August 04, 2013
First the people smugglers separated husband and wife. Now Kevin Rudd’s Papua New Guinea solution has made it final.
More than 3000 kilometres lies between Gita* in Brisbane and her husband Behrad* on Manus Island. (*Not their real names.)
Behrad was among boat people who landed on Christmas Island 13 days ago, four months behind his wife and two days after the Rudd government’s July 19 cut-off for asylum seekers hoping to settle in Australia. On Friday morning the 36-year-old arrived at the detention centre on Manus Island in PNG, the country he may have to call home for the rest of his life. The Iranian couple have little prospect of being reunited.
”We are confused,” 30-year-old Gita told Fairfax Media from her new home in Brisbane, where she has been living for the past 40 days, awaiting news on her application for refugee status in Australia. ”We don’t know what to do.”
Immigration Minister Tony Burke was quick to clear up any confusion. ”There are thousands of people in Australia applying for spouse visas and there are thousands of genuinely worthy cases,” he said in response to the couple’s case. ”I’m not going to prioritise somebody because they have dealt with a people smuggler.”
In Indonesia, Gita said, the first people smuggler they dealt with – a man called Nabi Yusuf – stole their $10,000 and broke his promise to put them on a boat to Australia. A diabetic, she became gravely ill when she ran out of insulin after three months in Indonesia.
Her husband pleaded with a second smuggler, who took sympathy on her and gave her free passage on a boat to Christmas Island.
But there was no place on the boat for Behrad, who would wait until July for his own voyage – and the news, on arrival, that nobody on his vessel would ever be allowed to live in Australia.
At Manus Island’s tiny airport on Friday, Behrad and other asylum seekers emerged from the rear door of a 737. Two Australian security guards escorted him and other asylum seekers to buses. Behrad stared blankly out the window towards a circle of security guards, local police and immigration officials ringing the tarmac.
As the bus began to fill, Fairfax Media tried to communicate with the new arrivals. Now Behrad came alive. He gave a thumbs-up, as if to say ”I’m all right”, then turned his thumb down. To a hollered question as to whether any of them have family in Australia, Behrad yelled back: ”Brisbane, Brisbane.”
He held up his identity badge to show his name, date of birth and the codename of the boat he arrived on, SIEV 798.
Through a fellow asylum seeker who spoke some English, he realised we wanted a phone contact. He held up fingers to communicate a mobile phone number.
The woman answering the call told us she was his wife. Gita talked to us through her Egyptian housemate as they spoke not in Farsi but in broken Arabic. Behrad, she said, had been forced to flee Iran because men at the petrol company where he worked had tortured him and threatened to kill him.
Behrad had expressed no concerns about himself, Gita said. ”He is only concerned about my health.”
If he could never come to Australia, might she move to Papua New Guinea? ”My health makes that difficult.” Her husband had told her she needed the modern hospitals and medical support in Brisbane. Moving her to PNG would put her in peril.
On Manus, Behrad’s fellow asylum seekers followed his lead and began holding up their identity cards. The G4S guards told them to sit down and stop speaking. After almost an hour, buses took them to their temporary detention centre, out of sight.
From there, unsupervised communication with the outside world will be an unlikely privilege. Gita did not know when Behrad might next call.