The spectre of ‘refoulement’ is the proverbial nightmare for a refugee, whom having tasted sanctuary is pushed back into the jaws of fate, from where they fled. It is also the stumbling block for a controversial refugee deal facing Australia’s labour government.
Critics allege that the deal, which will see Australia and Malaysia ‘swap’ thousands of refugees, falls foul of Canberra’s obligations, including the 1951 UN treaty on refugees which implicitly forbids refoulement to non-signatory nations such as Malaysia (which has signed neither the UN’s torture convention or refugee convention). Indeed the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said on a trip to Australia in May that “You cannot send individuals to a country that has not ratified the torture conventions on refugees”.
If it goes through, the deal will be funded by Australia to the tune of $US312 million and see Australia take some 4,000 refugees already processed in Malaysia, instead of those it processes anyway. In return, Canberra will send the next 800 refugees who arrive by boat to Malaysian camps, where rioting over lack of facilities such as water is common, and where the putrid conditions plague inmates with diseases such as leptosoriasis, which is spread through water infected by the urine of rats. Critics also allege that the process of registering refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia is deeply corrupt and favours specific minorities.
Sayad is one such refugee. Now detained in the Villawood detention centre near Sydney, his tale is the sort that Australia is seeking to cast ‘offshore’, and one that Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, probably does not want you to hear.
As Pillay lamented on her last trip, he has committed no crime, but is behind bars indefinitely.
Sayad was a teacher in the town of Rathidaung near Sittwe, in western Burma’s Arakan state. He is from the Rohingya minority, a Muslim ethnic group variously described as one of the most persecuted in Asia.
Sayad’s journey started in 1990 when he was studying to be a religious teacher. Two years earlier popular uprisings shook the country, and he claims that the Burmese military came and destroyed the mosque and madrassa that were the centre of his studies and academic life.
After protesting against the repression and for “human rights,” he recounts on a crackly phone line from his cell, he had to flee. “The army was looking for us, so I didn’t go back home, but went directly to Maungdaw [in Arakan state, the largest Rohingya community in Burma]”.
There he joined another school where he studied for a year. “When I finished that year I went back to my village.” His family and relatives urged him to open a school – there were none for Muslims in the area, but many for Buddhists. “We are human, we need to study. If we do not study we are nothing more than animals,” he told his comrades, apparently under the cover of darkness.
Military rule in Burma has been extremely ethnocentric. It is often forbidden to teach in any language other than Burmese, despite a multitude of ethnicities in the country. Muslims, especially those of South Asian or dark-skinned appearance, experience the brunt of such policies – they are not even being afforded citizenship, which entails no end of difficulty in their dealings with officials, from paying bribes and freedom to travel, to difficulty in getting a birth certificate for a child. The consecration of religious buildings is a challenge for all non-Buddhists.
After making his speech Sayad was arrested and taken to a military camp where he was tortured. Iron rods were rubbed along his shins, a common form of torture in Burmese detention facilities. He was, he says, treated like a punch bag.
On begging for water, Sayad, fighting tears, says that he was offered a bottle of water which the guards promptly urinated in. The guards were soon drinking alcohol and playing cards, and he told them he needed to go to the toilet.
“I went to the back and there was a cook. I asked help from him: ‘They will kill me, please!’ The cook said, ‘If you are arrested again don’t tell about me’.”
The cook cut his ropes and he fled into the nearby jungle, hiding until well into the next day. He found help and borrowed some money and fled with the help of a smuggler to Thailand’s Ranong, a border town between the two countries.
He stayed in a bamboo hut in the jungle for 18 days, but every few days he would be visited by police whom he bribed to ensure his freedom. So he carried on his journey south and headed to Malaysia. He was quickly caught by Malaysian authorities, however, and held for one and a half months before being “pushed back” into the jungle on the Thai side of the border. He soon caught up with some Burmese smugglers whom he begged for help, telling them that he would pay them back once he made it into Malaysia.
Malaysia is a draw to thousands of Burmese, especially the Mulsim Rohingya. The ‘tiger economy’ has plenty of low-wage jobs and relies on migrant labourers, who enable the country’s GDP to grow whist keeping wages down.
In trying to get into Malaysia he was arrested five times, sometimes staying in custody for months at a time. “In Malaysia if we went out of our home, we would have to take money in the top pocket. If we got caught we would have to show our visa and ID card – because we had none, we would show a UNHCR card, but they wouldn’t accept that, so they would ask for 1,000 to 2,000 Ringits [$US335 to $US670]. If we had no money they took us to the police station and detention.”
In 2009 Malaysia was downgraded by the US State Department to a tier three country for human trafficking, the worst-rated category, largely because of the nefarious activities of the country’s police and migrant detention system. This is known to include rife corruption, bribing and even selling refugees to traffickers.
