Feature image by Karen Eliot, Creative Commons, from flikr.
Previously, in Refuge #20 Factories for Peace of Mind: In Port Hedland, Western Australia, Sri Lankan asylum seeker Suthan appreciated the soothing and civilising effect of women and children at the camp, but despaired at the toxic atmosphere of self-harm and mental illness among detainees. After several months, he was transferred via bus from the detention centre to the airport.
At the Port Hedland Airport, thirty detainees and thirty guards boarded the plane for Port Augusta. Suthan thought bitterly that guards must be very weak to necessitate the one to one ratio. At Port Augusta, detainees said goodbye to the Port Hedland guards. Even though Suthan hated the guards, their faces were familiar. Knowing that he would not see the guards anymore, he felt an inexplicable sense of loss.
Baxter Immigration Reception and Processing Centre was a purpose built detention camp made up of nine accommodation compounds. The compounds were self-contained with a dining room, recreation rooms, and a monitoring station for guards. Rules forbade interaction between detainees in different compounds. The Port Hedland detainees were separated into different compounds. Once again, Suthan lost everyone.
All the windows in Baxter faced the central enclosure in the compound, about the size of a football field. There was no way of looking out. The only way of looking further was to look up at the patch of sky over your compound. That was the only way.
Initially, Suthan continued attending English lessons. The lessons were much better than those at Port Hedland. He formed a friendship with an Afghan man and they exercised at the gym together. They even went on a shopping excursion to Whyalla where they bought identical T-shirts so that they would look like brothers: one Tamil, one Afghan. What a laugh.
But as the months stretched on, Suthan realized that every path before him was blocked; there was no way out.
Even though he stayed up all night, watching movies, drinking tea or walking in crazy circles round the compound, he couldn’t sleep during the day. Even if he dozed off, the slightest sound would jolt him awake. In summer, when the air conditioner unit above his bed droned on like a large engine, it was worse. Psychiatrists at Baxter prescribed anti-depressants but Suthan stopped taking the pills after two days.
When the Afghans received their visas, Suthan and his Tamil friends decided that they had to launch some sort of protest, or they would never get anything. If their actions seemed childish, it was because their options for protests were very limited. They had very little control over their lives and would be handcuffed and locked up if they broke any rules.
First, they slept outside in the cold winter. Then, for one month, they ate only one meal a day: dinner. They stopped watching movies or going to the gym. During this time, they wrote letters to DIMIA, to Prime Minister John Howard and to his ministers.
Some gave up, but depression and desperation drove others to go on a full hunger strike. Outside Suthan’s room, his friends placed a sign: Don’t disturb me until I die. Suthan’s plea for help was broadcast on Tamil radio in Australia and he took some comfort in the thought that people outside were learning of their plight.
A nurse checked Suthan’s blood sugar level. He felt his head spinning. Twice he was given a saline drip. ‘Don’t let them put a tube down your nose to feed you. It’s very bad,’ said the other detainees. Suthan suspected that if it came to that, he would be handcuffed and intubated anyway, so, after nine days, he stopped his hunger strike.
After the hunger strike, DIMIA offered the Tamil detainees a Removal Pending Visa and promised that they would be processed in two or three weeks, so that they could leave the detention camp and live in community pending deportation.
Detainees did not know if they ought to accept the offer of this visa. Their supporters, too, were confused, and asked for legal advice. Lawyers travelled to Baxter and advised them to accept the visa and once they were out, the lawyers could continue to fight for them. And so they signed the papers.
Once Suthan and his friends accepted this offer, they packed their bags and waited. Each week, two or three of Suthan’s friends were released, depleting his support system, one friend at a time. When he had no friends left, he stood outside the Officer’s Station every day, demanding to know when DIMIA would call.
In frustration, he kicked dustbins and fought with guards. He was so angry that he couldn’t bear to look at their faces. What kind of person appears friendly but, if you make a mistake, handcuffs you and says, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t do anything. These are DIMIA’s orders’? They were like shadow puppets in a big drama, talking and laughing, but hiding behind DIMIA, never taking responsibility for their own actions. Did they have agency to act according to their beliefs? Did they have beliefs?
Suthan had three psychiatrists. Each day, he saw one of the three, on rotation, as if the doctors were on a conveyor belt, and a hatch opened and he had a consult. But Suthan couldn’t speak freely because he believed that when the hatch closed and the conveyor belt moved on, the ever-present DIMIA was on the other side, asking the psychiatrists about the state of his mind.
The dosage of his anti-depressants was increased to the point that his arms and legs started to spasm. Tremors left him drained. Confused, Suthan stumbled along in fog of lonely terror. One day, blinded by rage, past caring, he shouted, ‘When I get out of here, I will fuck you all.’
Suthan barely slept. One day, in the pre-dawn hours, he saw two guards enter the room of a Bangladeshi man. Suthan trailed the guards and saw them take the man’s shoes. This aroused his suspicions that the man was about to be deported. Suthan rang the man’s supporters. It gave him satisfaction to learn the supporters arranged for protestors at the airport, who used loud speakers to broadcast information about the deportation. He believed that he stopped that deportation and this made him happy.
Finally, three months after Suthan’s agreement with DIMIA, he had a visa. Initially, he didn’t believe the news but DIMIA staff spoke to him several times, and it started to sink in. When Suthan told his visitors the good news, and they started jumping and cheering and celebrating.
Suthan told one of his psychiatrists, about his release. The kind psychiatrist said, ‘When you get out, if you feel you need to talk, you can come and see me any time, any day at my workplace. You don’t need an appointment.’
When Suthan finally stepped out of detention, ten people welcomed him. They took him for dinner at an Indian restaurant. ‘Have a drink, celebrate,’ they urged him but everything seemed too big.
DIMIA had booked Suthan into a motel for an overnight stay before his bus trip to Adelaide the next day. That night, alone in the room, he felt numb. His head started throbbing. For the first time in four years there was no guard with him. He remembered what the guard has said to him, ‘Don’t look back.’ He took out his clothes from his bag, nice good clothes and threw them into the bin.
He didn’t want to take anything with him that would remind him of Baxter.