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Young man burned by Australia's detention hell

Lisa Stewart |  25 September 2016


In the early hours of Wednesday morning, 21 September 2016, a young asylum seeker was forcibly removed from the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre (MIDC) in Victoria — with little notice, and no opportunity to say goodbye to friends or to let them know what was happening or where he was going.

Painting of screaming asylum seeker behind wireWith barely time to scramble his possessions together, he was taken away, placed on a plane and, along with four others, transferred to the high security detention facility on Christmas Island — one of the island hellholes we Australians use to warehouse our unwelcome refugees and asylum seekers. Why? Because he's done something wrong? Because he's a criminal? No. Just because that's the way we now do things here.

I have met with this remarkable young man on a weekly basis for the last year as a visitor to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) centre in Broadmeadows. I have come to know him well, and I can tell you this: he is solid gold.

He is, to put it quite simply, one of the kindest souls you could hope to encounter. I've had many conversations with him over the past year and, despite his own deep difficulties, they have all invariably circled around his love and care and concern for others: his family, his friends, his country, and ours.

In that pressure-cooker environment of the detention centre, he has kept his calm and helped to instil it in others. His is a peaceful, gentle presence. He is young in years, but has a composure, wisdom and grace about him that makes him seem much older.

He has spent the endless time in detention — time that could understandably be lost and wasted in despair and self-pity — mentoring and supporting those detained with him. A former roommate at MITA has described him to a friend as 'being like a father' to him.

He is also a gifted artist. He participated in a little art exhibition organised early this year for a small group of artists from MITA and he produced some of the most powerful and poignant images of the show.

He was also pivotal in encouraging the others to rise above the deadening apathy and despair detention breeds to produce some wonderfully creative work. He was not granted permission to attend — none of them were — but his spirit permeated the whole exhibition.


"My friend sailed straight into our cruel practice of indefinite detention, in one of the most inhospitable places you can imagine: Manus Island. He hasn't liked to speak much of what happened there. I shudder to think."


And what of our nation's spirit? What spirit permeates our current 'border protection' approach to asylum seeker policy-making? What is it in us, in our shared culture, that has turned us from an attitude of care and compassion for these most vulnerable of people to one of punitive incarceration with little to no hope of release? These are questions that demand answers of us all. We have done a great deal of harm. We have robbed people like my friend of their basic and fundamental human right to seek asylum, to ask for our protection and support.

After a harrowing journey away from danger in his place of origin, my friend sailed straight into our cruel and uncompromising policy and practice of indefinite detention, in one of the most inhospitable places you can imagine: Manus Island. He hasn't liked to speak much of what happened there. I shudder to think. What I do know is that he eventually came to our Australian shores deeply traumatised to receive medical treatment and care. We then compounded his suffering with the cruel and constant threat of being returned to Manus. Well, that threat is now his reality. No, not Manus, this time — another hellhole.

It is hard not to feel despair in the face of brutal policies implemented by what seems an implacable bureaucracy, and a leadership that lauds these policies as something of a gold standard to which the rest of the world should aspire. Hope, when it comes, is inspired by the courage and resilience of these people we treat so shabbily, not least that of my friend. Peace to you, brother.


Lisa StewartRev Lisa Stewart is a Uniting Church minister and regular visitor at MITA.

Main image: One of the paintings from the Over the Fence art exhibition.


Lisa Stewart

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Submitted comments

A beautiful tribute to a beautiful young man. Yes it is hard not to despair as we witness this persecution of people.

Pamela 26 September 2016

We get to this because the lazy claim we must compromise away some rights of refugees so that the purists who believe in the rule of law, like me, will shut up. We do this because our lazy media are too ignorant to report that it's not people smuggling when people seek asylum, there is no law in the world that says people cannot use just one form of transport to safety and no law that says they can't pay for it. We do this because the media convince us we are brutal and racist cowards and the politicians are too ignorant and lazy to have the guts to say we aren't so they pander to the racists instead. Meanwhile rape, human trafficking, murder is now the norm and they still peddle the lie that it's world's best practice.

Marilyn 26 September 2016

Thanks for this Lisa . It's been a great sadness to see what has happened. He's such a lovely person,always with a smile .

