My latest article on how asylum seekers are treated in our detention centres

Forging friendships in adversity

By Shira Sebban – posted Wednesday, 31 August 2016

They are a disparate, albeit tight-knit group. Laughing and chatting, they take up an entire long table, crowded together, as they eat their chicken curry customarily with their hands, the delectable aroma wafting through the air of the low security reception area.

The chef sits among them, her long, green manicured nails gleaming. The loyal, indefatigable partner of one of the detainees, she visits him and their friends daily, bringing in the traditional Sri Lankan Tamil dishes, which she cooks at home so they can enjoy a communal meal … until she was banned from Villawood Immigration Detention Centre for a month. Her crime? Apparently, she was preparing such generous quantities that the men could not finish all the food. Reluctant to let it go to waste, they were trying to sneak the leftovers into their rooms, which is against centre rules.

“Never mind,” she tells me when I commiserate with her, “I’ll be able to get some rest now”. Over the next month she continues to prepare the curries as usual, only now giving them to a friend to take in on her behalf.

Once, arriving early, I enter the reception area to find myself surrounded by a sea of welcoming faces. I am accompanying their queen, after all, who is temporarily on crutches following surgery. This is her first visit after ten days convalescing alone at home, supported by nuns and church group volunteers: Having befriended her at the centre, they have been driving her to medical appointments and bringing her meals several times a week.

Apologising for not having responded to messages, she explains her phone was stolen, a thief having broken into her apartment. Still unable to cook, she has brought in three pizzas and a couple of small plastic bottles of coke for the detainees to enjoy, complying with centre requirements restricting the amount of liquid allowed.

A guard approaches. “Are all these people on your list?” she asks officiously. Detainees are only allowed into the reception area if their names are recorded on a visitors application form at least 24 hours ahead of time, with a limit of four detainees per visitor. “There are only two of you and there are far too many Indians in this room.” She gestures to the crowd of men waiting patiently behind the glass door behind us. “They’ll have to wait until someone else arrives.”

A few minutes later, she returns with the identity card of a Middle Eastern man whom I recognise. “Is he on your list too?” she asks. An affirmative response makes no difference – he still has to wait until the next visitor arrives before being allowed to join us.

One of the Tamil detainees has grown a heavy beard since my last visit. Normally impeccably neat, I originally did not feel comfortable asking this slender, soft-spoken man why he is no longer shaving, only to discover that this is his way of protesting: Try as he might, he has been unable to obtain security clearance to visit a lonely Sri Lankan friend, confined to a psychiatric hospital. The following week, the beard has vanished: a fellow detainee has told him his appearance is not appropriate in polite company, although permission to visit his friend has still not been granted.

Visitors and detainees alike, hailing from across the third world, gather to sing happy birthday to the queen’s partner. The church volunteers have baked a cake – cream sponge covered in hundreds and thousands – multiculturalism is alive and well in the detention centre too.

The young couple joins in the celebrations. They have been separated by the Immigration Department for over 18 months since he was detained, his temporary bridging visa cancelled for having ostensibly breached the Code of Behaviour.

Depicted as a promise to respect Australian laws and values, the Code, which “all adult illegal maritime arrivals” must sign, was first introduced in late 2013 to alleviate concerns that asylum seekers on bridging visas were allegedly committing criminal offences. It describes how they are expected to behave, expressly stipulating, for example, that asylum seekers not “engage in any anti-social or disruptive activities that are inconsiderate, disrespectful or threaten the peaceful enjoyment of other members of the community”.

In other words, unlike Australian citizens, an asylum seeker can be detained for anything from a traffic infringement to spitting in public or hosting a noisy party.

Once detained, it can take a long time for a case to go through the courts. Even if an asylum seeker is ultimately found to be innocent, they still need to apply for a new visa, involving an interview, more paperwork and indefinite waiting.

One day, hopefully life will resume once more – with one difference: the couple plans to take in at least one of the other men they have befriended in detention. As 19th century English Reverend Charles Caleb Colton said: “The firmest friendships have been formed in mutual adversity, as iron is most strongly united by the fiercest flame.”

About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children’s school.

