Speech For The Southern Women’s Association

So now we are at war. Well, some people enjoy that sort of thing.

I will never recover the love that I had for my country. My Government dumped the rescued asylum seekers of Tampa in a human warehouse in a 3rd World Desert Island. They highjacked nearly 440 drowned human beings. They squeezed them into the Naval Ship Manoora and lied to them about their fates. They enclosed them in wire and filed them away. Away from us, away from loved ones, lawyers or journalists.

Our Government’s dull genius was to invent a lucrative growth industry for security guards, clerks and professional caretakers. When I was in Nauru they seemed more numerous than the detainees.

Mr Ruddock’s lengthy processing gave the department time to concoct spurious justifications for rejecting the asylum claims of almost every Afghan, with only a few non Pashtun exceptions.

Right now, they are threatened with non-voluntary “removal”.

They have written, humbly requesting tents and perhaps some tradesman’s tools, because they don’t have homes to go to. Or they’re too ashamed to seek out family who’d borrowed money on their behalves. Some detainees think that with a few tools they might be able to return to Iran, for paid work or slavery on Iranian building sites, where they’d been bullied and robbed before. Their letters say quietly what Mr Ruddock knows – “We will starve.”

DIMIA has sent these poor Hazara back to Afghanistan, where whole villages have new occupiers and houses new occupants, and forgotten warlords have resurfaced, and nothing and everything is changed. Afghanistan is laced with mines and cluster bombs. Our military has blown it up like biscuits.

What possible damage can the shipwrecked, worn, sad, war ravaged souls on Nauru, do to our country? There are now less than 450 detainees on Nauru and almost as many Australian Detention Centre staff. There is a similar story in Manus where there are only seven detainees.

I still see the beautiful pale flock of Afghan women in Nauru. Our Government will herd them to Kabul, while their husbands sob their hearts out on our heartless temporary protection visas in Australia? Those women’s deaths are imminent. Their children’s are a certainty.

Mohammed, Ali and my other friends have told me they would rather die than return, because they would have to murder, loot and rob, to survive.

They write that they are sorry to waste my time, and they are sorry to trouble me.

I will never forget those young Hazara men. I think of them and I think of their dignity, their subtlety. I will never forgive those who sacrificed them. These men are the YOUNG DEAD and who can claim that we haven’t killed them?

If you find my language emotive or unfounded, think of Payadar – a man with five children, returned to Afghanistan still writing to my mother, living out of doors in Kabul, despairing of any place to spend the rest of his life.

Or Mohammed Mehdi, ID No. 105, now in Kabul, he knows I’m trying to send him money and references for a job, and yet I haven’t heard from him since his last email on 27th January. In Nauru he took enormous personal risks for me and later for Sarah. Daily, he taught English, prepared letters and translations, he poured over rejection letters, critiquing their inconsistencies, errors and malign findings. It was all to cost him dearly. But if anyone was going to survive it would be him, I told myself, he was sensitive, highly intelligent, skilled and a diplomat, and yet where is he?

Here is his letter from Kabul of 27 January 2003 – Mohammed Mehdi. He says:

“The police stopped our bus in a remote desert and got us out of the bus. Checking our pockets and luggage they took all of our money. As I resisted they started beating, slapping and kicking me. Then they forced me to back into the bus and went away.

Anyhow I have go through all these hardships and difficulties here in Kabul. And at the moment I am teaching English Language at this private Educational Center which can hardly allow living from hand to mouth. I can have lesser time to study and fewer facilities to work. Kabul is very much overpopulated and everything is very much expensive making many basic things inaccessible for most of its populations. It is very much insecure as well. No one feels secure at nights at the homes and days in the streets and roads. Here is always a fear existing in every one’s life fear of rocket attacks from the mountains surrounding Kabul and fears of lootings and robberies at nights and on the days. A large number of Kabulis spend their whole nights guarding their streets and their houses.

There are gangs of armed thieves who enter the houses in groups and take away everything.

This is the situation in Kabul. The security situation in the other provinces is much worse. Not only lootings and robberies are something usual everywhere but armed groups are competing with each other to gain more controls of the cities, villages and towns. So far three representatives of the transitional administration have been refused entry in my hometown Jaghoori. It is ruled by the armed groups controlling different parts of it.”

