Groundhog Day for refugees


Woomera Detention CentreIt is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. The asylum seeker debate and its 'solutions' illustrate our Government's failure to remember the inhumanity and damge caused by the original — now resurrected — Pacific Solution. But many Australians, particularly previous detainees, have not forgotten.

In March 2002 I was about to do my rounds of the dusty, heat soaked camp that is the Woomera Detention and Reception Centre — where I was employed as a psychologist — when the men in black suits arrived. I recall the image of those men standing in that environment of razor wire, dust and heat, so conspicuous that I exclaimed to the guard beside me: 'Who are those guys?' They were also attracting the uneasy attention of the detainees.

The men had come on a mission from Canberra to 'encourage' Afghan refugees to go home 'voluntarily'. Their brief was to present them with a choice of unending detention or repatriation and $2000. It had the ring of an offer that they could not refuse.

Ten years later $2000 has become a $3000 package and 18 refugees from SriLanka are reported to have chosen to go home rather than accept processing in Nauru. Some commentators are now asking whether they gave fully informed consent. For my part, I confess to feeling skeptical about the use of the word 'chosen', and outrage at Minister Chris Bowen's declaration that this is a signal that 'Nauru is working'.

The asylum seeker dilemma just won't die away, being a political windfall for the Opposition, and a poison ball that the current Government wants to surreptitiously dump. We are finding ways to circumvent our obligations under the Geneva Convention and our own Immigration Act.

The National Post recently recalled a case from May 1939 in which a ship, the MS St Louis, carrying 907 German Jews 'seeking a place to escape persecution' was 'shunned first by Cuba and then by America'.

Canada, too, rejected the refugees: 'none is too many', an unidentified immigration agent said of the Jews aboard the ship  . The St Louis was within two days of Halifax Harbour. Despite the pleas of the captain and the suicidal distress of passengers the ship eventually returned to Germany, and to death for many of the refugees.

Apparently the relatively small numbers of people fleeing to our shores are also too many.

Yet I am flooded with memories of the Bakhtiari family's deportation on Boxing day in 2004, coincidentally on the day of the Asian Tsunami. This was a high profile case where the father had originally been granted asylum but his wife and 4 children, who had arrived separately, were denied refugee status.

When this anomaly was revealed it was 'rectified' by a reappraisal of the refugee status granted to the father. Refugee and asylum seeker expert Dr David Corlett has tracked those returnees and more. Many came to harm. So too, Phil Glendenning of the Edmund Rice Centre has tracked 225 refugees returned to 22 countries and found that many have been returned to the persecution from which they fled.

It is a violation of the Geneva Convention to return refugees to a place where they will be in harm's way.

In March 2002 I spent hours conversing with Afghanis, Iranians, Palestinians and Iraqis on hunger strikes. These are the desperate actions of people who feel they have no power except that of using their bodies to convey their message of despair. There were daily suicide attempts.

I am not the only health professional to predict that the proposed indefinite incarceration of asylum seekers in a remote location in an attempt to deter others will create the same destructive circumstances. I hope that the news tomorrow will be better and that we will awaken from this Groundhog Day experience.

Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a psychologist who has advocated for refugees. 


Topic tags: Lyn Bender, asylum seekers, refugees, nauru, Pacific Solution



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Existing comments

If Chris Bowen were to go on a hunger strike as a symbolic act to prevent the boats coming, I might start to believe that he was serious in his 'concerns', but he is no more serious than Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard is. And where does that leave the rest of the population of Australia, those who bay for their freedom from the swamping of 'boat people' to our shores, egged on by our media?
janice wallace | 26 September 2012

Extraordinary that, after years of fear and persecution that necessitated abandoning all possessions, the land of one's heritage, extended family and using up material monetary resources to run great risks with one's own life and the lives accompanying him/her on a dangerous sea voyage to an unknown land, the major psychological problems that those who have been returned to the land of origin suffer are due to the inhumane way in which Australia has treated them after arrival here. ( And that despite the fact according to Corlett that they now reside in the land of origin free to be interviewed by him and without imprisonment and persecution). Sounds like some Alice in Wonderland fairytale.
john frawley | 26 September 2012

Over recent years we have seen past cases of inhuman treatment exposed, followed by the wringing of hands and apologies (e.g. abuse by clerics, the stolen generation, migrant children). In the case of the treatment now of refugees, while both the extreme inhumanity of it and its illegality under international law are quite clear to all, our government persists. Presumably some government in the future will issue a tearful apology. We could avoid that.
Brian Finlayson | 26 September 2012

Amanda Hodge followed the Sri Lankans home and discovered that most did not get any money.
Marilyn | 26 September 2012

.....and we expect that we've got a shot at a permanent seat on the UN Security Council! Thanks for being a voice crying out in the wilderness, Lyn!
Michelle Goldsmith | 26 September 2012

What is wrong with our country???
Where are the voices of outrage at the inhumane attitude towards refugees, from both sides of our Govt.Is it utterly selfish, and morally wrong,to imprison (for an indefinite period)those pleading for help, as they try to escape suffering and persecution?
Can we demonstrate in our many thousands, our opposition to such unjust and degrading behaviour.
I am guessing there must be many in this country who are appalled at the current situation.
How can we put public pressure on our Govt?
How can we state , we do not accept the way refugees are being treated.
Let us have an enormous public demonstration, demanding our Govt. acts with integrity and compassion, and that they discontinue the practise of imprisoning innocent people.
To like minded people.... we have started with words .. let us now 'put our money where our mouth is'' and do something.
Any takers???
bernie Intronna | 26 September 2012

I arranged my first rally in 2002, we have gone back to 1938 in the last month.
Marilyn | 27 September 2012

Thank you Lyn,
You have answered questions I have asked of myself and others over a long period. I recall when I was writing to the Afghani detainees in Nauru, some returned, and I wondered what might have happened to them.I have recently read a fiction book which dealt with the MS St Louis' cargo of 907 Jewish refugees. I cannot fathom the inhumanity shown by the world at that time. Your voice must be heard. It gives credibility to the reality.
patricia Taylor | 27 September 2012


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