The Scavenger

Salvaging whats left after the masses have had their feed



Last updateWed, 12 Apr 2017 9am

Menu Style

Back You are here: Home Social Justice People Detention dehumanises asylum seekers

Detention dehumanises asylum seekers

Increasing rates of self-harm and a recent spate of suicides reveal a troubling picture of Australian immigration detention centres. Deteriorating conditions are taking their toll on asylum seekers, yet the Australian government is persisting with its policy of mandatory detention. Susannah Waters speaks to some people at the heart of the issue, and discovers the extent to which asylum seekers are dehumanised by the system.

10 April 2011

Stepping off the plane, Mohsen Soltany was confused – he didn’t think the weather in the United Kingdom would be this hot. Baffled, he questioned the immigration officer.

“UK?”. No – not the UK. He was in Perth. Perth, Australia.

Soltany arrived in Australia in 1999 via Malaysia – or Singapore, he’s not sure – on a journey which started in Iran and traced through Turkey. People smugglers arranged his flight to Perth, a city Soltany had no knowledge of before his arrival.

Not that he would get the opportunity to acquaint himself: after declaring himself a refugee, Soltany was transported directly to Perth Detention Centre. His next four years were spent behind the razor wire in various Australian immigration detention centres.

Staying in Iran wasn’t an option. Soltany loves his country, but firmly believes he faced certain death after trying to expose government corruption.

Through his work, Soltany – then a politically active man in his late 20s – was exposed to the corrupt dealings of the government, and was also privy to information about Iran’s infamous chain murders.

After penning an anonymous letter to a newspaper condemning the government, Soltany’s house was searched by officials. Although not home at the time, he tells The Scavenger, “I knew I had to leave”.

While Soltany’s unplanned arrival in Australia is symbolic of the vulnerability of asylum seekers, it is perhaps also illustrative of how government policy – however strict – cannot deter people from fleeing danger and seeking refuge here. Most of those people, like Soltany, will arrive by plane.

And many will spend months, even years, in detention centres.

Ian Rintoul first knew Soltany as a name in Villawood Detention Centre. Rintoul makes it his business to know who is behind the razor wire: he is spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, the group at the epicentre of Sydney’s refugee campaign. The 57-year-old’s involvement in refugee issues stretches back to the early 1990s, but he pinpoints the Howard era and rise of Pauline Hanson as pivotal to his participation in the movement.

When he claims that in recent years government policies on asylum seekers have both “improved and worsened”, his laugh reveals the irony is not lost on him.

“While superficial characteristics and administrative things have changed, the fundamental underpinnings of the refugee issues in Australia haven’t changed”, Rintoul tells The Scavenger. He believes that Gillard government strategies - such as mandatory detention, “stopping the boats”, and regional processing centres - mean “we’re back with all the essentials of the policies we had under the Howard government”.

Rintoul considers the “absolute punitive quality” of detention as one of the worst aspects of asylum seeker policy. Approximately 6,660 people are currently held in Australian immigration detention. Rintoul cites overcrowding, lack of services, and social isolation as instrumental to the self-harm and mental health problems within the detention centres.

Amnesty International has also criticised the conditions in detention centres, deeming them “unacceptable”. The organisation recently inspected several Australian detention centres and reported that detainees are “at grave risk of self-harm and mental illness”. It claims that conditions are deteriorating to a point where attempted suicides are on the increase.

Of particular concern are conditions at Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, where stays are lengthy and self-harm is increasing. More than a third of all people in Australian immigration detention live on Christmas Island.

Twenty-seven-year-old student Rachel Connor* has been to Christmas Island. As a volunteer English teacher at the detention centre for six weeks last year, she witnessed the fragile mental state of many of the detainees.

“The truth is that almost all of the refugees suffered from some form of mental disturbance from being in the centres, as well as the complex history of trauma they carry from previous experience”, Connor tells The Scavenger.

She outlines some of the restrictions placed on the detained asylum seekers, such as “timed and monitored” recreation time. She says that detainees are not free to come and go, and that parts of the facility seem “like a prison”.

