by Nigel O'Connor
Atop the roof of Darwin’s Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC), Habib Habiburahman sits in protest. He has entered day five of a hunger strike in an attempt to raise awareness of his situation after having spent the past 18 months in indefinite detention as an asylum seeker.
When I met Habib in February, the late afternoon monsoonal rain of northern Australia teemed outside one of the Northern Territory’s ubiquitous demountable buildings within the NIDC compound.
Inside, Habib sat with his head bowed. Hair neatly slicked back, face clean shaven. Outside, lines of razor wire and palm trees were visible through the haze.
“When I was 16, the Burmese government destroyed my family’s home,” so begins Habib’s story.
An ethnic Rohingyan, Habib was one of 14 in detention in Darwin. All had been granted refugee status, most in May 2010, yet they remained languishing in indefinite detention, awaiting the completion of ASIO security checks. Most had been in detention for more than a year.
The indefinite waiting and lack of information on their cases had begun to take a toll on the group’s mental health. Four of had attempted suicide. Last year one man tried to hang himself. Another set himself on fire. He was later told that he would be charged with destruction of Commonwealth property. Self-harm is common and most of the Rohingya intermittently refuse food or medical treatment.
Louise Newman, chair of the Detention Health Advisory Group for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and Professor of Psychiatry at Monash University, said suicidal thinking can spread among detainees in such situations.
“This is very concerning from a mental health perspective,” she said. “This type of condition can be contagious. I am very concerned there are people having suicidal thoughts.”
Professor Newman sees acts such as self-harm as the classic responses of people suffering from traumatic experiences and possessing no sense of control over their lives.
“They’re isolated,” she said. “People feel abandoned and cut off. It reflects human distress when people feel confined and have no control over their lives.”
Habib described the assessment process as a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic procedure with no clear structure and ever-extended timeframes. “We are told all the time by the department that our cases are being processed,” he said. “But we witness other people released by Immigration. In some cases they have not been reviewed by ASIO.
“The people that try to kill themselves feel they are against powerful government organisations. This is their way to resist.”
This year ASIO has come under increasing scrutiny for delays in processing security clearances for refugees. At a Senate Estimates committee in February, Immigration officials revealed there were 900 people across Australia found to be refugees but left in indefinite detention as they awaited the completion of ASIO checks. This represents 13% of the population in Australia’s overcrowded detention system.
Last year 811 complaints were lodged with the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security for delays in the completion of security checks. In a letter to Habib the Inspector General, Dr Vivienne Thom, did little to offer guidance or assurance on the processes at work for those awaiting ASIO clearance.
“ASIO has advised me that the complexity of security assessments can vary and this makes it difficult to provide exact timeframes for completion,” she wrote. “The best way for you to obtain information about the overall progress of your visa is to contact the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.”
Since then, the Department of Immigration has outlined a new ”triage method” in a letter to the Human Rights Commission — ASIO staff no longer directly carry out security checks for the bulk of asylum seekers, which are instead now delegated to immigration officers.
As reported by The Sydney Morning Herald in late May, the Immigration Department says it will further speed up the new system to introduce a ”same-day service” for security checks.
But Habib expressed frustration at the indefinite waiting. “The Immigration case managers tell us they have no up-to-date information on our cases,” he protested. “We want to know what’s happening in the process or any problems our cases have. There are no groups in our country like al-Qaeda and no other armed groups so we can’t understand the delays.”
On February 2, the Rohingya were told they would have a chance to present their case to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen when he visited Darwin’s detention facilities.
Habib said he was among a group taken to a room and told to await the minister’s arrival.
“In the afternoon we could see the minister leaving and were then told he was not allowed to meet with anyone,” he said. “We felt like it was a conspiracy and became angry. We ran out of the room and climbed to the roof of one of the buildings and began shouting. Finally a lady came to get the letter. She told us she was the assistant secretary for Minister Bowen.”
The letter read: “We understand the importance of people passing security clearances, however we do not understand why ASIO has taken so long to process our applications and are dismayed at the lack of information provided to us by the Department and ASIO regarding our security clearances.”
The Rohingya are stateless people. Human Rights Watch describes them as one of the most persecuted groups in Burma. “Even in Burma’s dreadful human rights landscape, the ill-treatment of the Rohingya stands out,” a 2009 report says. “Religious repression is widespread, with the military destroying many mosques … extrajudicial killings are common.”
There are no known Rohingyan terrorist groups.
After being beaten and tortured and by Burmese authorities in Rangoon, Habib trekked across the country and escaped into Thailand in 2000. From there he travelled to Malaysia where he spent 10 years. While able to work as an electrician, he lived with the constant fear of deportation. Malaysia is not a signatory to international refugee conventions and people fleeing to the country face abuse at the hands of immigration officials and the notorious vigilante groups.
“I was deported from Malaysia four times,” he said. “Each time we were captured we would be beaten and taken to the Thai border. There we were sold to people smugglers who would demand money from us and then take us back into Malaysia.”
On one occasion Habib was unable to pay Thai people smugglers and he was sold into slavery aboard a Thai fishing boat. He spent two months aboard the ship before escaping.
In December 2009, Habib undertook the dangerous sea journey from Indonesia to Australia.
“It was five days at sea,” he says. “The engines broke down and we had to steer the boat as the driver was only a teenager. We thought we would die. When we saw the patrol aircraft we cried with happiness and waved our clothes at it.”
Despite his experiences Habib is determined not to let his current circumstances break him.
“I do not want to attempt suicide or cut myself,” he states. “My way is different. I don’t want to be a victim and I will struggle to reveal the reality of our lives. For me that is more important now than the visa.”
Habib said he would like to see a judicial review of the processes of mandatory detention. Professor Newman agrees that mandatory detention is a failed policy and called on Minister Bowen to treat a review of the policy as a priority.
“We need to radically rethink the policies of detention,” she said. “The majority of people’s claims can be processed in the community. Other countries that function with community detention systems don’t have the rates of mental health problems we see as people can live with a sense of purpose.”
Habib agrees. Describing the case of a fellow Rohingyan now in community detention, his face lit up.
“This man tried to hang himself last year,” he told me. “Finally he is in community detention and he is very happy and healthy. If we were in community detention we could wait 10 years for our security check.”