HelenStagoll 26 September 2016

I didn't know about this most recent incident of illegal people trafficking. How terrible. I plan to visit MITA on Wednesday.

Stephen Clendinnen 26 September 2016

I would have thought it was unAustralian once., but no this act is definitely Australian.

Liz 27 September 2016

When I read this sane and restrained, albeit incisive, article I realised how polarised the debate on illegal arrivals/refugees in this country has become. Even the words I/you choose to discuss the matter in can be polarising. Whatever one's opinion on the matter we do not need to have dubious detention centres of the sort you refer to.

Edward Fido 27 September 2016

At least he knows you cared and held and continues to hold his heart in your hands.

Margaret van eyk 27 September 2016

This is terrible. Thank you Lisa for sharing this with others. Thank you or the pastoral care you have given to this young man. We pretend that we are only at war in Syria when we are at war in many places including in Australia. We are not at war: we murder those who resist.

Ian Weeks 27 September 2016

I read this article with such a heavy heart and wonder why our government can have such barbaric and heartless practices in place. What can the average person do about this?

Lois Goodin 28 September 2016

Can you get him sent to Canada? We might be able to help.

Mary 03 October 2016

Lois, I think the first thing we can do is go ask for the current Minister of Immigration to be replaced. The job is a demanding one and calls for someone who displays both intelligence and compassion.

Jo 03 October 2016

I too share the desire to free these people we have so wronged as soon as possible our nation should be ashamed of itself for the crime committed in our name

sue clegg 03 October 2016

Unfortunately the plight of this young man is just one example of the arrogance that the Australian body politics displays towards Human Rights of those who are a part but have no part. Unfortunately this dominant train of thought and policy is endemic within mainstream Australia both within the general population as well as political environments a trend that is increasing in scale driven by a lack of understanding of history and empathic acknowledgement of memory. As a nation of diverse peoples we need to be more engaged with processes that affect our lives and not accept the apathetic attitudes that let our politicians engage with the people only at election times. On the other hand in troubled times one often sees demons where there are none. Only a presumption of intelligence and equality can overcome such thoughts prerequisites which enables fair and reasonable decision making.

Jeffrey Morrall 03 October 2016

Thank you for this up close and personal description. I wonder if he was removed BECAUSE he was such a fine example of humanity? It's easier to demonise people one doesn't know/know about. How much richer our community would have been if he had been IN the community all this time. Why don't we/can't we get stories like this in the mainstream media?

Patricia Hayward 03 October 2016

Thankyou for sharing this story Lisa. Is there anything we can do to support this young man? One feels so totally helpless in the face of such evil.

Anne Shay 03 October 2016

This story fills me with shame and I could weep buckets of tears. Thank you Lisa for what you offered this young man and your sensitive telling of the reality of our cruel treatment of refugees .

JOB 03 October 2016

Thank you for letting us know. I would not have known otherwise

peter moylan 03 October 2016

Lisa, in telling these stories of the people you meet in the Detention Centres, managed on our behalf by this amoral Government and with the tacit support of the lame Opposition is one way of keeping the issue in the public domain. Thank you for your action and the eloquence of your telling.

Rod 03 October 2016

I cannot describe the feelings that I have about visiting MITA. My heart broke to read about your lovely friend. How CAN people professing to be Christian do this to others. I am ashamed to be an Australian. I am 70 years old. Never in my life have I had this helpless hopeless ashamed feeling, never in my life. I go every week I can to visit my friends there! My daughter makes a cake and we eat nuts and talk. They welcome me as if to their homes. Not to their awful prison. I feel that the staff are as ashamed as I am!! cannot look me in the eye, they see my disgust I am sure. Innocents tortured. How CAN this government make the staff do this!!! disgrace.

Helen Fox 03 October 2016

Re: Mary's comment that you may be able to assist with getting him to Canada - I have refugee friends on Manus who are looking to go to Canada if they can as the alternative to relocating to a city in PNG - would appreciate some assistance to guide them through the process. Any help is appreciated. Thanks

Catherine 04 October 2016

When you have met this man it is hard to believe that such a terrible thing could happen to him in this country of Australia.

Rosemary 04 October 2016

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