the bill’s success, the government used the release of children from detention as an incentive. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young in turn accused Scott Morrison, then immigration minister, of encouraging children in detention to call the office of freshman crossbench senator Ricky Muir – something Morrison has never denied.

The pressure on Muir, whose vote the legislation came down to, was obvious. On December 4, 2014, he stood tearfully in the Senate and said: “Ultimately, it is my desire to see the legacy case load resolved with a clear pathway to permanency for those who are found to be genuine refugees, and for those who are found not to be genuine refugees to return home. Unfortunately, due to the current government’s policy, I do not have that option in front of me …

“Tonight, I have also spoken with people who have worked closely with detainees on Christmas Island. They told me that this bill is not completely fair, but that the detainees are tired. They told me that the detainees have had enough and that they want out. They are desperate. She told me that they have watched the news and they know it is down to one vote, and that vote is mine …

“They told the people in detention that they rang the office of the man whose decision it was to decide whether they would be out of detention before Christmas. That man wasn’t the minister for immigration; it was me. It should not be like this, but it is. The crossbench should not have been put in this position, but it has.”

The bill passed, with some concessions: children on Christmas Island (but not at Australia’s detention centre on Nauru) were released; MP Clive Palmer’s demand for a separate form of temporary protection visa, the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa – five years long, rather than the typical three, and contingent upon holders working regionally – was accepted; and the government agreed to independent senator Nick Xenophon’s request for an increase in the government’s yearly refugee intake, from roughly 13,000 to 18,000 – though that increase should be measured against the fact that the Abbott government, just the year before, had reduced the yearly quota from 20,000.

But the new law also massively increased the discretionary powers of the immigration minister, removed almost all reference to the Refugee Convention from the Migration Act, and, after an initial increase, by 2018 the yearly refugee quota had declined to 12,000. The legislation had also, of course, consigned 30,500 people to the strange, punishing and interminable legal twilight that prohibits family reunion, leaving the country, home and student loans, access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and, effectively, permanent residency.

“It was heartbreaking,” the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s (ASRC) director of advocacy and campaigns, Jana Favero, says. “That bill was very close to being defeated. But the government bullied, manipulated, they used information selectively. There was a huge amount of pressure on the crossbench. The bill was so complex, some members of parliament told me they didn’t realise how bad it was.” 

Favero had worked closely with former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, a patron of the ASRC, in his final years. “He was more than angry,” she says. “He was distressed.” At the time, Fraser said that the crossbenchers’ “grievous political error has betrayed Australian democracy”, and granted Morrison “dictatorial, tyrannical powers”.

To this day, not one of those 30,500 people has secured permanent residency.

In detention on Christmas Island, Zaki Haidari was given his identification number – which effectively replaced his name – and was met with hostility or indifference. “We were not welcome by Immigration at all,” he says. “We were in detention centre [already], but they were putting flyers on the walls, and we were getting TV ads, saying that you’re not welcome, Australia’s not accepting any more refugees, and you will be sent back to where you came from.”

He was there for a month, much less than some, before his transfer to Hobart’s detention centre. There, he says, he started to appreciate that there were Australians – and a community – beyond the face of the immigration department. Volunteers made day visits, to bring food, conversation and impromptu English lessons. Sometimes permission was obtained to take detainees on visits to local churches. “It was very different,” Zaki says. “You know, compared to Christmas Island, where there was a bunch of security guards that were really scary. We had been demonised. But here, people came with sympathy, or empathy, and talked with you as a human. So that gave us a different picture of Australia.”

Zaki was only in Hobart detention for two months – another mercifully short period compared to others – and released on a bridging visa, pending his approval for temporary protection. His pinballing continued: he was next sent to Sydney, in early 2013.

It’s difficult to describe the tumult of grief, depression, uncertainty, confusion and loneliness Zaki felt at this time. As for others profiled in this essay, there was a wicked convergence of pre-existing trauma with the degrading harshness of their arrival. In Sydney, Zaki underwent psychological therapy. “I was mentally ill when I got to Christmas Island and the detention centre, and then being released in the community,” Zaki says. “I was not stable at all. I had to see a counsellor for three years while I was in Sydney. That helped a lot. But also for me, I felt I was punished because of the method of my arrival to Australia. At the same time, I find the Australian community very helpful and supportive. It was that community that gave me a sense of belonging and humanity. And that community allow me to go to college to learn English.”

In late 2016 – four years after his arrival at Christmas Island – Zaki was granted temporary protection in the form of a five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa and he moved to Canberra to satisfy its regional work requirement. He was employed by the Australian National University as an admissions officer, and the irony of his own admission to university being almost impossible as a temporary visa holder was not lost on him.