Nevertheless, Connor believes her English classes had a direct benefit on the asylum seekers, as she says the routine task of practising the language gave them a focus, “in a context where every day feels the same without progress. Myself and many of the other teachers knew that a lot of our students would not wake up in the morning if it weren’t for our classes”.

Connor says that her students told her it was the only thing they looked forward to in the day.

Soltany’s four years in detention were spent divided between Perth, Port Hedland and Villawood detention centres.

Sipping tea in his inner-city lounge room crammed with musical instruments, the now 40-year-old musician and poet contemplates the years he lost. Soltany wavers between calm reflection and palpable anger. At times his rage spills over and projects him off his seat. His brow furrows as his voice rises, and his gaze fixes on a point somewhere else – somewhere beyond the room.

“I went very mental”, he admits. “They’re not respecting very basic human rights in detention”. Contacting the media and attempting to speak out about the conditions became a constant undertaking for Soltany. “Any channel that we could get the numbers, I would tell them: this is happening, we are on hunger strike, people here stitched their lips. I told them what was happening,” he says.

He witnessed and experienced bashings and was also placed in isolation. Released from detention in 2003, Soltany now has permanent residency. He is in regular contact with many detainees in the centres, and says the conditions are “still bad”.

But Soltany is adamant that the worst feature of detention is the uncertainty.

“You don’t know what will happen, that is the worst part. And you don’t know any day they can come to deport you – that is when people get stressed”, he says. “All the people going to the top of the roof and doing all this stuff, because they think maybe tomorrow… That makes them stressed.”

Rintoul agrees that the indefinite aspect of detention deeply affects asylum seekers. And so does the terminology often used to refer to them.

According to those who work with refugees, and to refugees themselves, terms such as “boat people” and “illegals” are not only misleading but also have a directly harmful effect. Nevertheless, these terms are common in the public domain – despite the fact that over 95% of asylum seekers travel to Australia by plane, and as Connor points out, “there is nothing illegal about seeking asylum”.

Research shows that the terminology does have an effect on public opinion: most people believe that the majority of asylum seekers arrive via boat.

Gode Mfashingabo works at refugee support centre the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS). The 30-year-old works with refugee youth and believes that these terms have become common as they are “much easier and more provocative to use than any other words”.

Mfashingabo says that the media and politicians will use “whatever words necessary to destabilise and drive their point across”.

Soltany says that this terminology “absolutely” has a direct effect on refugees, and that it “hurts deeply - a lot”. He explains that as an asylum seeker he was variously referred to as an “illegal immigrant”, “queue jumper” and even a “terrorist”.

“Where is the queue? You run away for your life – hello, they wanna kill me! There is no queue”, Soltany says. He vigorously rejects the likelihood that the public accurately understands refugee issues. Soltany refers to his poem The Only Hope After God:

“We were the fan for the political fire, Now we find ourselves in the flames”. His poem describes being stuck in a “quagmire of prejudice”.

Mfashingabo, himself a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), agrees that the public perception of refugees is fundamentally flawed. “What they have is pretty much propaganda that is spun through the media”, he tells The Scavenger. “The public has been misinformed incredibly.”

Mfashingabo lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for three years after his ethnic group was stripped of its citizenship rights. He cannot return to the DRC as he believes it would “amount to suicide”.

He says that some people’s only option is to seek refuge in another country, but what drives that decision is rarely mentioned in the media.

“Nothing serious is being discussed. Out of sight, out of mind”, Mfashingabo says, lamenting an often trivial media which features stories about shopping addiction and skateboarding dogs.

Rintoul strongly believes the public perception is “coloured” by the way refugees and asylum seekers are presented by the media and politicians. He claims that the language is deliberate.

“It’s to create a picture, to create an attitude, to invite a particular way of looking at refugees”, Rintoul says. “When the media do it, it’s not an accident. I mean, there have been Press Council findings that asylum seekers are not illegal and the boats are not illegal and should not be referred to in that way. They are constantly referred to in that way”.

In Rintoul’s eyes, this language and the detention of asylum seekers are techniques of delegitimising them.


