Connie Levett Immigration Reporter, smh
October 22, 2008
BEFORE Villawood, Ms Bao said she had never seen barbed wire, or cockroaches and ants for that matter. Nearly eight years later, all of them spent in immigration detention, there is little evidence of the woman who was once a successful Hong Kong entrepreneur.
Detained in January 2001 and held for 6½ years in Villawood, Ms Bao (not her real name) is now in community detention, having served more time in Australian immigration detention than any person.
"Almost eight years now, even in community detention, you are still in detention. I have suicidal feelings," Ms Bao said, speaking publicly, through a translator, for the first time. "After eight years my mental health is gone. How much longer do I have to wait?
"Every day, every night I can't sleep. The fear is there. Anyone knocking on the door, my heart beats faster because of that. I am not willing to go back; I would rather die here. With my health the way it is, if they do send me back, I would die in prison."
During her time in Villawood, there were two early-morning attempts to deport her without warning. She got as far as the airport before lawyers intervened.
Her case is complex. She came to Australia to visit her sister in 2000 after her husband, a mid-ranking Chinese government transport official based in southern China, disappeared. "In China, people don't just disappear. They disappear because of the Government," Ms Bao said.
Her husband was convicted of corruption and sentenced to death. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
The Chinese Government issued an international alert for her in early 2001. She discovered this when she left Australia to visit her son in Canada.
En route, in Hawaii, she was prevented from entering the US, and returned to Australia, for which her visa was still valid.
In Sydney, immigration officers cancelled her visa because of the alert, and sent her to Villawood. Ms Bao, in her protection application, claimed the corruption charge was a cover for political persecution by the regime and that she will, by association, be persecuted if she is forced to return.
Her case has been rejected in the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Federal Court and most recently she was refused ministerial intervention. She has now appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
The Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, who has made clearing out long-term detainee cases a priority, this year personally reviewed - in conjunction with the Commonwealth Ombudsman - all long-term detention cases. In Ms Bao's case he found that it was "not in the public's interest to intervene".
The Ombudsman's report in March revealed the Department of Immigration had sought assurances from the Chinese Government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, that Ms Bao would "not be executed or subjected to torture or cruel inhuman or degrading treatment" on her return.
But Nick Poynder, a leading migration barrister, said diplomatic assurances were "not worth the paper they are written on". Countries frequently gave diplomatic assurances but once the person was within the assuring country's jurisdiction there was no way to enforce it, said Mr Poynder, who is assisting with Ms Bao's Human Rights Committee appeal.
Setting aside the protection concerns, Ms Bao is a broken, traumatised woman, whose composure quickly disintegrates when asked to retrace the steps that brought her to Australia.
Senator Evans acknowledged the severe impact on the physical and mental health of long-term detention in a July speech.
"Recent research undertaken by the centre for health service development at Wollongong University dramatically highlights the deleterious health impacts of long-term detention," he said.
Ms Bao is speaking out now only because she is so desperate. She says she will not return to China.
"When I came to Australia I saw it was a country where people have freedom," she said.
"Since these eight years of detention I regret such a country would do this to me. I regret being here for eight years … but I still need to stay here because there is no way I can go back to Hong Kong or China. I can't go anywhere. My only hope is here."