Launch of From nothing to zero: letters from refugees in Australia's detention centres

6 May 2003

Fifty-four years ago, Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration, sought to deport the O'Keefe family from Australia because they were Indonesian and thus offended the White Australia policy.

In the ensuing Parliamentary debate, Robert Menzies had this to say: 'The White Australia Policy is under no challenge in this Parliament or in this country except by bad administration'. He went on to say: 'It is the settled policy of this country …'. A little later he continued: 'But it (the policy) is under challenge in the world. Anybody who goes through or by eastern countries will constantly have a question put to him about this policy and I agree with the Honourable Member for Faulkner (Mr Holt) that almost every time, the question does not come down to a frontal attack upon the policy but to an allegation that, whilst we are entitled to have this policy, we administer it harshly and provocatively.'

Clearly Menzies believed, however much he supported the policy at that time, that it should be administered with reason and compassion. In some ways it is an interesting analogy with current circumstances. The policy he then defended did not survive. It was effectively ended by Hubert Opperman, Minister for Immigration in a speech made in Parliament in 1966. Legal remnants were left to be abolished by the Whitlam government in 1972.

The administration of the policy of compulsory detention can be compared in some ways to the administration of the White Australia Policy, as it then was. Its proponents are as wrong as Robert Menzies was wrong in 1949 when he defended the White Australia policy.

There are differences however between the attitude of the current government to the policy of compulsory detention and the attitude of the Menzies government to the White Australia policy. As soon as his government won office, the policy started to be relaxed until, little by little, it was abolished with the general agreement of the population one year after Menzies left office. Menzies presided over an administration that supported the White Australia policy but he knew passionately that it needed to be administered with discretion and concern. In other words, the human reality of individual cases should be taken into consideration. It seemed to me that he was arguing for an administration of the policy that would allow many exemptions and which would recognise that governments in each case were dealing with individuals, with people.

The Calwell administration seemed blind to individual cases, seemed totally devoid of compassion, of interest in individuals in its zeal to pursue the White Australia policy to the full.

The current government I believe is blind to the concern, to the fears, to the hopes and the reality of individuals in today's world as it pursues its policy of compulsory, mandatory, non-reviewable detention with vigour and, if necessary, with force.

This book brings us sharply up against the reality of current policy. As Julian Burnside has said, 'it puts a face to the faceless; a voice to the voiceless'. It translates the statistics which are the stuff of government to the reality of the individuals subject to government policy. It speaks of the journey of asylum seekers, their life at home, the perils of the journey, the despair of life in detention centres, Australia's jails, it puts a face on children in detention and underlines the despair and the illegality of the Pacific Solution. It speaks of the mental anguish and of thoughts on Australia. It tries to speak of the future but how can people in detention centres focus on that when the options offered to asylum seekers would seem to deny any happy, useful or productive future?

There are occasional glimpses of optimism. As one wrote 'incidentally, my visa was coming next week and I decided to live in Adelaide as I heard many things about the people there and about the city itself, also my friends are there.'

A child wrote: 'I am doing nothing, just thinking about my future. I am really so worried about the future. Please Mum, tell me about my future, what will happen to me?'

I mention the illegality of the Pacific Solution. Article 5 of the Nauruan Constitution provides that detention can only be entertained if specific conditions apply. None of the conditions are relevant to the Tampa asylum seekers. Somebody forcefully put in Nauru by the Australian Government with the agreement of Nauru can hardly be charged with attempting unlawful entry.

As Julian Burnside again points out, Article 5 of the Nauruan Constitution provides:

'A person who is arrested or detained shall be informed promptly of the reasons for the arrest or detention and shall be permitted to consult in the place in which he is detained, a legal representative of his own choice.'

By agreement between the governments, Nauru has made sure that detainees do not have access to that right and lawyers who have sought to go to Nauru have been denied visas. I am advised that the circumstances in Mannus Island with the Papua New Guinea Constitution, has a similar guarantee of liberty.

It is ironic indeed that a provision that Australia advised both countries to put in their constitutions when facing independence, as a guarantor of individual liberty, is sought to be overturned by a decision of the Australian government. It is not a good message to be sending to countries in the Pacific, a number of whom who have been experiencing significant internal problems.