Soltany yells into the loudspeaker. His voice reverberates throughout Sydney’s Town Hall courtyard, and is then echoed by 150 protestors. Fijian man Josefa Rauluni died after jumping off a roof at Villawood Detention Centre a few days earlier, and the protest was organised hastily to condemn the government’s policy of mandatory detention.

Two of Soltany’s years in detention were spent at Villawood, and he says he was stressed and shocked upon hearing the news of Rauluni’s death. He says that he witnessed several suicides during his years in detention.

Last month’s suicide of a young Afghan man at Curtin Detention Centre was the fifth suicide in Australian immigration detention within a seven-month period. These deaths highlight an intensifying and pervading sense of hopelessness amongst detainees.

Soltany wrote poetry in detention to help express his feelings of despair - “as a companion to my mind”. His poems were dark, prompting his roommate to urge him, “Please write something about hope!”. But Soltany says he couldn’t: “I couldn’t find hope”.

He kept writing throughout his time in detention, and last year he released a book of his poetry, Inside Out. His poetry has received wide acclaim, and he has even collaborated on a book with writer Tom Keneally, whom he considers a good friend.

Post-detention, becoming a refugee advocate was a natural step for Soltany. He has also taken on a case worker role for many asylum seekers to assist with their claims.

Despite his distressing experiences in detention, he loves Australia and has started to recover from his mental trauma. Music was central to Soltany’s healing process, and is something he is actively pursuing with his band. He hopes that his book of poetry will help people to understand the suffering of those in detention, a place he says crushed his spirit.

Rintoul is in it for the long haul – he always knew it would be a long-term campaign. He says that although the campaign “always” faces opposition from the government, he is boosted by the small successes.

He retrieves a piece of paper from his desk – a “little list of unfinished business”. He counts and laughs: there are 16 points on the list, and he says “I think there are two of them that we’ve won.”

Rintoul believes the razor wire is emblematic: that it “cuts” Australian society by embedding a discrimination which impacts on the wider community.

“That razor wire also imprisons us, as long as we allow its existence”.

*Not her real name

Susannah Waters holds a Master's degree in journalism and communication. She enjoys writing about social justice, environmental and animal rights issues.


0 #9 Alison W 2011-06-20 17:12
Bek - you rock! :-)
+1 #8 Bek 2011-06-19 20:04
Shockadelic, I take it from your commentary the hardest decision you have ever faced in your life would be akin to whether to buy a Playstation or a Wii at Christmas time.

The issue is when we do not know real poverty, persecution and suffering, we find some people lose their empathy. Sounds like if we need s poster child for an example of someone fitting the bill, you ought to raise your hand. Yes, I am saying you are clueless and without heart because anyone still in touch with their humanity would not refer to someone who has to resort through going through people smuggling routes as "sneaky".

Do you think ten year old girls in Thailand should just buck up and be happy with being sex workers because at least they are earning money? Do you think it's OK that in Cuba, Afganistan and China people need to apply for passports to move INSIDE their own country and have that right denied on whims and suspicion? Do you understand just how complex this issue is and just how bad life must be where they are for people to risk years of their life to get here and know what may result but still try?

People don't just pack up one day and say "oooh, that place looks nice on the telly, think I'll take the kids there, but bugger paying the fare. I know, I'll risk death, disease, exploitation and detention and try and save myself a few months and a couple of quid!" If you seriously think that's how people end up here seeking asylum you should probably put down your New Weekly and pick up a Noam Chomsky or John Pilger. Or we could get the gang from Home and Away to write a storyline if that's easier for you?

Convoluted excuses? Good grief. How many refugee cases have you reviewed? How much overseas welfare and aid work have you done? Do us a big fat favour and turn off TodayTonight and ACA and get some real life perspective.