In Canberra, Zaki discovered a love of running – a pure and distracting action. He ran around Lake Burley Griffin, up the intimidating pitch of Mount Ainslie and on marathons. He ran for charity and for himself. And through running he met federal Labor’s assistant shadow treasurer, Andrew Leigh. “Zaki’s a very self-possessed young man and somebody who you just have no doubt as to the contribution that he would make to Australia,” Leigh says. “He has suffered far more than any of us will in our lives, and yet we’re putting him through this needless bureaucracy.

“This terrible, permanent temporary status in which people have been admitted into Australia – they have no home to return to. They clearly pose no threat to national security, or national security agencies wouldn’t have allowed them in the country. But they can’t get on with rebuilding their lives.”

“Permanent temporary” is right. It’s the policy’s central contradiction, its grotesque paradox. On the legacy case load, Leigh says: “We went to the last election calling for pathways into citizenship for these people. And I expect we’d take the same policies to the next election.”

In January, Zaki returned to Sydney after four years in the capital. He’d grown bored with his job, and bitterly frustrated that his fulfilment of the visa’s conditions had moved him no closer to permanency. For a long time, Zaki had been greatly diminished by forces much larger than himself: history, politics, bureaucracy. Now, he wanted to better assert himself, and to find work that gave him purpose.

He found it. Starting earlier this year, Zaki now works as an employment support officer for the Jesuit Refugee Service. He says his father cared about public service and this seems like one way of honouring him. And working with refugees, and meaningfully sharing his own experience, is one way of reinvesting his years in Australia with value. They count for something.

Of course, he encounters great and familiar sorrow. “It’s painful to see a father sitting in front of you talking about their case and tears coming from their eyes,” he says. “You know, they’re telling me that they haven’t seen their kids since they were one year old and now they’re eight or 10 years old. This policy has taken away from people those sweet memories you create with your kids.

“If we don’t change [it], this policy will break people and we will see human loss in the Australian community. And it will be too late if they take their life. But we can stop the policies that are in place. We have the power to bring the joy to that family.”

Every night before bed, Zaki calls his mother in Afghanistan. He can’t sleep otherwise. It’s often small talk, with a big purpose: to check that she’s still alive, that she or his surviving siblings haven’t been obliterated in a suicide blast. When I ask if he ever thought about returning to Afghanistan, he says: “There’s times that I think, What is life? Does it mean that I live alone forever? Or does it mean that I spend the time that I have with my loved ones, like my sisters, my brothers and my mum? And sometimes I think, Which one to choose? … But I know that if I go to Afghanistan, that is it for me. I’m gone within a few days probably.”

With the Taliban now negotiating a share in the rule of Afghanistan with the national government, Hazaras fear the worst. “We are going back to where we were before the international forces came in Afghanistan,” Zaki says. “The Taliban were in power, they were governing the country. And now the same Afghan government or international forces are sitting with terrorists that are still killing people, to make a peace deal to bring them back in power.”

Zaki’s visa expires this September, with no promise of renewal, and he must submit again to a many-hours-long interview, minutely retelling the details of his journey. The prospect makes him sick with anxiety, and he struggles to talk about it. “I have to prove again that I am a refugee, that I can’t go back to my country. I have to be in the position that I was in eight years ago, when I arrived in Australia. We try to move on. But unfortunately, with this temporary visa, you have to go back in time to remember those things that happened to you. And to say it again. It took me three years [of therapy] to remove things from my memory that happened to me.”

It’s not just the remembering. It’s the uncertainty of the outcome, and the high stakes of the interview – or “interrogation”, as Zaki calls it. His health might rest upon quelling intrusive memories, but his success in these interviews requires their vivid recollection.

Susan was 17 when she married. It was 2006, and Nepal’s protracted civil war was just ending. A decade earlier, Maoist guerrillas declared a “people’s war” against the monarchical government. Initially concentrated in remote, mountainous districts, the rebellion spread, then accelerated after 2001. Abuses were committed by both sides – murder, kidnapping, extortion – and in 2003, the UN reported that Nepal had the world’s highest number of disappearances.

Nepalese villagers, people of exceptional poverty, malnutrition and illiteracy, faced shakedowns from both rebels and government security forces. “We are very poor people with just a bit of land that feeds us,” one woman told Human Rights Watch in 2004. “My husband and sons have gone away to work in the city. I live alone with my daughter. Every so often, men in uniform come to my house to ask for food. It is my duty to feed guests, so I try my best, though I have little to spare. But I don’t ask any questions about who they are because it is safer not to know. They can be the army. They can be Maoists. Both are dangerous.”

The war claimed up to 17,000 lives, effectively dissolved the rule of law and insinuated great fear and suspicion among its people. Then, the year of Susan’s wedding, a peace deal was brokered – and with it an agreement to enshrine a new constitution, to dilute royal powers and, crucially, to hold the first democratic election since 1999.

