'I just want to lead a normal life like everyone else in this room.' Sobs rack his body as he pleads with the immigration officer on whom his fate largely depends.
It is hard to believe that this nondescript civil servant has so much power. Clad in a jumper, briefcase in tow, he looks more like a suburban accountant than an authority figure.
Yet, under the Fast Track Assessment process now being used to clear the backlog of protection claims, he, or a fellow Australian Immigration and Border Protection officer, will most likely be the one to decide whether the trembling man seated opposite him will be allowed to stay, albeit temporarily, or forced to return 'home' or to a 'safe third country' where he has 'right of entry'.
'Should you be found not to engage Australia's protection obligations, the government may share your biographical details with the authorities of your country of origin,' the official intones.
'If you give them information about me I will be killed,' comes the chilling reply.
His support person can do nothing. She is not allowed to speak. Sitting beside the man she has come to consider a friend, she hopes that somehow she can give him the strength to endure this ordeal. As he strives to answer the probing questions about his tormented past, his growing distress is evident. He cannot help but relive the harrowing experiences of his youth.
'Is this you?' the official asks, thrusting a document in front of him. The photo is of a young, proud and handsome man. 'You look very different now.'
The support person asks permission to leave the room to bring him some tissues. Upon returning, she sits there, hand over mouth in shock. While she has been visiting him in detention for six months, he has never told her the extent of his family's suffering under the Iranian regime.
"She asks a guard if he can see his psychologist, and fortunately, her request is granted. A fellow applicant was not so lucky: told after his interview that he was to be moved to Christmas Island, he slit his throat."
True, he had shared memories of the Iran-Iraq War, recalling rockets and warplanes overhead and being bundled into an open car boot with his siblings as the family made their escape. His hometown of Khorramshahr in Khuzestan Province, located in southwestern Iran near the Iraq border, was devastated, the 1986 census recording no one remaining from a pre-War population of about 150,000.
He had told her that Ahwazi Arabs — the largest Arab minority in Iran, who reside predominantly in resource-laden Khuzestan — are marginalised as impoverished, second-class citizens. Their oil-rich and fertile ancestral lands are expropriated without compensation, and their water supply diverted and polluted, depriving them of clean drinking water, even though they live in one of the hottest populated places on earth.
But she did not know about the arrest, torture and public execution of family members; the beatings he endured — to the point that his own mother did not recognise him — and his jail sentence for fighting for his people's political, economic and cultural rights; the hiding from authorities; his desperate escape when, helped by friends, he fled by plane to Malaysia and then by boat to Indonesia and on to Australia. By then, he no longer had a passport, Malaysian people smugglers having broken their promise to return it. He recalls the 14-day passage to Australia as a nightmare: seriously ill from the diesel fumes, he was grateful to be rescued by the Australian Maritime Authority and taken to Christmas Island.
As far as the Australian Government is concerned, that fateful journey deems him to be an 'illegal maritime arrival'. Fast Track is expressly for the approximately 30,500 'people who arrived illegally by boat' between August 2012 and December 2013. They are the lucky ones, who can still be invited to apply for a temporary protection visa. Those who arrived later will not be granted a visa at all.
The immigration official claims to know about the Ahwazi Arabs' plight, and is more interested in whether he can provide 'genuine, original' documented evidence of his 'identity, nationality and citizenship'. After all, this is probably his only chance to provide his protection claim in full.
Alternating between Farsi and English, he does his best to comply, producing a file, which the migration agent sitting next to him has helped to compile. He knows he is fortunate: only those assessed as 'exceptionally vulnerable' are now eligible for legal funding. When he has difficulty understanding, he relies on the translation provided by the interpreter seated at the end of the table. Coolly elegant, the young, sophisticated woman, originally from Teheran, seems worlds apart from her fellow countryman, with little in common aside from their shared language.
In contrast, the support person recalls having an immediate affinity with this charming, soft-spoken man whom she visits each week. Enriched by their friendship, she admires his resilience, his efforts to improve, learning English and updating his professional qualifications online. Yet, as he often reminds her, 'You have the advantages of education and freedom.'
Finally, the interview ends. He is emotionally spent. The process has been respectful, if dispassionate, his story finally heard. Promising to send the required character references, he gets up to return to his room. The support person cannot leave him like this: he is too vulnerable, his reopened wounds too raw. She asks a guard if he can see his psychologist, and fortunately, her request is granted. A fellow applicant was not so lucky: told after his interview that he was to be moved to Christmas Island, he slit his throat. 'There's only so much a person can take,' he explained while recovering.
Weeks pass in a flurry of activity as final documentation is supplied. Intended to process claims 'more efficiently', Fast Track only allows limited time to respond.
Gradually he stops asking for advice. Life returns to what passes as normal in the surreal world of the detention centre. He resumes his activities — exercise, reading, eating, sleeping — some detainees call it 'time-wasting' — while he waits in limbo.
Fear of uncertainty still troubles him: what if his application is refused? She strives to offer comfort: under Fast Track, he may still get a second chance, with some rejected claims referred for limited review by the recently established Immigration Assessment Authority. Hopefully, he will be recognised as a refugee and granted a temporary visa. Then he too will be able to realise his dream to live in freedom, if only for a short while. For as the government constantly reminds us: 'Settlement in Australia will never be an option for anyone who travels illegally by boat.'
Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor, passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing. A former journalist, she previously taught French and worked in publishing.
Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.
Roy Chen Yee
12 August 2016
" 'I just want to lead a normal life like everyone else in this room.' " The writer is an artist with words. But what if she worked with visuals, and painted a scene - perhaps a view into the room somewhat like Hopper's Nighthawks (although the colloquialised 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' would seem, in this context, to be the apt title) in which, a distinct possibility nowadays even in a country that is supposedly 85% to 92% Caucasian, none of the persons in the room are white, not the migration agent, not the nondescript civil servant?
13 August 2016
Excellent work, Shira Sebban!! and good on you Eureka Street for publishing this important piece. I hope readers will reflect on the fact that the man described in the article may still be sent back to his torturers, even though he has been able to document his case so well. This shows that the immigration department's processes are FARCICAL
15 August 2016
How can any Australian not be moved by this story? Moved and shamed? But we need to keep hearing these facts and should be grateful for those who write and publish them. Surely, change will come ....
15 August 2016
What a lovely piece of writing Shira Sebban. I don't know that my tear ducts needed such a flushing so early in the day, but, ... oh well.
Thank you for your article. I relate especially to your : " While she has been visiting him in detention for six months, he has never told her the extent of his family's suffering under the Iranian regime..." & , " ... his desperate escape when helped by friends, he fled by plane to Malaysia and then by boat to Indonesia and on to Australia. By then, he no longer had a passport, Malaysian people smugglers having broken their promise to return it. He recalls the 14-day passage to Australia as a nightmare..." I visit MITA on a Friday these last few years & these themes are only too common.
The greatest cruelty - how the 'f' does one measure such matters ? - we visit upon these human beings is rip them from their families - in Geelong, Narre Warren etc - AFTER that have been previously released & throw them BACK into detention ... because some ASIO person decides that they are a security risk, or some such 'explanation'.
15 August 2016
Perhaps I have misunderstood Roy Lee Chen? What would the problem be if none of the agents in the room were white? (Perhaps there would be more understanding and a more nuanced approach?)
The humane treatment of desperate, traumatised human beings does not depend on colour - though one must hope that the example modelled and practised by predominantly white Australian bureaucrats and politicians will not be viewed as a template for other nations to emulate. Shame on us all.
15 August 2016
Deeply disturbing story Shira.
I have travelled widely in my time but nothing I have seen or witnessed compares with these stories. What can we are individuals do? I just hope that sometime soon, sanity prevails.
15 August 2016
Hi Shira, What a pity that those in power can't experience the trauma they are inflicting on so many others. I feel upset every time one of them come out with the "excuses" for their rotten behaviour against those so much less fortunate than they and their complete lack of sympathy and decency.
15 August 2016
Thank you for your well written article Shira. Where is our country's humanity ? Requiring traumatized people like this asylum seeker to re-live his horrific experience by telling his story in full should mean he automatically has access to a psychologist afterwards. It is not right that he has to wait for a long time for some decision on his case.
15 August 2016
Thank you Shira for your article and human response, I feel with shame and anger that the fast track process is just another way for the officers of the Government to destroy refugees who have already suffered greatly.
15 August 2016
Thank you Shira, and thank you to Eureka Street for continuing to draw our attention to the plight of asylum seekers. I am prompted by your article to write yet another letter to my local member and ministers - despite being able to paper our walls with the bland replies (e.g. "this is a complex issue...")
Keep writing Shira, and ES keep publishing.
15 August 2016
Can anyone fairly assess any refugee claim given the shadow of our Government's determination to not accept any boat people as that would encourage more "people smuggling"?
Are these assessments fair dinkum or just a sham?
Roy Chen Yee
16 August 2016
"passionate about exploring the challenges life throws at us through her writing." We could read this article as the challenge thrown to a rich (and, implied within the usual criticisms, white-racist) country by those "seeking to engage [its] protection obligations." It could also be read as a challenge to local Muslim theorists to explain why an Ahwazi Arab Shia (as, apparently, most are) cannot engage the protection obligations of his native Shia confessional state or, if he is a Sunni, cannot engage the moral, if not legal, protection obligations of the two other South-East Asian Sunni states he had to make his way through, or the closer Sunni confessional states that exist across a narrow strip of water from his native country, that it takes an ‘infidel’ land to save his skin. The man might be grateful now but there is an eventual risk that the standing rebuke, experienced daily, that an 'infidel' country can offer refuge to a Muslim seeking to be loyal to his faith when his own confessional states won't will cause a dissonance that opens up vulnerabilities to radicalisation. And what has a de-Christianising socially liberal Australia got to offer as spiritual salve? Learn to osmote the new orthodoxy that peace is the absence of 'binary' or 'normative' truth instead of the active presence of God.
20 August 2016
Thank you for your heart breaking article. I have seen 'migration people' at work and sadly there is nothing about justice visible.
Most Australians would have no idea of the real and horrific suffering of people applying for protection of the Australian Government. especially those informed bythe Murdoch press. Thank you again for your article and i hope like any person with compassion his application is successful and his gaping wounds are given a chance to heal with hope.