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.

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