You’re facing persecution for your religious beliefs to a point where you fear your life, your pregnant wife has been arrested and sexually assaulted for not wearing her hijab correctly you’re forced to flee your beloved homeland for no other reason but to be able to see the sun rise tomorrow.
You arrive in a new land, seeking a better life after a treacherous journey fleeing corrupt authorities and the whim of the Indian Ocean. You’ve done nothing wrong, you have not committed a crime and you are placed in a custodial-like setting with minimal contact to the outside world.
The conditions and treatment has been the subject of great debate and yet, you still have not committed a crime. So, this raises the question, is it easier to live as a convicted felon inside Australia prisons than an innocent man or woman seeking refuge to escape persecution or the threat of being killed?
This is the story of a former professional Iranian footballer, Michael*. Michael fled his native land under threat and fear which caused grave safety concerns for himself and his family.
After he and his pregnant wife crossed through Malaysia into Indonesia, they were arrested under Indonesia’s strict refugee policies, released twice, crossed the Indian ocean on a journey that included minimal water and food, where they eventually arrived in Australia.
This was bad timing, however. Michael and his wife arrived at Christmas Island off Australia’s north-west coast inconveniently during 2013, shortly after the Australian Government tightened its immigration laws, diverting all arrivals to Nauru or Manus Island, virtually shutting the nation’s borders.
A source, Mr James*, has since met Michael and his wife who recounted the shattering moment when they realised that after their had had been flipped upside down, it was now spinning violently out of control.
“That just brought the world down on him. After going through what he did and keeping hope that they would eventually get there, apply for refugee status and things would be fine.”
Imagine enduring the treacherous trek across the Indian Ocean only to be told you’re not allowed to enter the mainland. What’s ever more damning, is the worst was still to come.
It all started when the pair were sent to the infamous Nauru Detention Centre off Australia’s North-East Coast.
“The worst situation was when he went from Christmas Island to Nauru. He described it as hell on Earth,” Mr James said.
Living conditions on Nauru are quite frankly from all accounts, sub-humane. The housing comprises of plastic tents, their treatment appears debatable and temperatures rarely drop below 25⁰C. To further complicate the matter, the couple’s first child was imminent.
Let’s compare conditions, privileges and basic human rights in refugee detention centres to traditional prison facilities. The first issue is often the most difficult one for refugee’s to comprehend and live with.
“He said that one of the biggest things is the indefinite nature of what’s going to happen next,” Mr James said, “If you’re sentenced to prison, you’re given a definitive period of time which you can countdown and tick off as the days go by. You can’t as a refugee or asylum seeker, there’s no definitive time period.
“You have no idea what tomorrow will bring.”
Mr James recounted Michael’s description of seeing fellow asylum seekers in Pinkenba, at Brisbane’s detention facility at night, and waking up to no sign of his fellow detainee the following morning.
“He said that what they [detention centre officials] tended to do was to come into the room in the middle of the night, wake them, tell them to grab their things and then they’re back on the plane to Nauru,” he said.
“He would say that you never fully go to sleep and you always sleep with one eye open. Every time you hear a noise, you start panicking and he would always say the he never sleeps because he never knew what was going to happen next.”
Michael and his wife were subjected to a similar hasty relocation to Brisbane.
“Suddenly they’re told to pack and that they’re going into community detention. No preparation, no warning and no idea how you’re going to survive in the real world,” Mr James said.
Griffith University Criminologist, Lacey Schaefer has extensive experience dealing with criminal offenders in traditional custodial environments in both Australia and the United States and stated this mistreatment of human rights would simply not happen for an incarcerated prisoner.
“As a prisoner, it’s your legal right to be kept in the loop about your case. If you wanted to file an appeal, your lawyer will work on that with you and you’re going to have months of advanced notice of things taking place,” she said.
“If you were to be transferred to another facility, you would be made aware of that well in advance, you would be able to collect your belongings, notify friends and family.”
Dr Schaefer suggests that while prison does strip inmates of freedoms, she likens it, in a sense, to a vacation. Minimal work is required and for inmates who have come from poor lives or homelessness, permanent shelter, three meals a day, security and the ability to relax is, in some contexts, an upgrade.
Essentially, this could be saying that a convicted murderer has greater freedoms and rights than a foreigner simply seeking a better life. As a convicted criminal, unjust treatment from officers would eventuate in complaints made to one of a number of sources. As an asylum seeker, it’s not so easy.
Dr Schaefer said while such blatant neglect of authority is not guaranteed to be eradicated throughout traditional custodial settings, numerous avenues would be available to prisoners to report and investigate such neglect
“If you did have a complaint as a prisoner, there’s a long list of people that you can contact and you can even reach out to the media,” she said.
“Immigrants have tried to do the same thing and they don’t have the same kind of networking resources and if you do feel that you’re disadvantaged as a prisoner, you definitely have more options than as a detainee.”
“It’s not always transparent, but there are mechanisms in place to make sure the authority of correctional officers is bounded whereas in detention centres, difficulties arise through specific requirements such as the signing of non-disclosure agreements.”
Michael’s eventual arrival at the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accomodation Centre at Pinkenba in Brisbane’s north provided a substantial upgrade in conditions, however, a recurrent threat was often used to keep detainees in line and under them thumb.
“They kept being told ‘you’re going back to Nauru’,” Mr James said, “it would be used as a threat and hang over them like a sentence.”
The threat and possibility of returning to the infamous detention facility on Nauru created incredible angst and anxiety amongst refugees to a point where detainees would self-harm in order to be temporarily relocated to Darwin, often for no more than a little respite.
“There’d be guys in there breaking their own bones. It’s quite common when they’re in Nauru so they can get into Darwin for medical treatment,” Mr James said.
After travelling to Darwin from Nauru in order to give birth to the couple’s first child, Michael’s wife broke down at the thought of returning to the “hell hole” (quote unquote) of Nauru so severely that following the couple’s relocation to Brisbane, she was placed in a mental ward at a hospital in Strathpine.
As a result, the couple were split for a number of months and Michael’s wife and infant son were separated indefinitely.
“They were separated upon arrival in Brisbane. He was in Pinkenba and she was on the Strathpine. That went on for quite some time, they were separated for many, many months in that situation. She never got to see her son for quite a while. They were permitted visits on occasion, but only for a very short amount of time and contact with the outside world was minimal at best.”
Again, this contradicts privileges permitted in Australian prisons.
“Another way that prison could be considered as “easy” is that I can still have visitors. I can still see my loved ones,” Dr Schaefer said,
“In detention centres there is no contact with the outside world, there’s no face-timing home.”
Limited access and outside communication was available at the Pinkenba centre, however it was strongly monitored.
The most chilling statement and indication of the toll that the current system places on asylum seekers was spoken to Mr James.
“He shared with me later on, once you lose hope, you’re finished. If there’s a glimmer of hope that you will get out of there, you will get permanent residency, you keep going. For him, it was almost like he’d lost hope and when they lose hope, they often attempt to take their own lives, and he was at that point.”
The couple now reside in community detention. However, Michael does not know what tomorrow will bring or even if he will still be able to call Australia home at Christmas.
But yet, convicted murderers do.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.