I was stunned into silence the first time I saw a refugee reach Australian soil; it was a hot Saturday afternoon, February 24, 2007, and I stood with notebook and pen behind a waist-high barricade on the Christmas Island jetty.
The new arrivals smiled and waved. They carried bottled water and wore baseball caps given to them by young navy crew from HMAS Success, which days earlier had rescued them from their stricken vessel. It seemed astonishing that these 82 Sri Lankan men and one boy had made it almost all the way across the deep ocean of the Java Trench in a small wooden boat, and miraculous that they had been plucked to safety. I felt proud these victims of civil war had chosen us and that we would help them.
I cannot be sure of the moment my heart began to harden. It took a long time but I felt I lost my soul a little bit in the next decade. During 17 assignments to Christmas Island, I learned a lot about liars, opportunists and innocent victims while reporting on the more than 50,000 asylum-seekers who reached Australia by boat and the estimated 1200 who died trying.
The idea that an asylum-seeker could be digging for water inside a derelict offshore camp established by my own government would have brought me to tears at one time. But I was wary this month when that bleak scenario was acted out. I was mostly unmoved by the words of men at the old Manus Island camp who refused to move to the new accommodation built for them. Instead, I wondered immediately if refugee advocates had encouraged these wretched souls to hold out.
I am now out of step with — among many others — my union, the organisation of journalism professionals I have served as a volunteer since 2000. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance co-signed a letter to Malcolm Turnbull asking him to bring three Manus Island detainees to Australia: cartoonist “Eaten Fish”, performer Mehdi Savari and journalist Behrouz Boochani. They ended up on Manus because they reached Christmas Island after Kevin Rudd slammed the door on boat arrivals on July 19, 2013. It was already a brutal policy before the Coalition turbo-charged it by putting asylum seekers in orange lifeboats and pointing them towards Indonesia. Genuine refugees such as Boochani missed out on a smooth path to a new life in Australia by a matter of days. They were told on arrival they would be settled in a foreign country and never, ever in Australia. Boochani has responded with defiance, bringing international scrutiny to the plight of the men on Manus through tweets and online reports.
My friends — decent, compassionate people — will be surprised and possibly disgusted to know how I feel.
I had made wrong assumptions from the beginning. The Sri Lankans I saw taking their first steps on to the Christmas Island jetty in 2007 were rescued by the navy, but only after their Indonesian crew sabotaged the boat engine twice. And not everyone on board had sought out Australia as a beacon of humanity — one of the men later told me he had paid to go to New Zealand, which many of his countrymen preferred.
To round out my trifecta of mistaken beliefs during that first wide-eyed attempt at asylum-seeker reporting, it turned out Australia had not wanted to help these men at all. The Howard government tried to send them to Cuba in an elaborate people swap.
The 2007 Tamils were the first large group of asylum-seekers to reach Australia in more than a year. They were taken to a detention camp on the island that held just two Vietnamese men, long-time detainees who spent their days outside the centre gardening for the island council or visiting residents.
Rudd’s landslide victory over John Howard, which I watched on a wall-mounted television at Christmas Island’s open-air pub, the Golden Bosun, on November 24, 2007, changed everything. The island of 1200 permanent residents is a heavily unionised workforce of Labor voters; that night locals told me the boats would come again. They predicted a rush of arrivals like before the Tampa crisis of 2001, which triggered turnbacks and the hated Pacific Solution. I thought they were too cynical. I also thought: “So what? Refugees deserve protection.”
The following July, Chris Evans, the immigration minister at the time, unveiled a more compassionate policy on asylum-seekers, saying Labor “rejects the notion that dehumanising and punishing unauthorised arrivals with long-term detention is an effective or civilised response”.
“Desperate people are not deterred by the threat of harsh detention,” Evans said. “They are often fleeing much worse circumstances.”
