Paige Taylor; 14/4/09
Three Sri Lankan fishermen are the first asylum seekers on Christmas Island to be charged with escaping custody after they bolted from the old detention centre last December at the height of the debate over the Rudd Government’s reluctance to use the island’s long-vacant new $400 million high-security centre. The new detention facility, built by the Howard government with security akin to a supermax prison, received its first detainees within days of the escape and recapture of the three Sinhalese Catholic men on December 19. Thusara Warnakulasuriya and brothers Endika and Sumit Mendis roamed the island for 11 hours after scaling a fence and walking away undetected by guards late on December 18 or in the early hours of December 19. They were found mid-morning near the island’s school by Australian Federal Police, who had earlier put up signs in the small community of 1400 people warning: “Three escaped detainees – do not approach.”
From under a Leaky roof – Phil Sparrow, Fremantly Arts Centre Press; 2005, pp109-111
… and into the rain
The stories, interviews, letters, pleas, complaints and surveys that I heard and read in gathering the material for this research together wove a complex tapestry, and drawing out common threads from this has not been easy, academically or emotionally. I have already described the conditions from which Afghans have fled in recent times, their journeys to Australia, their experiences in detention, and the circumstances in which they have found themselves after release.
This chapter disaggregates and describes several consistent and clear threads that repeatedly emerged from the tapestry, and then makes some final reflections on what for many recently arriving Afghan refugees, has been an experience of coming out from under a leaky roof, and into the rain.
Hostility and Prejudice
Considering the events of September 11, 2001, the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002 and elsewhere around the world, the very public advertising of the (ongoing) raids on homes of suspected terrorists and prominent Muslims, and the fears Muslim leaders expressed of public vilification, I expected that occurrences of active prejudice and hostility against new refugees would have featured more prominently in the stories and interviews I heard. This was not the case.
One reason such occurrences were relatively low may have been because of refugees’ unwillingness to speak about or refer to negative experiences.
Several reports by those who were working with Afghan refugees referred to their reticence to criticise: “It was harder to find out about … prejudice because often the refugees, especially the Afghans, would never want to talk negatively about someone. So I am sure that they experienced a lot of that same sort of prejudice that I didn’t hear about”. Interview with WM, 5 August 2002.
My own experience of over three years in Afghanistan and substantial work with refugees in Western Australia and elsewhere supports this. Events, information and issues that reflect badly on, or may jeopardise, an individual’s position tend to be concealed or minimised. Other writers have noted this tendency found amongst Arab-Australians and understand it as a reflection of the need to maintain honour: to reveal that one has been treated badly by others is to dishonour oneself.
This is particularly a feature of first generation refugees. Many newly arrived refugees tend to believe that any complaints they make will end up on their ‘records’ at DIMIA, which compounds their silence.
Police statistics regarding incidents of discrimination or violence in Western Australia are not useful, as information is not kept regarding the victim’s ethnicity.
While some useful guesses could be made if names were available, given the anglicising and misspelling of foreign names that frequently occurs, this would not be reliable.
Another reason for fewer reports of hostility may be to do with the relative visual anonymity of, at least Hazara, refugees.
The physical appearance of many Hazaras is Central Asian, and it is easy to assume they are of Chinese or South-East Asian origin.
It would be interesting to know if incidents of hostility amongst Iraqis were higher, given their more typically ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance.