October 19, 2014 | the age
The notebook is blue, the spine reinforced with tape. The covers are fraying at the edges. The pages list every person assisted by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre since June 2001, the month it was opened. The notebook is full. It contains 7579 names.
Pick any name at random and Kon Karapanagiotidis, chief executive and founder of the centre, knows the story. A second notebook is now being filled. In the 13 years since the centre opened, it has helped almost 10,000 people.
Name number 1259 is Amal Basry. She was one of 45 survivors of a capsized fishing boat that became known as SIEV X. Three hundred and fifty-three asylum seekers drowned when the boat sank en route to Christmas Island on October 19, 2001. Amal was rescued after clinging to a corpse for more than 20 hours.
She told the tale of the sinking many times, with audiences ranging from one listener to a Melbourne town hall packed with more than 2000. She would get out of her sick bed to tell it. She spoke of the “children like little birds floating on the water”. She was condemned to bear witness. In a cruel irony Amal died of cancer in 2006. Her tale is a reminder of the courage it takes to risk the seas in search of a new life free of oppression.
It is also a reminder of the inhumane treatment by the Abbott government of asylum seekers who continue to undertake the journey. The boats may have stopped, but those who have made it here in recent years are living in hell.
There were many tears shed in Federal Parliament over lives lost at sea, but no tears for those who remain incarcerated in brutal offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus islands. Nor for those imprisoned on Christmas Island and in centres on mainland Australia. No tears for the thousands in community detention and on various forms of bridging visa. No acknowledgement that indefinite detention is a recipe for depression, suicide attempts and insanity. Countless studies have reaffirmed this.
Asylum seekers may no longer be dying at sea, but they are suffering on land. And some are dying on land: Manus Island detainee Reza Barati, beaten to death, and fellow detainee Hamid Kahazaei, a victim of medical neglect. And out on a bridging visa, in community detention, Leo Semmanpillai, who died of self-immolation. In all, more than 30,000 asylum seekers remain in limbo, stripped of hope. Denied a future.
With Coalition government plans to reintroduce temporary protection visas, this uncertainty is set to continue. Even babies born to asylum seekers in Australia are to be deemed unauthorised maritime arrivals. Consider this: of the 45 SIEV X survivors, those who were resettled in other countries immediately received permanent residency. It was understood they had suffered enough. In contrast, the seven assigned to Australia were placed on five-year temporary protection visas.
Amal Basry would wander the streets at night, unable to stop the recurring nightmares of her ill-fated boat journey and of the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein that claimed the lives of family members. As she told me many times, her state of panic was intensified by her temporary status. She had become a living ghost.
In stark contrast to the actions of the Federal government, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre provided Amal refuge. She received trauma counselling, medical assistance, material aid and legal representation. Above all, her story was acknowledged, her courage recognised.
The centre represents the other side of the equation. Refugees are welcomed. They are helped back on their feet in ways far too numerous to list in a column. Volunteers worked round the clock earlier this year to relocate the centre in the abandoned old City Mission in Nicholson Street, Footscray, turning it into a vibrant centre of refuge.
The centre’s services are expanding, with a shift towards empowering asylum seekers through innovative employment schemes and businesses. Its many donors, volunteers and staff are on the frontline in maintaining Australia as a vibrant, non-racist, multicultural nation. Yet, as Kon points out, many staff are in a state of grief and anger at government policies, and the despair they are inflicting. At the moment it’s the worse it has ever been for asylum seekers, he says.
October 19 is a day to reflect on their plight. And on the fact that despite talk of orderly processes, the Coalition government has cut its refugee intake by more than 30 per cent, at a time when the need is greater than ever. Australia accepts just 0.3 per cent of the world’s refugees, making us 67th relative to our population, and 74th relative to wealth.
The date should be designated boat people day, a time to share stories and acknowledge that apart from indigenous people, we are all, give or take a few generations, a nation of immigrants. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is a house of stories. Even the walls speak. They are adorned with larger-than-life photos of asylum seekers’ faces, accompanied by accounts of their journeys.
In mid-2005 Amal was in hospital receiving treatment for cancer. The nurses heard her screaming. When they ran to her bed, she was clutching her mobile. She had just been informed of receiving permanent residency. She was ecstatic. “I am a free woman in a free society,” she kept repeating. She was finally at home, her brave journey completed.
Meanwhile, the names in Kon’s second notebook are rapidly mounting.
Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer. He tells the story of Amal Basry in his most recent book, Violin Lessons