In hindsight, it was as good as giving people-smugglers the double thumbs up. Christmas Island began to fill; by the end of 2008 there had been 161 arrivals, in 2009 there were 2557, largely from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. In 2010 6555 people arrived by boat and even Christmas Island’s $396 million immigration detention centre was full, which meant offshore processing was over. The Howard-era detention centre at Curtin in Western Australia’s remote north was reopened and it eventually held 1400 men. New, reopened or expanded immigration detention facilities were eventually needed in every mainland state.
More than 17,000 asylum-seekers reached Christmas Island in 2012 and now many were Iranians. The final year of the Labor government was chaos: 20,711 people arrived by boat, 7678 of whom were Iranians. Five boats in one day is the most I can recall.
I was based in The Australian’s Perth bureau during this extraordinary chapter and I spent many months on Christmas Island documenting the arrivals and listening to the stories of asylum-seekers. Perth was the only Australian city with a commercial service to the tiny Australian territory. The seven-hour flight via Cocos (Keeling) Islands initially ran just twice a week but ramped up to cope with the very big business of detention. Photographer Colin Murty and I were there during three election campaigns, after riots and tragedies at sea.
The first fatality I reported on was in April 2009, not long after the boat trade was re-energised; the vessel had been intercepted by the Australian navy when someone on board deliberately set off an explosion, killing five of the 47 asylum-seekers on it. Then a boat that left Indonesia loaded with asylum-seekers disappeared and was never found. Others were found capsized with desperate people clinging to the hull. Some vessels were not sunk by waves, they were just terrible junk that slipped under the sea in calm weather. By July 2013 there were 4000 detainees on the island and the coffins of the drowned were in my nightmares.
In those years the island was overwhelmed, not so much by the asylum-seekers but by the enormous number of public servants who came to detain and process them. There were hundreds of Australian Federal Police, Customs officials, detention centre guards, ASIO officers, teachers, case workers, cooks and cleaners. The island’s sewerage system failed and began spewing brown liquid on to the pristine reef. Fresh fruits and vegetables were flown in for detainees but they were scarce on the outside — once I saw fresh milk had been airfreighted in and was on sale at the local grocer. I grabbed it before anyone else could and paid $19.95 for two litres.
As well as looking for stories, I often spent hours each day trying to find accommodation. Eventually we got to know locals who agreed to rent us their homes when they were on holidays. One woman let us stay in her unfinished and unfurnished house. We were often the only news outlet on the island.
I began with deep compassion for everyone I met in detention. Among them was Leela, a 19-year-old Sri Lankan journalist who was detained and beaten by Colombo police after his employer, a radio station, broadcast a speech by an LTTE leader. He was bashed again in detention, including by a professional kickboxer at Sydney’s Villawood, an angry man who was waiting to be deported to New Zealand for violent crimes. Leela and I became friends and talked a lot about food, a neutral topic that kept the conversation away from the twin horrors of life in Sri Lanka and in Australian detention. I gave him Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion. He is now a chef in Sydney’s Surry Hills and has bought a second-hand BMW. He is so happy.
A lot has been written about the dire mental health of the men on Manus Island, but people were going mad in the camps on Christmas Island long before anyone was shifted to Papua New Guinea. One detainee dug his own grave and slept in it each night for months. A stateless Kurd nicknamed Spiderman spent an entire month naked in Villawood and threw his faeces at people.
The family “camp” at Christmas Island was every inch a detention centre and it deteriorated into one of the most disgraceful things I have seen — it was overcrowded with kids who had no grass to play on. Due to a falling-out between immigration officials and the local sports club, children could see an oval and playground equipment from their compound but they were not allowed on it.
Guards drank heavily, apparently to cope with stress. Some would phone me at night, horribly drunk, to say they could not stop thinking about the cries of parents whose children had drowned. Detainees befriended the guards, but sometimes they also attacked them (on one occasion by pouring a kettle of hot water over an unsuspecting staff member).
