By Bianca Hall
“Daria” with her daughter, who was born in Australia but is – like the rest of her family – living in community detention with no end in sight.Credit:Joe Armao
Answering the door of her home in outer-western Sydney, Daria* is wary.
Home is a small house, painstakingly painted and furnished in contemporary grey and white. It is also her prison, and she has learned to be on guard against Australians and the promises they bring.
“You know, that’s enough,” says this softly spoken woman, who seems always on the verge of tears. “That’s enough. It’s been nine or 10 years. When I think about it too much, I want to bash my head against the wall. It makes me crazy.”
Daria and her family are in, but not permitted to be fully part of, the community.Credit:Joe Armao
In Australia today, more than 32,000 people who arrived by boat live as an effective underclass, with no end in sight.
Their rights depend on their visa types. Many young people are prevented from studying at university, despite having grown up and gone to school here. Most are allowed to work, but some cannot access income support, meaning if they’re unable to work they must rely on the community for food and essentials. Others – like Daria and her family – live in community detention; within, but not part of, the Australian community.
This election represents a sliding-door moment for thousands of temporary visa holders in this country: if the Morrison government retains power, nothing changes. If Labor wins, it has promised to grant permanent visas to more than 19,000 people Australia has already recognised as refugees, but who live in an endless limbo.
As we speak, Daria’s young daughter toddles around, laughingly picking up socks and toys and presenting them to her mother. Their home, which is owned by the federal government, was almost bare when they moved in. It has been painted, furnished and decorated with goods donated by refugee advocates and friends.
Daria is from Iran and will be 40 this year. For the past six years, she’s been in community detention, subject to a night-time curfew and forbidden from working or studying.
Her Australian-born children, aged six and 22 months, are not entitled to citizenship and the rights it brings because their parents arrived by boat. As it stands, they – and more than 2000 other Australian-born children – will never be allowed to call this country home.
Kevin Rudd, with then foreign minister Bob Carr in 2013.Credit:Andrew Meares
The beginning of indefinite limbo
Daria and John’s* timing was terrible. They reached Christmas Island on July 24, 2013, five days after former prime minister Kevin Rudd declared that no one who arrived by boat would ever settle in Australia, effective that day.
Instead, they would be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and, if found to be refugees, settled there or in a third country.
“What we’re seeking to do through these arrangements at the moment is to send a message to people smugglers around the world that the business model is basically undermined,” Rudd said at the time. “[That model] says if you jump on a boat, you’re going to end up in Australia. That doesn’t apply any more.”
Figures provided by the Refugee Council of Australia show that before Rudd’s declaration, 1056 people had been sent to Nauru and Manus Island (offshore processing having restarted the year before, in August 2012). After that declaration, Australia sent another 3127 people offshore.
Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says more than 1400 people who arrived after Rudd’s 2013 declaration remain subject to offshore detention rules. About 1200 people live in the Australian community on temporary visas, having been brought here for medical treatment and not returned, while more than 200 remain in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
But it is those who arrived before the 2013 declaration who comprise the vast majority of people living ghost lives in this country. More than 31,000 men, women and children from the so-called “legacy caseload” of people who came here between 2012 and 2013 live on temporary visas without a permanent future in this country, unable or unwilling to leave.
A friendly face: Dulce Carolina Munoz Garcia visits Daria in her Sydney home.Credit:Joe Armao
Of these, more than 19,000 live on temporary protection visas or safe haven enterprise visas, having been found to be refugees and owed Australia’s protection.
Another 2249 people are yet to have their applications finalised – almost a decade after they arrived – and 9703 people have been rejected under the “fast track” process introduced by the Coalition, which decided people’s refugee status based not on interviews with asylum seekers themselves, but on the scant information about them held by the Department.
‘It’s too big’
The Department of Home Affairs says more than half the people in community detention are from Iran, which will not take back people who refuse to return. This means Australia is powerless to send these people to their country of origin.
For Daria and John, who find themselves in this predicament, the past nine years have been a living hell.
“We didn’t know about the [Rudd] rule [change] because we were in Indonesia, in a village,” she says. “We didn’t have internet, news, nothing.”
Like dozens of other refugees and asylum seekers interviewed in three cities for this special series in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Daria suffers ongoing trauma – not just from the dangers that forced her escape from Iran, but also from the treatment she continues to endure at the hand of Australia, from which she sought protection.
When their boat arrived in Australian waters in July 2013, Daria and John were sent to Christmas Island and then Nauru, where they stayed for a year.
Daria learned she was pregnant on Nauru. By the time she was six months pregnant, she was increasingly concerned about her unborn baby. With scant medical resources on the island, she was rushed to Brisbane for an ultrasound, which revealed her placenta was dangerously low.
For the remainder of her pregnancy, Daria and John remained in Australia, where their baby was born.
One wall of the couple’s lounge room in Sydney is filled with framed photographs of their family, mostly of their two children. At the very top is a photograph of their son as an infant – chubby, with shining brown eyes and a trusting smile.
Months after this photograph was taken, the Australian government went to the High Court in an attempt to forcibly deport this baby boy – as well as dozens of other babies, children and about 160 adults – back to Nauru.
The government won the case, but outrage sparked by The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s reporting led to 148 people being released into the community, and another 71 asylum seekers being held in detention on the mainland (most have since been released).
While they have more freedom than accorded to them in Nauru, Daria and her husband have little functional control over their lives. They are not permitted to work, study or send their son to their preferred primary school, a nearby Christian school. They must instead send him to the closest public school, a 40-minute walk in each direction when their car broke down last year.
Money is tight, and non-government organisations fill the gap. When The Age and Herald visit, we go with Dulce Carolina Munoz Garcia, the national convener of Mums 4 Refugees, who brings a box of groceries and nappies for the toddler.
I ask Daria if there’s anything she would like to tell the Australian people. She looks at me for a long time. “Nothing,” she says, as tears roll down her face. “It’s too big.
“I love Australia [but] I know they want us to leave here. I don’t care about my visa or passport any more. I forget about my family [in Iran]. I don’t think about my family any more, I just want to stay here. But one day, my children will get visas here. That’s enough.”
‘The system is killing these people’
Zaki Haidari was 17 when, in 2012, he stepped onto an Indonesian fishing boat bound for Australia. In the middle of the ocean, their boat foundered. Zaki knew they were in serious trouble when the teenaged people smugglers started praying to God and sobbing with fear.
Zaki Haidari arrived in Australia aged just 17.Credit:Joe Armao
“So then, we’re like: 'if they're crying, we’re done’,” he says.
For five days, their boat floated on the open ocean. There was nothing to eat. They rationed water. Finally, long after they thought their prayers had been ignored, help arrived in the form of an Australian patrol vessel, which rescued 90 people from the boat.
Now 27, Zaki lives on a safe haven enterprise visa, recognised by this country as a refugee. He is allowed to work and study. But a safe haven visa is valid only for five years, serving as a declaration that Australia considers its protection obligations temporary.
Zaki is a leadership co-ordinator with Jesuit Social Services in Sydney, an ambassador for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, and a leader for Australia’s Hazara community. He is deeply concerned about the effects of the endless uncertainty of temporary visas, particularly on young people.
“The system literally is killing these young people … the system is slowly torturing people until they give up,” he says. “Where can they go? Nowhere.”
Zaki says he knows of 10 members of the Hazara community in Australia who have died by suicide. He adds: “In our community and history, suicide is not a thing.”
‘I don’t know what his future is’
The first time she tried to make it to the safety of Australia, Keetha Indirakumar and her two young sons spent 51 days on a broken-down Indonesian fishing boat, lost at sea with dozens of other asylum seekers.
Three people died on that boat before it washed up at an Indonesian island and its wretched survivors, including 14 children, scrambled ashore.
Mayerakethan Sabarathnam, 17, with his mother Keetha Indirakumar.Credit:Joe Armao
Keetha’s younger son, Mayerakethan Sabarathnam, then eight, was so weak he couldn’t walk. When they were rescued by Indonesian authorities, the group was sent to an immigration prison – including the children.
Months later, the desperate family – who hail from Sri Lanka – tried again. This time, they made it to Christmas Island before being sent to detention in Darwin and Brisbane, finally recognised as refugees and released.
Keetha’s boys have grown up in Australia, but their temporary visas deny them the right to access the HECS higher education loan scheme as well as a raft of other rights enjoyed by citizens.
Mayerakethan, now 17, speaks with an Australian accent. He finished school last year and – like his peers – had high hopes for the future.
He studied biology, mathematics, chemistry and physics at school and received an offer from Australian Catholic University to study biomedical science. But his family cannot afford more than $70,000 in international student fees he would be required to pay each year to study in Australia.
“I really still want to be in the medical field trying to help people out,” he says. He just does not know how.
Keetha breaks down in tears.
“He’s here for nearly 10 years in Australia. He’s done his studies, he is in Australian culture. Everything is here. I don’t know what his future is going to be.”
While Mayerakethan’s future is in doubt, Keetha’s older son – who The Age and Herald will not name – saw no future for himself. An A-plus student, he wanted to study medicine at university after leaving school.