The election was held in April 2008. Surprising many, the Maoists won. Susan says she had never had much interest in politics, but her husband was working against the Maoists as a volunteer for an opposition party. Susan came from a poor family, but her husband was an IT professor in the capital, Kathmandu. “The Maoist government started targeting the people who were against them,” Susan says. “So, my husband was one of those, very active for some resistance to Maoists. [And] they started targeting those people, and they started killing them.”

Susan describes years of extortion and intimidation. Years of Maoist officials fattening their own pockets by demanding money and threatening her children. “They were always asking for money and donations from the people who were against them,” she says. “We gave a lot of money for years and years to protect our life. But it’s very hard to pay all the time because we’re not very rich. We decided [to leave] our country because if we don’t save the money, then there will be the life-threatening problem. They can kill people. They can kill me, they can kill my husband and my kids.”

In 2011, with a four-year-old son and a newborn, the pressure became too much. Susan was just 22. She and her husband decided to flee with their children to nearby India. It’s here that Susan’s story becomes unbearable: it’s a cascading series of traumas, and her most notable affect in relaying it to me is profound exhaustion, smudged with grief.

In Delhi, they feared being discovered by Maoist agents. Susan also says she didn’t feel safe as a woman. She developed Bell’s palsy, paralysing half her face. She visited a doctor, who seemed very kind and sympathetic. He told Susan that she was obviously very stressed and said he would find them a better room to stay in.

Then, Susan says, he sexually assaulted her. “In my culture, we respect our elder person and he just give hope and sympathy, because we explained most of why we come from Nepal to India. He said he’s going to help … and I need an injection. And as he put me in a sleep injection, he just did whatever he wants to do.”

Susan and her husband went to the police, but were disbelieved and sent away. “They said that most of the Nepalese women are sex workers here. And then they said that maybe you are selling your body for money. We can’t do anything with this, but maybe hand you to the Nepalese police.”

Susan was traumatised, degraded and her face paralysed. Her anxiety worsened. She also took this to be a signal lesson that India was neither safe for her now, nor for her daughter in the future. It was time to plan something else. It was time to run again. They had been in India for just seven months.

What she and her husband decided traumatised her further: to leave her two children with her parents, in a secret location on the Nepal–India border, then seek asylum elsewhere, before their eventual reunion.

They left with few possessions – Susan had her wedding dress, photos of her children and a Bible – and flew to Singapore. They stayed two days in a hotel, before moving to a small room in a backpacker hostel. By now they had very little money. “We try many things there, but we couldn’t find anything because we can’t live legally in Singapore … We were hopeless, we didn’t eat much, don’t have much money [and Singapore is] a nice city, but we didn’t enjoy anything.”

After a week in Singapore, Susan and her husband were told they could apply for a two-week Malaysian visa and travel there by bus. Once there, they approached the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for advice on applying for asylum. “They said [Malaysia] didn’t accept most people from Nepal,” she says. “They have lots of people from Burma and Sri Lanka and Iran and from many other country, but not people from Nepal. We were hopeless and sitting somewhere in the street. I just cry a lot. I miss my children, miss everything, and don’t know about future, don’t know what’s gonna happen. We just decided to… suicide [because] there is no hope of going back and there is no hope what we’re going to do after.”

Susan is tempted to describe what happened next as a kind of divine intervention – an answering of her desperate, tearful prayers in the streets of Kuala Lumpur. “I don’t know, maybe God sent me some angel or something.”

That “angel” was a people smuggler, presumably clued up on where to find vulnerable clients. Susan describes him as being kind and knowledgeable. He had a wife and was also a taxi driver. Smuggling was a side hustle – or perhaps the taxi driving was. “I know people are saying he is a people smuggler,” Susan says. “But in my eyes, he saved our life, otherwise we have only the suicide option. There is no other option for us. Yes, he did the wrong thing because there is no safety in that boat, but still he saved our life.”

The smuggler told them he could help organise their passage to Australia. Their boat’s departure point was, as it almost always is, in Indonesia, and there was a torturous process of visa applications, and a return bus to Malaysia, before they got there. To fund their passage, they humbly requested more money from family back home – the money came, but with the qualifier that there could be no more. At the time, smugglers were charging up to US$10,000.

In Jakarta, Susan and her husband were put up in a small hotel room. Then there was a five-hour van ride, then a short plane trip. It was alarming – their smugglers spoke little or no English, and so there was no explanation for their dramatic, furtive movements. Then, in a remote jungle area, they were put up in another small room. They saw no one for two weeks and were fed small amounts of rice and chicken. Susan and her husband are vegetarian and survived on the rice alone. She wondered if the people who promised their passage to Australia were legitimate, and about how, if she and her husband were killed, no one would be able to find them.

Soon there were gathered 52 adults and 10 children. They walked for half an hour to a small boat that took turns ferrying them out to a larger boat. As with Zaki, this was the first time Susan had seen the ocean. “We were nearly seven days in that small boat, no toilet, not much food [and] after three days we run out of the water,” she says.