Some male guards were accused of assaulting detainees. Stories of middle-aged female guards flirting with young male detainees were common. It was all so sick and strange, and I suspect everyone knew it. The island’s camps began to wind down when the boats stopped, and from July next year the last of them, the men’s detention centre on the northwest corner of the island, will be empty.
Built by the Howard government and dormant until the run of boats that started in 2008, this centre was a well-appointed hellhole. Groups of male detainees were caught raping, and attempting to rape, the weak. Self-harm became a form of self-expression; one female guard walked into a compound in early 2011 to find a man with his lips sewn and his body strapped high on the fence with his arms out and his feet together “like Jesus Christ or something”. She joined a growing number of colleagues on stress leave.
The centre’s “visiting room” was converted to a ward where up to 20 self-harming detainees were under watch each day. These were the lip sewers, cutters, hunger strikers and men who had tried to hang themselves.
The most dominant personalities in detention were in regular contact with refugee advocates. Greg Lake, a former director of offshore operations, was howled down in 2014 when he told me that asylum-seekers in detention were being coached and encouraged to attempt self-harm by refugee advocates, who then used the incidents as political capital.
Lake has long since left the Department of Immigration and Border Protection — he is a Christian who said he struggled with Australia’s decision to send asylum-seekers to Nauru. But he is watching the debacle on Manus Island closely. “When you see people exploit their victim status to try to get something from Australia, it’s usually a good sign that they’re not the right person for us to take,” he tells Inquirer.
Lake stresses that at the height of the arrivals under Labor, many of the asylum-seekers who arrived by boat were still genuine refugees with heartbreaking stories. But he says opportunism was rife by the time of an influx of middle-class Iranians.
“There were some Iranians who struggled but probably nothing like the proportion who ended up showing up (in Australia),” he says. “A lot of those who came by boat were here to exploit the system and these people don’t deserve the support, frankly. They get in the way.”
A former kitchen-hand at the family camp on Christmas Island told me in 2011 that the wealthiest new arrivals “bossed staff about like servants”. “We have to call them clients, even when they’re throwing their dinner on the ground,’’ he said at the time. “One Iranian guy said, ‘I’m not going to eat this. Do you know how much I paid to come here?’ ”
It seemed to contradict what I thought I knew about asylum-seekers and their motives. I realised there was a misunderstanding in some individuals’ minds about what Australia’s humanitarian intake was for. Some viewed it as a service they had purchased. Being called “clients” by guards and immigration officials reinforced this.
I was shocked when a camp doctor told me “Persian princesses” in the camps were asking for breast enhancements and their husbands requested cosmetic dentistry. Sitting on the beach at Flying Fish Cove, the doctor told me his theory that in Iran people-smuggling agents were selling the lie that the Australian government would happily provide these things as soon as they stepped off the boat. Could this be right? I know I did not try as hard as I should have to pursue stories such as this. I felt the claims were too outlandish, too hard to prove or that they would reflect unfairly on the genuine refugees in detention.
Then in 2013 the former director of medical health services for Australia’s offshore asylum processing network, Ling Yoong, confirmed to the Medical Observer that detainees did, indeed, request Botox, IVF and breast enhancements when they underwent standard medical checks in the camps.
This was all happening as Syrians began to arrive at Christmas Island by boat. Families fleeing a humanitarian crisis that displaced 5.1 million people were in the same camp as a young Iranian woman who told me — through the detention centre fence — that she had been living in Malaysia but decided to come to Australia by boat to pursue a modelling career.
I found it so difficult to believe anyone would risk their life if their life was not already at risk. But I was finding out that they did.
Among the most extreme examples was a British citizen who had no claim to asylum but wanted to live in Australia, and a woman from Russia who arrived with her Afghan boyfriend in 2011 — on the boat ride over she sat on the deck reading a book. In detention, which she initially thought was a hostel, she was shocked to learn from a guard that a few months earlier 50 people had died on a boat like hers that foundered against the cliffs on Christmas Island. Footage of asylum-seekers falling into the sea as that boat broke up in wild weather on December 15, 2010, was a jolt to many Australians.
