asylum seeker stories from villawood

On Saturday some friends and I went to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre to visit some Tamil Sri Lankan asylum seekers and refugees currently housed there.

I am somewhat hesitant to post this story lest it look like I am attempting to portray myself as somehow heroic. Nothing could be further from the truth since a single visit does not make me particularly compassionate or generous.

I am not going to bang on about how bad the conditions were, since visitors are confined to the visitor area and thus I did not see the living quarters etc. In saying this I think that, against my assumptions, Serco was doing a reasonable job at running the facility given that they are simply out to make a profit. My belief is that the Australian Government, with its awful policies, both past and present, is to blame for our shocking treatment of asylum seekers. I have written about this elsewhere, so back to the story.

After spending over two hours with these young men I was struck by the similarities between them and myself.

They love to laugh. They love to eat.

They have dreams for life. They have people that they love.

They want the best for their family and friends. They grieve when loved ones suffer or die.

They want to work and contribute to society. They get bored when there is nothing to do but sit around.

They get depressed. They lose hope.

One of the young men named Kasun* told me about how they had lived in Sri Lanka for most of their lives. Eventually the war between the government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) became too dangerous for him. Kasun told how he had seen his friends killed. A life of flourishing was clearly impossible for a Tamil living in a government controlled area, so he decided to get on a boat to Malaysia.

Life in Malaysia was not much better, since he could only work illegally, and corrupt police often took his earnings as bribes. He eventually made his way to Indonesia, only to find things were the same again.

Kasun made the difficult decision to sell almost everything he had to make up the money to buy a boat trip to Australia. On this trip he met those he is now friends with in Villawood. The boat trip was difficult he said; Fifty-four people on a little boat for ten days.

When Kasun arrived at Christmas Island he was locked up for about 6 months (though he could not tell me exactly, only roughly according to months since he had somewhat lost track of daily time). He was then transferred to Villawood IDC.

It is at Villawood that Kasun currently waits to be processed by the government. He has been in Villawood for over eighteen months, and there is no word on when he might be released into the community, if at all. Some of his friends have had their security checks rejected since they are Tamils, a fact that makes them more suspicious in the eyes of both the Australian and Sri Lankan Governments. This is despite the fact that their processing resulted in them being recognised as genuine refugees.

I cannot imagine what life has been like for Kasun, nor what it is like to be incarcerated without any indication of when I might be released.[1] But I found myself admiring the spirit of Kasun and his friends as they laughed with us and shared their stories. I would guess the mental pressure they go through every day makes the daily stressors of most Australians look like recreation.

Theologically speaking I cannot but think of how short our society falls at caring for the alien, the foreigner, the least of these. Indeed, who is less than asylum seekers in our country? Not that I expect the government to take on gospel values, though many Christians I meet have an equally reprehensible attitude to asylum seekers and the downtrodden.

If only more Christians, and indeed Australians, could personally hear the stories of the least in our society, not least asylum seekers. Stories truly have the power to change us. Any suggestion that emotion should be kept out of the process of making decisions about issues like asylum seekers is quite frankly a modernist delusion – emotions are central to what it means to be human.

When we take emotions and experience out of the equation we necessarily take much of what it means to be human out of it too.


* This name has been changed to keep the person anonymous.
[1] Even criminals know this kind of information.

Posted on July 25, 2011, in Advocacy, Culture & Art, Current Events, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. it is reprehensible that the Australian government has still not realised the great harm this current system is causing to real people.

    From today’s news [];

    Suicide Prevention Australia chair Dr Michael Dudley said six refugees had committed suicide in detention centres since September last year. Four of those deaths occurred in Villawood.

    “This system disables people, it excludes and vilifies people and it kills people,” he said.
    “We know that people who remain in immigration detention for long periods become mentally ill, and this is irrespective of their previous status.

    To be locked up without just cause, for an indefinable period of time would make even the most stable minds break down. Today a Sri Lankan youth is dead from despair. I can only hope that his death is not in vain and that something is done to overturn this great injustice. This situation makes me ashamed to call myself ‘Australian’.

  2. Thanks for the post Matt.
    I’m sure the experience would be eye opening and thought provoking for anyone who did it..

    I totally agree with all you’ve written. Only thought is though, does or should being a Tamil or a part of such organisations make you ineligable to be a refugee even if you are qualified?

    Only reason for asking is that people from many extremist groups (not saying Tamil are like the other groups) would qualify to be refugees.

    What are your thoughts/ beliefs on what Australia should do in those curcumstances.


  3. Hi guys, thanks for your comments. This post is a few months old now, so I was surprised to see new comments on it.

    Darren – Thanks for your comment. I would want to correct you though – the Tamils are not an organisation, they are a people group. Knowing this you would probably rephrase the question since I know you would not want to discriminate against anyone on the basis of ethnicity.

    I think that we need to rest on fact when we talk about refugees and extremist groups. Processing is necessary, but there are alternate ways to detention. But on what basis are you saying that some from extremist groups would qualify as refugees? Refugees tend to be people escaping extremist groups…

    My Tamil friends are in this boat (literally). They, like most Tamils, have no direct association with the Tigers. The Tamils are persecuted by the mainly Sinhalese Sri Lankan government, and so when they come here seeking asylum they often receive a bad report since the Australian government works with the Sri Lankan government to process claims.

    What should Australia do? At this point there should be a strict limit on the duration of detention (that is, if we should use detention at all). In the case of extremists – it is unlikely they would come here by boat, but in the improbable event that they did their claims would assumedly be rejected.

    In saying this I cannot claim the legal expertise to make a comprehensive judgement on the processing methods of Australia.


  1. Pingback: neither refugee nor refuged: christ, empire & the unsolution « life.remixed

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