The boat was enveloped by rough seas, was lifted up and dropped back down. Passengers vomited from seasickness and huddled in fear. After three days, the Singapore navy intercepted them. They were told they were going the wrong way to Australia, and that contact had been made with the Indonesian, Malaysian and Australian navies. The officers also told them that a great storm was coming – one that would likely destroy their boat. The Singapore navy ship would stay beside them through the night’s storm and, if they survived, their boat would be directed to Australia – presumably towards the now notified Australian navy.

As promised, the storm came. Susan studied the photos of her children and clutched her Bible. “Our boat was flying up to the sky and just coming back again.”

Thinking she would die, she apologised to her distant children. “When I tell this story, my memory all goes back to that place again.”

They survived the night. Not long after first light, an Australian navy helicopter came into sight. Then a navy ship. To Susan, the ship resembled a large building that promised “a second life”. They were provided food, blankets, sanitising products. And a bed. She says that for the first time since they left their children, they slept well. “We hug each other and we sleep peacefully. We are alive now. We have a hope.”

Ordinarily, the navy ship would have sailed for Christmas Island. But another storm made that journey dangerous.

It was July 2012, and Her Majesty’s ship set course for Darwin.

Susan was a “queue jumper”. This glib and dehumanising term was especially popular around this time. Nationals leader Warren Truss used it, and prime minister Tony Abbott said: “If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door.”

“Queue jumpers” suggests rude, devious and lazy people, cheats who seek trivial advantage. The term doesn’t evoke people who leave their families, relinquish their possessions and hike across international borders. People who hand their last dollar to smugglers, then trek through muddy jungles to reach a boat unfit for sea. “Queue jumpers” don’t typically take mortal risks, or clutch Bibles as their craft takes water, or stare mournfully at photos of their children when told of a coming storm. They don’t starve, exhaust and terrify themselves.

These are not queue jumpers, but asylum seekers.

There has always been a schism between the strength of the language used to describe boat people and the language used to describe the conditions they’re escaping. Those who were declared cheats, who preferred “the back door”, were also people experiencing acts of “depravity beyond measure”, which was how Abbott described the Taliban’s massacre of 132 children in a Peshawar school in 2014.

The term “queue jumpers” is slyly malevolent. It recasts reality or, perhaps more accurately, flattens or obliterates it. It’s a lesson in the power of language: a single phrase can conjure its subjects’ deviousness and dispel their desperation, and confer upon its user a sense of moral superiority.

And it works. A small study conducted by Monash University, taken the year before Susan’s voyage, found as much. “[Australians] are very accepting of asylum seekers and refugees if they feel they’ve been through the appropriate channels,” one of the authors reported. “If they feel they’ve somehow jumped the queue or tried to sneak in then there’s quite a different reaction.” And successive governments have told the public that boat arrivals put themselves ahead of refugees awaiting resettlement in UNHCR camps around the world, reducing the number that can be accepted from them when filling Australia’s annual refugee quota.

But a 2016 Parliamentary Library research paper made clear that: “If UNHCR assesses a refugee to be eligible for resettlement it does not mean that they have joined an orderly ‘queue’ and that they will be guaranteed resettlement to another country when their ‘number comes up’. Though refugees may be assessed by UNHCR as eligible for resettlement, in reality they face a potentially indefinite waiting period for a resettlement country to offer them a resettlement place (depending on the urgency of their individual needs).” In other words, the queue is a myth. A more appropriate metaphor, the research paper suggests, is a hospital’s triage system.

It’s worth repeating here the Refugee Convention’s stipulation that asylum seekers should not be discriminated against by their means of arrival – they either have a legitimate claim to protection, or they don’t. Their transport should be irrelevant. Nonetheless, Philip Ruddock continues to argue that there are “legitimate” refugees languishing in camps who can’t afford to independently travel here. The implication remains that such people are penalised by the opportunistic queue jumpers.

As noted by historian Klaus Neumann, the first use of the word “queue” in relation to boat arrivals was made by Gough Whitlam in 1977. At the time, Whitlam was again opposition leader after the dramatic ousting of his government in ’75, and of approaching Vietnamese boats he said: “it is not credible, two and half years after the end of the Vietnam War, that these refugees should suddenly be coming to Australia”. Whitlam artfully tweaked his language a few days later – saying that “genuine refugees” should be accepted – while still signalling to voters his suspicions about boat arrivals. He was supported by the Australian Council of Trade Unions leader, Bob Hawke (who later, as prime minister, would tearfully embrace murderously oppressed Chinese students), who said in 1977: “Any sovereign country has the right to determine how it will exercise its compassion and how it will increase its population.” John Howard’s line 24 years later – “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” – now seems like an echo.

So, the political origin of the word “queue” is half a century old, and found in the mouth of a progressive icon. And Hawke’s example demonstrates how political positions are rarely fixed, and what becomes established in the popular imagination as an heroically sustained conviction is often something more fickle, contingent or complicated.

Of course, as Susan approached Darwin, all of this was unknown – and would have otherwise been academic – to her. She didn’t know she was a queue jumper. She was just dreaming of a new life, and an imminent reunion with her children.

At the Northern Immigration Detention Centre, on the outskirts of Darwin, Susan and her husband – and the other 60 asylum seekers – were issued with identification numbers. They were medically examined and interviewed by immigration officials. For asylum seekers who arrive by boat – known as “illegal maritime arrivals” since a change made by the Abbott government in 2013 – this point of first contact with Australia is a uniformly jarring and frightening experience. It is here that their hopeful, often naive expectations are first broken.

And it was where Susan, already roiling with multiple traumas, experienced a profound ambivalence about Australia: she was grateful for their rescue at sea and medical treatment, but alienated by the prison-like conditions of the centre. She and her husband spent nine months in Northern, before being moved to the Wickham Point Detention Centre, south of Darwin, for another six months – during which time Susan had given birth to her third child. Susan says that, all the while, authorities pressured her and her husband to leave with various inducements.

“I suffer a lot in Wickham Point because they tried to send us back to Nepal,” she says. “They saying that your husband don’t have a good case. They said, ‘We’ll give a big number of money, and we’ll buy a house in India for you guys – why you not go back to India?’ And we said we are not Indian citizens and we don’t have any rights to stay in India – Nepalese people have no rights. They said, ‘We’ll just put you in a plane and we’ll send you back to Nepal and India,’ many, many times. [We] get a lot [of] mental pressure.”

Susan’s mental health declined precipitously. She was prescribed an antidepressant, and experienced periods of profound listlessness and suicidal ideation. She suffered postnatal depression. But there was one positive development: because of the birth of her child, the three of them were transferred to the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre in Melbourne, which, she says, was an improvement. Wickham Point had been especially harsh: “It was like torture centre.”

It’s worth noting here the profound unsuitability of these detention centres for asylum seekers. Almost by definition, those who arrive by boat are propelled by an awesome desperation. They’re very likely to have experienced trauma in their home country and, as with Susan, multiple traumas during the journey here.

Most of the detention centres are privately run by companies who typically manage prisons. They employ security guards with prison backgrounds and the threshold for employment is low.

In total, Susan and her husband spent two years in detention across three centres, with her mental health worsening. Then, despite the early threats of officials – the cynically exaggerated suspicions about the Nepalis’ application – their claim to asylum was approved, as almost all applications by boat-arriving asylum seekers are. They were released into community detention and, after six months on bridging visas, given temporary protection in the form of Safe Haven Enterprise Visas. Following two years in community detention in Melbourne, they moved to Ballarat, in central Victoria, to satisfy the conditions of the visa. It was 2016, and Susan had by then given birth to another child, and maintained contact with her other two children in hiding overseas.

Under immigration law, Susan’s youngest two children – the ones born in Australia – are “temporary visa holders at birth”. They are automatically born into legal indeterminacy. Just one, two, three seconds old… and they’re queue jumpers.

On that day at sea, the roar of the navy’s helicopter drowned out the sound of others’ prayers, but it seemed to have answered Susan’s – just as the smuggler had seemed to answer them a month before. But now Susan was starting to realise, a few years into her punishing limbo, that what seemed like answered prayers were either illusory or impartial.

Susan’s health, and hopefulness, fluctuate. And she vacillates between gratitude and despair. She’s grateful they’ve left detention, she’s grateful for the two children who are with her, and she’s grateful for settling, however contingently, in Ballarat. She’s grateful to work and for her ability to “contribute to the community”.

But really, all this means little when family reunion is prohibited. It means little when almost nine years have passed since she last saw her oldest children. She speaks to them every day but, she says, “it’s not enough. They need their mum and dad, and my mum is old now.”

Those children aren’t old enough to understand why they have no memory of their mother. They’re not old enough to grasp the specifics of the politicisation of Australia’s borders, nor that the method of their parents’ voyage here has prohibited their reunion. And their mother struggled to understand it too for a long time, and now can only rationalise it as a form of punishment. She uses that word a lot.

Today, Susan works in childcare. Specifically, for very young children from troubled homes. In this, there’s something both intimately rewarding and cruel. “I might miss my children, but I give my 100 per cent love to those children who don’t have that much love at home,” she says. “So, I am really enjoying my job. Sometimes I feel sad, and I compare myself whenever I see small babies crawling and the talking and I miss my little daughter. I just think she was maybe doing the same thing. Now she’s very big. I miss all those moments, but I compare everything positively not negatively.”