Keetha is a single mother living with a heart condition and working as a childcare educator. Paying more $90,000 a year in international student fees would be unthinkable. Her son slid further and further into mental illness, and attempted suicide many times. He has been in a Queensland hospital for months.
‘This is bad policy’
Rebecca Lim is a Brisbane migration agent and community engagement worker, with decades of experience in the field. She has a blunt assessment of temporary protection visas – which were introduced by John Howard, dumped by Labor and reintroduced by Tony Abbott in October 2013 – and safe haven enterprise visas, which were introduced in 2014.
“This is bad policy,” she says. “If a person is found to be owed protection, that person needs a permanent visa. Not temporary. It traps people in limbo, and we know what that can do.”
Further, she argues, temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas create unnecessary administrative burdens on the Department of Home Affairs, which must assess reapplications every three to five years.
Rebecca Lim.Credit:Joe Armao
Opposition immigration spokeswoman Kristina Keneally told The Age and Herald that no one had gone onto a temporary protection visa since Operation Sovereign Borders was introduced in 2013. Converting those visas into permanency would let people Australia had already recognised as refugees– and who had been in this country for a decade – get on with their lives, she said.
“These are people who have lived in the country for a decade – they work, they pay taxes, they’re part of the community. And yet for some of them, their lives are on hold: can they get married? Can they have children? Will they be able to stay here? Can they make investments in their careers or their businesses? What will happen if they do that, and then suddenly they get told they are no longer allowed to stay?”
Keneally says she knows of many safe haven enterprise visa holders, in particular, who run businesses that employ Australian citizens. “These are Australian jobs on the line,” she says.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has sought to paint Labor as weak on borders during this election campaign, arguing its plan to abolish temporary protection visas would act as a beacon to people smugglers.
A spokesperson for Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the visas were a critical part of Operation Sovereign Borders.
“Labor keep insisting that they support Operation Sovereign Borders, but they have continuously stated they do not support temporary protection visas, a key element of Operation Sovereign Borders. If you don’t support TPVs, you support a restart of the people-smuggling trade and the loss of lives at sea.”
The smiling boy
In 1988, at the height of the Anfal campaign, which saw the wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of Kurdish men, women and children by Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraqi soldiers lined up a group of Kurdish children to be murdered. A photograph from that awful day shows the children pressed up against each other’s backs, wearing the warm clothes their parents had dressed them in that morning.
Most of the children look terrified or wary. But one boy, wearing a blue parka, stares straight down the barrel of the camera, a broad smile on his face. Among Kurdish nationalists, he has become known as the smiling boy, a symbol of defiance in the face of brutality.
In his work, artist and musician Farhad Bandesh, 41, invokes the smiling boy time and again.
On Manus Island, and in mainland detention, Farhad was known as COA060. This is what guards called him.
“I forgot my name for eight years,” Farhad says. “I came to Australia by boat, I put myself in danger to get safety, and when I got to safety, they exiled me to a remote island on the Pacific.”
After years of desperation on Manus, in 2019 Farhad was one of hundreds of men and women rushed to Australia from Papua New Guinea and Nauru for emergency medical attention on the advice of doctors, under the short-lived medevac legislation.
They came with post-traumatic stress disorder, rotting teeth, chest pains and suffering the after-effects of suicide attempts (including one man who had set himself on fire and suffered extensive internal and external burns).
Instead of receiving medical care, most were simply locked up in hotel rooms around the country and left there – for weeks, months and years. In December 2020, while his bid for freedom was before the Federal Circuit Court, Farhad was released. In the months leading up to the election, dozens of others were also released into the community, in what Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese recently labelled an effort to “sandbag” moderate Liberal seats. Only six remain detained around the country.
Granted a temporary bridging visa, Farhad now lives as a free man in Melbourne: making wine, creating art and surrounded by a wide network of close friends.
Farhad Bandesh with his self-portrait.Credit:Natalie Groningen
Last month, he entered the Archibald Prize with a self-portrait. In his painting, half his face is awash with the colours of the Kurdish flag. Behind him is the blue ocean, upon which bubbles containing an image of an Indonesian fishing boat and his Manus “name” of COA060 float.
The painted Farhad is smiling directly at the viewer; a direct reference to the smiling boy.
“This is the message: you should be strong and not give up,” he says.
“For me, it’s a good lesson for all people – if something happened to you, you shouldn’t give up and get negative about it. You should be positive and fight for your rights.”
*Not their real names
The Age and Herald undertook this project courtesy of a grant from the Michael Gordon Fellowship, administered by the Melbourne Press Club.
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