Australia's current policies of mandatory detention, as we all know, are unique amongst the developed world. In Europe the courts would not allow such detention. There is no real political debate about the policy. The government has been so successful in persuading many Australians that asylum seekers are bad people, the policy has clearly had significant public support, enough support to paralyse the Labor Party, its policy changes are minimal and without courage. Their policy changes provide little hope that they will argue for both Australian and international humanitarian standards to be applied in Australia.

We have constantly been told that these policies have not been raised by people in other countries. They have been raised with me many times and Menzies, in 1949, made it clear that the concerns many people in other places had about the White Australia policy had been raised with him. From places as far away as Yemen and Finland, people have spoken to me about mandatory detention, wondering why we had such a great difficulty in pursuing a humanitarian policy with a relatively small problem, perhaps 4,000-5,000 people a year when Europe has had to face a problem of up to 400,000 a year.

I also had somebody asking me how we could sing our national anthem with faith and courage when we deny so clearly, the sixth line of the second verse, when we suggest that 'We've boundless plains to share'.

There has however been a significant reaction to Australia's current policies. The publication of this book is one of them and it is only made possible by the cooperation and support of many people in many places. There are many specific organisations working more strongly than ever to try and achieve a change in policy. There are many working to relieve the hardship of those who do find their way into the Australian community without any support and without any rights under Temporary Protection Visas. And there are others who argue against the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in supporting the cases of individuals before various Tribunals.

I want to mention just one case.

It was out of an essay by Claire Bruhns about Mohib Sarwari. On 16 April there was a headline in the Launceston Examiner: 'Home at Last, Refugee returns to a Hero's Welcome'. Four months earlier, the Sarwari family, two adults and four young children, had their Temporary Protection Visa cancelled. They were sent back to detention. They were snatched without warning by officials from their house, workplace and school.

Enquiries led to the belief that the family was wrongfully targeted by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs. Migration agent Marion Le took up the case. Marion Le showed extraordinary courage and commitment in proving the integrity of the Sarwari's case. She travelled to the snow-clad mountains of Afghanistan and in the distant mountains, Marion Le found the village which had been the Sarwari's home. To find it she travelled past Taliban checkpoints, travelled with an interpreter and local guides over country that had no roads. There were indications that the Taliban and Al Queda were re-organising.

Foreign soldiers and aid workers had been killed in the areas through which Marion travelled.

Mohib Sarwari's village was not on published maps. If Marion Le had not travelled there with recording equipment, it would have been the Sarwari's word against the Department's, the Department claiming that the village did not exist but the Department could not deny Marion's video footage of her walking towards Mohib's house. She took the precaution to record its GPS position. I hope Marion Le takes great pride in having proved that at least this one family are who they say they are. But how many others have the misfortune not to find such a courageous advocate? It was the commitment of the Launceston community and the skill, experience and commitment of Marion Le that won the Sarwari's release. They should all be greatly congratulated.

There are two other points I want to make. In these areas the government has trampled on human rights principles that used to be held dear in Australia . It has trampled on international conventions and treaties which were originally made in the late forties and fifties, especially the Refugee Convention ratified by the Menzies government in 1954.

The government clearly has not regarded itself as bound by these conventions, even though Australia had signed and ratified them.

Now the Australian government is seeking to change the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in significant ways. The Commissioners with special responsibilities are being abolished and replaced with commissioners with general responsibilities. If this were the only proposal, it could perhaps be lived with, but the government is also seeking other amendments which could significantly narrow the responsibility of the Commission. Unless the President of the Commission is or has been a Federal Court judge, the Attorney-General's permission will be required before any intervention in a court case could take place. The Commonwealth Government would become a gate keeper as to which issues the Commission could and could not fight. This would destroy the independence of the Commission.

The Commonwealth is also proposing that the President of the Commission would not be allowed to delegate matters to individual commissioners but all matters would have to go through the President. This would also limit the scope of the Commission's work. The last few years have demonstrated that we need a Commission with even greater power, rather than less.

To return to the book, if Australians can only read this book, they will see through the statistics and come to understand that they are dealing with people who have suffered greatly and experienced great hardship.

If you look at the political climate you would today believe you have no chance of having this policy changed but if you looked at the political climate in 1949 when Menzies made his speech in defence of the O'Keefe family and their right to stay in Australia, one would then have said there is no chance of having the White Australia policy overturned. It has been, and this policy will be.