And yes, I am having a poke at your intellect and understanding of the world. Why? because I am fed to the back teeth with being lumped into a cookie cutter frame of xenophobic media puppet each and every time I introduce myself as Australian to anyone else from anywhere else. Do us all a favour and put a sock in it until you actually experience something beyond middle class priviledged opinion.
+1 #7 Bill W 2011-04-21 23:25
Either you do not understand Australia's refugee legislation, or you are opposed to it. Which is it?
Have the courage to own up. The man you stigmatise has not broken any Australian law pertaining to refugees. Do you understand that?
+1 #6 caellyen somerville 2011-04-12 11:48
Thank you for this article. I am part of a band 'Minority Tradition' who have been privileged with opportunities to perform around Australia and in schools teaching people the truth behind the many misconceptions in society and media towards people seeking asylum. We use the lyrics in our songs to try and bring an instant change to the way people perceive others who come from a walk of life that many of us fortunate Australians may not be able to imagine.
All 4 of us have volunteered in detention centers many times, and it is articles like this which make me feel the love of Australians, and it is comments like the one below from 'Shockadelic' which fire me up to continue doing what we do, and actively spread the truth around to as many people as we can reach.
+1 #5 Marilyn Shepherd 2011-04-11 01:32
There is absolutely no requirement to go to the first country and apply and there never has been. Why do the likes of Shock still come up with the same crap when a check of UNHCR would show them it is a lie?

Our own high court held in NAGV and NAGW that it is not required and that when people apply here it is illegal to claim they could have applied in another country.

All the lies and spin and drivel are just that. The law is simple. Everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.
+1 #4 Susannah Waters 2011-04-10 18:43
Shockadelic - Many asylum seekers who are on the run flee very quickly. I am not going to even pretend to know what it is like to be running for my life, and having to make decisions on the fly. I think a lot of the misunderstandin gs about asylum seekers and refugees stem from our reluctance to put ourselves in their shoes for even just a minute, and reflect on what decisions we might make.
Mfashingabo is from the DRC, where there are many (over 200) ethnic groups. That is his native country; that is where he was born. His ethnic group were at high risk of being killed due to a political decision after a war broke out in the country in 1996.
-1 #3 Shockadelic 2011-04-10 11:05
This is what bothers people: Soltany went through several different countries before arriving here (while thinking it was the UK?!)
He's not even sure what countries he went to!

Why didn't he seek "refuge" in one of these other countries?
Why didn't he go to a British or Australian *embassy* in these countries?
I'm supposed to feel sympathy for a cowardly, stupid and sneaky person?

Mfashingabo citizenship was revoked because of his mysteriously unspecified ethnicity?
Did that mean he couldn't live there anymore?
The only reason this would happen is because the ethnicity isn't *native* to that region.
So what region does his ethnic group live in? Why didn't he go THERE?

People are fed up with refugees because their convoluted excuses just don't add up.
+1 #2 Kazem hazarah 2011-04-10 02:09
I am appreciating you for reflecting and echoing the problems and voices of defendless asylum seekers detaining in detention centers inside of Australia. Let me attract your attention to the severe plight of asylum seekers intercepted and detained in Indonesian detention centers. Let me address you one of these detention that is famous for its severe restriction as the Hell Hole, Tanjung pinang Detention center located in one of remote Iland which no mass media are allowed to enter in. In this hole detainees deprived from their basic rights such as interview, education, health care, comunication with family, indoor and out door entertainment and even from sunlight... Deprivation from sunlight efected their physical health and uncertainties about future made them suffering from various mental illness and disorders. Their situation deteriorated since many of them after a year in detention, have not been interviewed by UNHCR in Indonesia. For further information cantact me via email, .
+1 #1 Marilyn Shepherd 2011-04-10 00:00
I have begged, pleaded, grovelled, done everything humanly possible to get the press council to rule on the use of words' like "boat people", "suspected asylum seekers", "people smugglers" and so on because those words are negative and wrong.

They catch a boat for the last short part of the journey via Indonesia, they are not boats, they are not being smuggled anywhere and they are asylum seekers.

The press council refuse over and over again to even discuss the truth and the media will not publish the truth because as long as they are "smuggled illegal boat people suspects", we can lock them up, shoot at them, tear gas and torture them.

Add comment

Security code

Share this post

Submit to DeliciousSubmit to DiggSubmit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to StumbleuponSubmit to TechnoratiSubmit to TwitterSubmit to LinkedIn

Personal Development

Be the change.