I am proud that I assisted the documentary, I am as in awe of the BBC as I am ashamed of the ABC, this government, this opposition and this Australian media.

I knew many of the detainees on Nauru by letter and fax. My attempted sponsorship of Mohammed Mehdi enabled that and I was able to collect names, stories and news via fax and letters from Nauru.

Most of my efforts to share the information I was getting were gracelessly ignored by Australian media. These were claims of hunger, thirst, inadequate accommodation, jailings, riot, missing people and drownings.

The eloquence and pain of their letters was always commented on, but never put into print. I had received some of John Pace’s documents for Amnesty that alleged brutality, mistreatment, deprivation or the deliberate spiking of food for children with chilli or salt, humiliation, beatings and abuse, designed to get the people to leave the boats of rescue like the Tampa and to comply with their aggressive captors, our SAS, and our defence forces and submit their freedom and their fates to cruel detention in the care of the carrion feeders, the IOM and the Nauru government, intent on turning these detainees into dollars; the new Pacific Perversion. Amnesty, for their own reasons, did not release the documents they had collected, translated and studied in London. I needed to get the accounts myself, they wouldn’t be mailed to me, I had to go to Nauru myself.

Carmen Lawrence helped Spare Rooms for Refugees by launching our report “Soldiers, Sailors and Asylum Seekers”, and still it sank without trace. The media were inert yet again to scandal or conscience. “Soldiers, Sailors and Asylum Seekers” is based on the 60 handwritten accounts in English and Dari that I collected personally with Sarah Macdonald. They dovetail with the Amnesty accounts, the stories fit.

For over a month in the case of the Tampa group the detainees were subjected to the violence and coercive behaviour of our SAS and the Navy. When our Prime Minister praises our precious SAS and Navy, I see bullies, not heroes.

Nauru’s own people suffer from violence, alcoholism and obesity, they seemed sullen and depressed but never stupid, they know they’ve been insulted and they know there’s worse to come.

Living, whether you’re a Nauruan or an Australian requires you to have the possibility of attaining self-respect. Refugees and Asylum Seekers are being deprived of theirs, but then so are we, the quality of any life depends on our qualities of humanness and respect for others. Fragile, sad asylum seekers need more than sustenance, and so do we.

In the BBC’s documentary “The Pacific Solution” Sarah Macdonald reads from those handwritten documents, boldly stating the brutalities Nauru’s detainees claimed to have experienced. No Australian journalist would quote them, the defence forces are very popular since East Timor and the ABC told me these were mere “allegations” against the SAS, the Navy and Army. She was quite relaxed about accusing our Government’s military of the use of electric truncheons, brutality and even torture.

Back in June, Sarah Macdonald of the BBC introduced herself to me and spoke of her wish to get to Nauru, and to use my help.

While I was thinking about it, she said dryly “Your government is so corrupt it reminds me of the last days of the John Major government – the BBC is fascinated by your appalling politics.”

I liked her immediately and as I’d found out about a lengthy pacific air ticket that allowed three days transit visit to Nauru without a visa, I said “let’s go!” I had been unable to persuade any Australian journalist to get there with that ticket, when they whined about Australia’s visa restrictions.

We don’t live under an extreme conservative government, we live under an authoritarian, corrupt and ruthless government, and John Pilger, who reviewed and recommended Sarah’s BBC production, called our government extremist, and it is. Four Corners did not screen “The Pacific Solution”. They said they’d done their three asylum seeker stories.


Nauru is a sick little country, it’s an exemplary model of unsustainability and the Pacific Perversion known as a policy is it’s perfect accompaniment. If turning detainees into dollars is going to be the new industry to emerge in this already ominous century then living well or in good conscience as Australians is an unsustainable wish. Australian kindness and fairness is eroded and vanishing like so many dusty memories. We’ve also depleted other resources, the respect of other countries, even tiny Pacific ones like Nauru that we’ve bribed and humiliated, and who now hate us for it.

The Pacific Solution is about degrading the resources of people, as much as it’s about waste, and we are wasting far more than the $500 million the Pacific Perversion is priced at over $400 per day per detainee, most of them have had two Christmases there, cruelty like this really costs.