Sayad describes his time in Malaysian detention in harrowing terms. He claims he was beaten for refusing to strip for guards looking for money on inmates, and says that food was dismal and many inmates fell ill.
Between spells of detention, Sayad slowly made a life of sorts for himself in Malaysia, gaining a job as welder and meeting his wife. When he had children his thoughts again turned to his chosen vocation, teaching. “The Malaysian government will not allow our children to go to school in Malaysia. A lot of children have lost their lives [through lack of education].”
So he established a school for refugees, and charged 30 Ringits per head, but many he said could not afford the fees, especially those families who worked as waste pickers.
In 2007 he met a group called the Malaysian Christian Association who offered to help. This drew the attention of a local Rohingya Muslim group, who were suspicious of his links to a non-Muslim group and for accepting non Muslims into his school. They then reported him to the Malaysian government’s Islamic Department. “You are a religious teacher, why you have a connection with a non Muslim group?” the boss, Ustand Hadi, asked.
“I don’t think about this being Christian, being Buddhist, being Hindu – I don’t think about that, I just think about people, and people’s need. All humans we have to respect, wherever I get assistance I want to take.” Hadi allegedly threatened to cut his throat if he “organised with a non-Muslim group.”
And so he severed his links but on 3 October 2009, the Christian Harvey Centre, who co-ran a centre with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), invited the children in Sayad’s school to play football in Kuala Lumpur against theirs. “That night two people wearing black came to my house.”
His house was, he says, simple, flimsy and not made of concrete. The two men with their faces covered knocked on the door, saying they were police.
In fear he fled out of the backdoor, so his wife answered the knock. The two assailants told his wife that they had his number and that if he did not come to meet them they would kill him. They claimed they could get him anywhere in Malaysia. So he fled with his wife and kids and went into hiding. They called his phone again on the 18 October and told him to come and meet him.
Sayad then went to the police, who made a report, but that made little difference. The gangsters continued to call his phone and threaten him. In fear he went to the UNHCR with a friend, where he begged for help, but was forced off the property by the security guard.
He went to see his family at night for a final time. He did not tell his wife his plan, but gave her some money he had borrowed and then reported his story to a human rights NGO called Tenanganita. “I could not find a safe place anywhere in Malaysia so I left to come here.”
His journey to Australia was through Indonesian smugglers with whom he first sailed to Aceh, around December 2009, on a small craft filled with roughly 10 other Burmese refugees and one Indonesian sailor. After just a day at sea one engine failed, followed by a second. Soon all four failed, and the refugees found themselves drifting alone. “We were crying at sea.”
After almost a day of fearing the worst, they signalled to a plane flying overhead and were soon picked up by the Australian Navy. He has been waiting in detention ever since.
Sayad is grateful for being saved by the Australian authorities, and says the facilities in Villawood are good.
“This is not about me”, he says – his anguish is for his young family. His wife attempted suicide after being left in Malaysia with a friend and unable support their kids, one of whom has been taken into an orphanage. She was, Sayad says, saved by a neighbour who has since given her shelter.
“My son is now nearly eight years old.” Fighting tears, he tells of his son begging him to go home on the telephone to see his wife. “I cannot provide for him. I don’t know what to do, I will die in here.”
He had pleaded to go back to Malaysia to at least be able to help his family, which has no relatives or support network in Malaysia, and to gain some knowledge of his fate. The Australian authorities refused, but instead keep him waiting indefinitely. This policy in Australia seemingly takes its toll – despite now being held for 20 months, he sounds brighter after being interviewed by security three weeks ago.
Prior to this, however, Sayad was evidently in a bad way. Upon hearing of the desperate plight of his wife he stopped taking meals, drinking only water for 15 days in an attempt to fast until death. He tried to conceal his fast, lest he be taken to another facility and artificially kept alive. This was not a protest, he says, but a desperate attempt to end his torment.
Australia’s premier and key backer of the so-called ‘Malaysia Solution’, Julia Gillard, was born in Wales. She, like Sayad, probably arrived by boat, but she did so under Australia’s ‘White Australia’ policy. Nowadays most of Australia’s migrants arrive by air, and the ‘lucky country’, despite being the most sparsely populated on the planet, received only two percent of the world’s asylum seekers last year. But boats from the north are a particular fear in the immigrant-obsessed Australian political arena.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition, which has helped Sayad, calls it “opportunistic” politics from the Labour government. He claims they are attempting only to out-manoeuvre their even more drastic political opponents, the Liberal Party, who disagree with Labour only in that they want more severe treatment for refugees. This is characterised by their mooting of a ‘Pacific Solution’, whereby detainees would be held in far-flung Pacific islands, far from the reach of NGOs, the UNHCR, or telephones.
“I did not come to Australia to enjoy,” says Sayad. “I am nearly 40 years old. I came to Australia for my children’s lives. I don’t want to lose my children; I don’t want to lose my wife.”