Susan’s job is one of the things she’s most grateful for. But caring for babies and toddlers – watching and cultivating their developmental leaps – pinches Susan’s guilt for having missed her own children’s. This is just one part of her emotional labour: trying to slow the seesawing between positivity and despair.

Susan finds support and understanding among her local community, but also faces the implacable harshness of the federal government. She finds the ear of knowledgeable and sympathetic lawyers, who have to admit their limitations against that government’s intransigence. And for as long as she’s away from her children that seesawing won’t stop entirely. The job is to slow it. She knows she must remain positive, but there are profound reasons for her not to. Susan and her husband have done what was asked of them to secure their “pathway”. They moved to a regional community, established themselves with work and pay taxes. But they remain estranged from their first two children, while their Australian-born children share their legal limbo, though it will be years before they even know it. “I can’t sleep,” Susan says. “And I can’t dream for my future.”

As a boy in Iran, Mohammed used to be called “Mohandes” by his extended family. It’s Farsi for “engineer”. “I was always passionate about numbers and problem solving,” he says.

This was during a “beautiful stage” of his life, a time before “things went wrong”. Before, as he puts it, “things happened that shouldn’t have happened. I had to flee the country.”

This is as much as Mo – as he prefers to be known – will say about Iran. He was 16 when he fled. He did so alone.

Mo’s passion for numbers survived his journey here. After his release from Christmas Island, he was sent to detention for a year in Hobart, where he insisted he be allowed to study. He was eventually admitted to a college, where he spent part of his day before being returned to detention in the afternoon, in possession of the mathematics textbooks the college allowed him to borrow.

So committed to his studies was he, that Mo says while in detention he contrived ways to better absorb himself in them. “Because we were all in dorms with big numbers of people, it was hard to concentrate. And so I used to request that they would send me to isolation rooms. Because that was my time and I could study. Most people got depressed [in isolation]. But it was my happy place.”

There weren’t many happy places in detention, though. “It was really tough,” Mo says. “I was crying a lot.”

After detention in Hobart came community detention in Sydney. “There were four or five of us in a room. That was my first time in Sydney. I stayed with a few other asylum seekers. That house doesn’t have the most pleasant memories. One kid got drunk and he stabbed me in the hand; he wasn’t that well. I went to hospital and I lost some of the tendons in my hand. I thought: Jesus, this is not ending. It was lonely in hospital. There was no one to visit me. It was my dark comedy.”

Mo was mentally suffering, but he started to catch some breaks. The first, he says, was meeting the youth worker he describes as “the angel of my life”. She helped him get psychological help, as well as participation in an intensive English course, the certification of which allowed his enrolment into Chatswood High School. He picked the “hard” subjects – physics, chemistry, advanced maths – and says the school was very understanding. “If I [was late] because I hadn’t slept, they understood,” he says. “They were flexible. The principal was very nice. She helped me. And from there, a year and half later, I got the news.”

The news was his acceptance into the University of Technology Sydney on a humanitarian scholarship. Mo cried when he heard. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought: The impossible is possible.”

Mo had spent about a month in Indonesia waiting for his passage to Christmas Island by boat. Much like the others in this story, he took a circuitous route to boarding it. Long drives in vans, marches through jungle. “Jesus Christ, the boat was small,” he says. “I thought: Hopefully this isn’t the one we take to Christmas Island … It was pretty shocking. Later, smoke started coming out the back of the boat and one engine had broken down.”

It arrived at Christmas Island in 2013, where Mo was processed and given his ID number. “It was TQN-something,” he says. “But we are not sheep or cows or animals – though animals should have names too. People name their pets.”

Mo says that he was told “every day” that he would be sent to Manus Island. He was initially excited: he thought it was part of Australia. “Then they give us an hour allocation for web browsing – you can talk to family or whatever – and I searched that location and it showed up as what it is, and it’s a detention centre. That was the biggest stress I had at 16. I’d fled my whole country and got to Christmas Island, finally with all the journey that’s happened, and now I see that this is not the last thing – that there’d be a worse place to go to. I got lucky.”

Very lucky. After being sent instead to Hobart and then Sydney, today Mo is a structural engineer. He’s worked on some of New South Wales’s biggest infrastructure projects in recent history, including the Sydney Metro extensions, Parramatta’s light rail and the upgrade of the Pacific Highway. Onsite, he manages subcontractors and budgets, and is responsible for analysing risk. It means early starts and long days, and he loves it.

Mo is proud of what he describes as his “softer” skills: communication, sympathy and respect. He says his journey here, and years in detention, made him grow up fast and helped develop these virtues in conjunction with his “harder” analytical gifts.

He tells the story of working onsite one day in summer, a day when the temperature passed 40 degrees. As one of the site’s engineers, he had an air-conditioned office. This made him uncomfortable, knowing that many labourers were out there in the sun. So, he went out and bought dozens of Icy Poles, packed them in an esky, then walked the 5-kilometre length of the project handing them out to the workers. “People shouldn’t think they’re higher than anyone else because of the position they have,” he says. “And I expect people to treat me the same.”