I looked for a personal story and found nine-year-old Seena Akhlaqi Sheikhdost, who was orphaned that day. In the next two months in detention on Christmas Island, Seena injured himself kicking his bedposts in grief and told other children that his parents were not dead.
On ABC’s Q&A this week, former Labor immigration minister Brendan O’Connor cited that tragedy when he was asked whether the Coalition should accept New Zealand’s offer to take the men protesting on Manus Island. O’Connor — who oversaw the establishment of a temporary morgue on Christmas Island to hold the many drowned — would say only that he believed the offer should be considered. Though he was interrupted several times, O’Connor insisted on making his point that the passengers on that doomed asylum boat in 2010 had left transit countries.
“I saw the bodies of men, women and children and, let me tell you, when they got on that vessel at that point they were not fleeing persecution,” he said. “We have to find a way to stop people embarking on unseaworthy vessels where they kill themselves. That’s why I don’t bring righteousness or sanctimony to this debate. It’s very complicated.”
Amid all this tragedy, I was still looking for happy stories. I found them on “visa days” at the Christmas Island airport where I interviewed freshly released refugees who were suddenly free and on their way to the Australian mainland as permanent residents. It was the loveliest part of the job to speak to people who had found safety and to tell their stories in The Australian. On four occasions that I remember well, newly minted visa-holders waited until immigration officials were out of earshot and warned me frauds were getting visas, too. These people were dobbing, and each of them seemed sincerely concerned about the integrity of the system that had helped them.
Over time, and without noticing it, I became extremely anxious about the prospect of having to report on more drownings. I hated these stories; the raw grief I witnessed on the jetty after a sinking or a capsize had a cumulative effect. I began to wish hard that somebody — anybody — would stop the boats.
An asylum-seeker coffin is light grey steel with a number on it. Sometimes there were so many dead that airport ground crew worker Mark Stein and his colleagues found it quickest to load them on to planes with a forklift, four at a time.
But when baby Abul drowned with almost 100 others between Indonesia and Christmas Island on July 12, 2013, he was placed into a special white coffin with a number on it for his final journey to Melbourne for burial. It was child-sized yet still too big for a 10-week-old baby.
Abul’s parents, Masouma and Ali Jafari, told the horrible story of being tricked by people-smugglers who took $25,000 from them, assured them they would be safe and put them in a rotting boat. Masouma and Ali saved three of their four children as rescuers drew near but the baby was torn from them; when the family was delivered to dry land, Masouma had an empty baby carrier strapped to her chest. A female guard put an arm around her.
Sometimes there was a miracle amid the misery — baby girl Raha was one. After another asylum boat sank on July 16, 2013, navy crew members from HMAS Warramunga spotted her floating face down in the water. They pulled Raha into a rigid inflatable boat and saved her life.
“The baby was unresponsive and the boat crew immediately commenced CPR,” the navy later confirmed in an emailed response to my questions about the girl locals called “the miracle baby”.
Raha had stopped breathing again on the way to the navy vessel and the crew had again revived her. Her 30-year-old mother was never found, nor were 10 others in their party. As Raha was transported to Christmas Island hospital with her two young sisters and their father, Sudollah, the bodies of four drowned adults from Raha’s boat were placed in a refrigerated sea container near the town swimming pool.
I worked hard to get the details of this rescue. Trying to be hopeful as ever, I wanted to produce something uplifting. The navy heroes deserved it, I told myself, and it was truly amazing that she survived. But moments before I filed the story I looked again at the photograph that would accompany my words and I wondered what on earth I was thinking. It showed beautiful Raha in her father Sudollah’s lap on the Christmas Island jetty. He was ashen-faced and staring straight ahead. His three girls had just lost their mother. His wife was dead. This was not the dream they had been sold.