Other articles by this Author

» Uniting the generations – November 15, 2013
» For the joy of it – June 24, 2013
» Making the most of life – May 22, 2013
» Living between the devil and the deep blue sea – February 21, 2013
» The life in our years – February 5, 2013

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My article about helping the family of failed Vietnamese asylum seekers published in the Guardian

Australian immigration and asylum Opinion
We’re a disparate group of Australians doing the work our government won’t
Shira Sebban

When I heard that a woman who attempted to seek asylum in Australia but had her boat returned to Vietnam was about to be sent to jail, leaving her kids with no parent and facing life in an orphanage, I started a crowd fund

Mrs Loan and her youngest daughter selling fruit in the market
‘Tran Thi Thanh Loan earns a few dollars a day by buying fruit from local orchards, which she sells in front of her parents’ home.’ Photograph: Supplied by Shira Sebban

Wednesday 24 August 2016 15.27 AEST Last modified on Friday 26 August 2016 09.21 AEST
The four children of a Vietnamese woman, who will be sent to jail for trying to seek asylum in Australia, were set to be forced to leave school and live in an orphanage. But the Australian people have done something the Australian government couldn’t – or wouldn’t – and have raised enough money to ensure the children can stay at school and be cared for by relatives.

The mother of the children, failed asylum-seeker Tran Thi Thanh Loan, is set to begin a three-year jail sentence imposed by the Vietnamese government for helping organise an “illegal departure” to Australia in the family-owned fishing boat last year. Their father, Ho Trung Loi, is already serving a two-year sentence following the attempt to seek asylum in Australia – in a jail seven hours’ drive from the family’s home – and is not due for release until mid-2017.

Loan recently lost her appeal for leniency on the basis of being the sole carer of her four children, aged from 4 to 16. Maintaining that no one in her family could afford to look after them, she was told they should leave school and go to an orphanage.

“They have been crying a lot and clinging to me,” she told the Australian. “My youngest child keeps saying ‘Mummy, don’t go’. My older children are worried. They feel the pressure and are scared of having neither parent around. They have asked if they can be sent to prison with me.”

I could not bear the thought of this family suffering even more and did not want to see them further torn apart. So I decided to try and contact the family’s lawyer, Don An Vo, in Vietnam to ask him how much it would cost each month in order for the extended family to care for the children until their father’s release from jail next year.

The family was among the 92 Vietnamese asylum seekers intercepted in two separate incidents by the Australian navy last year. Assessed at sea and found not to warrant protection, they were forcibly returned after the Australian government received written assurance from its Vietnamese counterpart that returnees would not be punished. Several members of the two groups have since been incarcerated.

Mrs Loan's children with their new school purchases

The children of Tran Thi Thanh Loan, pictured with their new school purchases made from funds provided by a crowd fund in Australia. Photograph: Tran Thi Thanh Loan
According to Loan, the family originally left because the state had seized their land, they had lost their livelihood due to Chinese incursions into fishing grounds, and also because of institutionalised discrimination against Catholics. While Australian authorities claim they were fairly assessed, she said that a translator was not provided for the group, none of whom spoke English. They only realised they were being returned when they reached port in Vietnam.

Via Facebook and the help of a friend of the family’s lawyer, I was able to get in touch with Vo and Loan. Initially, Loan was too embarrassed to accept any help, but finally convinced by her lawyer, she calculated that her children’s living and education expenses amount to 7,000,000 Vietnamese dong per month, which is roughly equivalent to AUD$425, or about $5,000 for the year. But there was another complication – she did not have a bank account and would need to open one before I could send the first monthly payment.

There have been several reports in the media about these failed asylum seekers being sent to prison despite assurances to Australian officials they would not be punished. So far, the Australian government seems not to have done anything about this injustice. Indeed, Australian authorities have continued to return Vietnamese intercepted in the Timor Sea. That’s why I decided I had to step in.

I had never believed before that one person could really make a difference. But social media has changed that. Earlier this month, I launched an online fundraising campaign for Loan’s children, with the target amount of $10,000 in order to ensure not only that they are well provided for but also that their parents are able to get back on their feet once they are released from jail. We are well on the way to achieving our goal. We are a disparate group from various cultural backgrounds and walks of life doing the work that our government won’t.

Loan has told me that she and her children are currently living with her parents after her house was destroyed and land confiscated by the Vietnamese government. She earns a few dollars a day by buying fruit from local orchards, which she sells in front of her parents’ home until lunchtime. She moves to another site in the afternoon, for which she pays rent, in order to sell the rest at a lower price because it is no longer as fresh. The good news is she has just been granted a temporary reprieve, her sentence delayed for one year until her husband is released from jail.

“Your help and kindness has made me feel much more confident and less stressed now,” Loan wrote recently on Facebook. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping my family.”

Article about refugees now on Eureka Street

Humanity meets bureaucracy on asylum seeker Fast Track
Shira Sebban | 14 August 2016

‘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.

Hand writes in notebook 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.

Shira Sebban
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