Mo has recently established a small firm called TQN Personnel, named for the start of his ID number. The idea is to offer work to refugee labourers, including those on temporary protection visas: last month, he employed his first tradie, an Iranian boat person like himself. “Once I got into the construction industry, I started to think about how I can help other people,” Mo says. “I am not the only TQN. It’s about giving back. I can be a voice for the TQNs out there.”

Mo is genial, bright and hard-working, and his story contains an impressive arc. But it’s also more complicated. Leaving his family, the impossibility of reunion and his lingering temporary status weigh upon him. The effects of this can’t be erased by success. “It has a very negative impact on me day to day,” he says. “I have down times, and I can’t perform properly because I’m constantly thinking: What now? What’s my next stage? It’s always back of the head. But I have faith in myself.

“I want Australians to know… I understand we haven’t entered the country in the best way possible, I understand their side, but what I want them to understand is that there shouldn’t be any difference between people who come by boat or those who come by plane. I didn’t have that luxury to come by plane. And I’m now working for the government to achieve big public projects – why can’t I become a resident? It’s frustrating.

“Every few years, I’m asked [by government officials]: ‘Why did you come to Australia?’ Well, it’s the same reason I gave you in Christmas Island, and in Tasmania, and then in Sydney. And still, I’m on a temporary protection visa. That’s what I want people to know. We’re not here to harm. If we wanted to harm, we would have shown our faces by now.

“We want a home. We want to have the flexibility to see family. We want to travel. Maybe my father – touch wood – or my brother, who I really love, is about to die, and I can’t see them. Thinking about that drives me crazy. A friend of mine [also on a temporary visa] didn’t see his mother before she died. I saw how he suffered. I put myself in his shoes.”

Mo says that one thing he’s learnt is that you don’t have to prove yourself to others, only yourself. But he’s wrong. He’s obliged to periodically prove himself to the government, in exchange for another extension of his limbo.

Last month, the federal government suddenly announced a dramatic deadline. Of the now 31,200 people comprising the legacy case load, 1100 are yet to receive their first interview with the Department of Home Affairs – that is, they haven’t even received temporary protection, and have remained on bridging visas that are even more restrictive than TPVs. Now, the government said, all remaining interviews will be conducted by the end of June.

“In theory, this sense of urgency to process these people isn’t a bad thing,” the ASRC’s Jana Favero says. “What’s shocking is that, without any warning or consultation, the department have said they’ll do the remaining interviews in this tight time. It’s a one-thousand-per-cent increase in the number of interviews they’re doing. This puts enormous pressure on the sector – there’s very few people who are qualified to help with this pro bono. And while it seems the department has been planning it for a while – apparently they’ve redeployed people from different parts of the department for it – they haven’t allowed the refugee sector to do the same. The deadline is arbitrary and doesn’t allow applicants to properly prepare for what’s probably the most important interview of their lives.”

What is it about this particular group of 1100 people that, after almost a decade, they have not even been given the chance to put their case for asylum? “There’s no rhyme or reason for why these people haven’t been interviewed,” Favero says. “And we in the sector spend too much time trying to guess why things are done, and trying to come up with a pattern about why some are processed or not, or why others are released from detention or not. The government rarely engage or explain.”

Then, a week later, with the support of Labor, the Migration Amendment (Clarifying International Obligations for Removal) Bill 2021 became law despite the concerns of parliament’s own human rights committee. The bill was introduced to make lawful something the Federal Court had found to be unlawful last year. The government had suspended the visa of a Syrian teenager, who had arrived as a child seeking asylum and had since been convicted of a criminal offence. Accepting he would face persecution back in Syria, and unable to deport him, the government detained him. The Federal Court found that detention to be unlawful, but this new law overwhelms that – and grants the immigration minister the power to indefinitely detain those whose visas have been suspended. The new law, like previous ones, enhances the minister’s discretionary power, and gives them the authority to revoke a person’s refugee status.

When I speak with Mariam – not her real name – she’s just finished a law exam. She’s pretty confident about it, but she’s more sure about what kind of law she’d practise if she graduates – that is, if any firm would hire someone obliged to tick “non-permanent resident” on the employment forms. “Humanitarian law, absolutely,” she says. “That’s why I got into law.”

She’s lucky, Mariam says, to even be studying at university. As a temporary protection visa holder, the law treats her as a foreign student – that is, one denied the HECS-HELP study assistance scheme, who is thus forced to pay the massive sum of fees upfront. This would be impossible but for Mariam having been awarded a scholarship for refugees. “I know people that have the potential to become a lawyer, or doctor, or engineer, but they are not able to apply for study loans,” she says. “I promise you that there are many, many refugees who have the potential to become professionals in the future. I know many people who have been stopped from going to university.”