Sick countries are always prey to parasites and we’ve supplied an army of unwitting carrion feeders, builders, security guards, APS officers, DIMIA officers, the International Organization for Migration (the IOM), electricians, telephone engineers, mechanical engineers, plumbers, psychologists, translators, doctors, DIMIA staff. These happy bottom feeders are trying to turn what should not be into a reality. And they are. They’ve constructed a Hell in a white hot baking tray. Hell should be chaos, not organised like this one. And no matter how unsustainable, the ugly project grinds on.

The Pacific Solution is terminal, but when it dies, we’ll have to keep repairing Nauru’s only source of water, a broken-down desalination plant and its electricity supply, because Nauruans share a single fate they will become environmental refugees. And they’ll be ours. Wages, even public service wages are mostly unpaid in Nauru, banks are mostly closed, Kiribatis (the workers of Nauru) are returning home after careers of 20 years in Nauru. The local Chinese are also departing, their shops are raised and they feel unsafe, and threatened.

There is no natural port or harbour to bring in goods. After four months, the Australian Government realised it must fly in supplies from Brisbane each fortnight if it wanted to keep order or staff. Petrol is siphoned from any parked cars, water is stolen, plants won’t grow, phosphate dust coats everything, telephones don’t work, electricity is rationed, sewerage seeps into the coral and flows back in from the sea.

Our money is keeping the airline in the black, it services the whole of the Pacific, when our solution vanishes, so will the airline that brings supplies, aid and the outside world.

For the moment we pay Nauru’s shipping and phone bills, its medical supplies and the many hospital bills of some of its corrupt ministers who choose our private hospitals for their superior care, and their secrecy.

The film the Pacific Solution was made by the BBC and has been screened on all of its networks, it’s been seen by millions, lauded by journalists like John Pilger, and produced a very split but interesting viewer reaction. I assisted this film because Four Corners asked me to. I believed them when they said they’d buy it from the BBC. The ABC declined the program. The nervous producers told me they’d done “three asylum seeker stories”.

So, now, at last we are at war. Mr Howard has become remarkably sanguine, and is newly prepared to accept the Iraqi refugees this new and improved Gulf War will generate. And what sort of refugees will these be? They’ll be Saddam’s unemployed secret police or members of his republican guard. We’ll welcome them and toss them into the midst of the already wrecked temporarily protected Iraqis they used to enjoy persecuting. It’s grotesque.

Last night we sat with Iraqis who’d spent seven years in Saudi Arabian refugee camps – abandoned there because they’d had the blind faith to believe the blandishments of George Bush Senior. They’d taken part in the uprising against Saddam that America said would be in their interests to provoke.

In their company, we met a more recent refugee, his temporary protection visa has nearly expired, but his wife and children languish in Nauru. He hasn’t seen them in seven years.

We helped Bronwyn Adcock get into Nauru in January for SBS. She’s still in shock from what she learned there. She feels she failed because her story didn’t unsettle anyone. She used the same trick of travelling as a transit passenger to get into Nauru, legally but briefly. Since our visits, that loophole has been closed, as we learned to our cost last week when a group of lawyers, translators and doctors were turned back from Nauru, unable to use the only useful but valid parts of their tickets to enter Nauru. We’d subsidised this further failure. I feel as crumpled as the hundreds of Nauru letters that I’ve received and filed over 18 months. I feel that I’ve never worked so hard for so little success.

Many of the sufferers of Nauru’s camps were the best and brightest of their former homes. Like all refugees they could have revivified and enriched our country and sent direct aid, hope and aspiration to their loved ones left behind. Those same loved ones who sacrificed all to get their young out of perpetual trouble. Out into a fair and democratic world, the “free world” as George Bush calls it or “Tomorrowland” as Walt Disney did before him, only to find that freedom and tomorrow belong only to those who already have possession of them.

Nauru’s own people suffer from violence, alcoholism and obesity, they seemed sullen and depressed but never stupid, they know they’ve been insulted and they know there’s worse to come.

Living, whether you’re a Nauruan or an Australian requires you to have the possibility of attaining self-respect. Refugees and Asylum Seekers are being deprived of theirs, but then so are we, the quality of any life depends on our qualities of humanness and respect for others.

Fragile, sad asylum seekers, need more than sustenance, and so do we.