Mariam speaks spiritedly about her studies, but is angry and despairing that her degree might not matter – that her temporary status narrows her entry to employment. Some firms will make a point of hiring graduates on this kind of scholarship, but many others consider it too risky. The point – the psychic cost – is that Mariam thinks about this all the time. She’s acutely aware of the unusual uncertainty that clouds her future, and of how much harder she needs to work than her peers. Of how much more luck, assistance and persistence she needs.

In 2012, Mariam journeyed by boat to Australia with her mother, father and younger brother. They had fled Iran. She was 13 at the time, her brother just five. Their claims to asylum were recognised, their persecution accepted. Mariam is 22 now, and has spent almost half her life here – for her brother, it’s all the life he remembers. He considers himself Australian, automatically and naturally. It’s not so much pride or defiant assertion, but the simple, reflexive identity of a boy that recalls nowhere else. “It’s not easy for him to understand that he’s not a permanent resident and that he might not have a future here,” Mariam says.

Mariam was on the cusp of adolescence when she boarded the boat. Now, almost a decade later, she has reconsidered – or better understood – her parents’ decision. “They were escaping extreme danger. Perhaps my father thought he was a failure as a parent because of the risks we took, but it was courageous.” The thought of returning sparks anxiety. Iran’s a dark place, she says, “especially for women”.

The uncertainty of her future doesn’t preclude her passionate imagining of it, and in a few years’ time she’d like to have her own children. But, like most things, the prospect is wickedly fraught. Mariam knows her temporariness is transmitted through generations, even if she marries a citizen. Is it smart to have a child? Practical? Ethical? “How am I meant to tell my child that you are not considered a citizen because of the decision of your grandparents? How long is the cycle going to continue?”

Mariam can be a purposeful “fighter” for her destiny, as well as the anguished, uncertain victim of the state’s interminable “punishment”. Neither condition truly prevails. Her emotions are pendulous – understandably so. In a way, Mariam’s fortunate: there are many, many others of her cohort for whom despair has finally prevailed.

“Every day I’m thinking: What would happen if, instead of those people who went to Nauru and Manus Island, they took me?” she says. “And I still have that fear, because I’m not permanent here, and I don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future. The fact that we are in limbo… trust me, it is so mentally distressing. I’m scared that there might be some day that they take my liberty away. Still, after nine years. I mean, it’s just bizarre me even thinking that. What if my next five-year visa doesn’t get accepted? There are so many What ifs? in my head that shouldn’t be there, because I grew up here. I am— I want to consider myself as Australian. I want to, but this just seems like it’s never gonna work.

“Our time, everyone’s time, is the most important thing, right? The government is willingly taking that from us and saying that it’s okay if we keep them in limbo for eight years, nine years, 10 years. And it just goes on and on. And I don’t know when it’s gonna be enough for them.

“I haven’t got it easy. And that’s the beauty of it. I appreciate everything in a different way right now,” Mariam says, now crying. “Living in Australia is amazing. Like, this is a beautiful country. And it’s a dream of mine to be able to call this place home one day. It’s just a dream of mine. I just want to be a part of this place, I want to contribute. That’s all I want. This.”

A week later, Mariam receives her exam result: it’s a distinction.

In the prime minister’s office is a trophy of a boat. It’s a small, laser-cut figure as blunt as the policy it celebrates. In black letters, it reads: “I stopped these.” In 2010, as shadow immigration minister, Scott Morrison also tried to stop an orphaned boy being flown to Sydney to watch the burial of his father, who had been fatally smashed upon the rocks of Christmas Island. His mother and sister had died too, but their bodies weren’t recovered. The boy was nine, and the only surviving member of his family.

In the simple fact of flying this boy to his father’s funeral, Morrison saw an opportunity to wedge the then Labor government, which duly reasserted its tough stance on asylum seekers by insisting the boy be flown back to Christmas Island immediately afterwards. (He was released from detention days later.) Morrison’s attack was grotesque and gratuitous, but he was again betting on Australian meanness.

Last month, after the extraordinary, possibly illegal, threat to jail Australian citizens returning from an India engulfed by the COVID-19 virus, Morrison began walking back his aggression after days of poor press. But lost among this was the fact that most Australians supported shutting the door on its own citizens. Only a week before, the Western Australia premier had popularly declared people should not be allowed to leave the country, even for funerals, under the current pandemic conditions.

These aren’t the words of governments confident in their ability to quarantine small numbers of their citizens more than a year after the pandemic’s outbreak, but the words of governments confident in the manipulable abundance of our fear and vindictiveness. That trusts citizens to ignore government failures and instead train our scepticism upon each other – and then to treat things like mourning and homecoming as reckless indulgences.

And I suspect it works. And if we can popularly criminalise the return of our own citizens, what hope is there for the tens of thousands caught in this punishing state of qualified existence?

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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