Tuesday, September 08, 2009


The Indian Ocean Solution

Christmas Island [preview]David Marr, The Monthly, September 2009

In a tin shed on Phosphate Hill, a brisk woman from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship sits facing a slight kid of 17. Though Ali Jaffari knows something of what is coming, he is battling nerves. His face is grey. One leg is trembling.

His father, Sharif, sits quietly beside him, his head bowed. An air-conditioner thunders in the background. Both men keep an eye on the envelopes the DIAC officer has on the table: brown envelopes that hold the answer to the rest of their lives.The Jaffaris are Hazaras from Afghanistan, a people long persecuted as Shia Muslims in a country overwhelmingly Sunni.

Sharif was still a boy when he fled the country to grow up in the large Hazara community in Iran. At some point, he moved to Pakistan and raised a family in Quetta. But as inter-faith violence intensified in Pakistan over the last year, the city became dangerous.

Sharif talks of more than 60 Hazaras murdered in the city. The Jaffaris narrowly escaped death.

"Two persons came by motorcycle. They stopped. They fired on us and they escaped." It was time to leave. "There were rumours Australia accepted refugees and it's a safe and secure country. So therefore we decided to come to Australia. That was our plan.

"Their arrival on Christmas Island in early May, along with another 185 refugees collected by HMAS Tobruk, provoked fresh denunciations by the Opposition of Labor's 'soft' response to boat people.

"There cannot be any serious argument about it now," said Malcolm Turnbull. "It has failed to stop the dreadful business of people smuggling." Hate was back in the air. The press noted the biggest spike in "unauthorised boat arrivals" since the heyday of the Pacific Solution in 2001. The island was said to be reaching bursting point.

As always, Christmas Islanders gathered to watch the refugees brought ashore. It's a spectacle that predates the Tampa affair by a decade. But things have changed: the islanders were no longer held back by police barricades, and there were no guards in riot gear on the barges.

Flying Fish Cove lies under cliffs covered by dark forests. Jurassic birds wheel overhead. The dusty hulk of the phosphate loader waits for ships. Along the shore are barracks, warehouses and a little mosque. This was not where the Jaffaris expected to find themselves. That all boat people heading for Australia are now held on Christmas Island came as a complete surprise.

"No one told us." They hadn't heard of attempts by Labor and Coalition governments over nearly two decades to deter people like them from coming here by boat. The messages had fallen on deaf ears. The Jaffaris paid a smuggler to bring them to this country because, where they come from, Australia has a vague reputation for decency.

As Ali was only 17, father and son were not taken to the high-security immigration detention centre at North West Point but to the old Construction Camp on Phosphate Hill above the town.

The immigration minister, Chris Evans, says Labor converted the facilities here to give children and families a "community environment". It's a grim fib. A high fence was torn down, but what's left is a cluster of tin boxes and concrete walkways surrounded by gravel.

Workers building roads in the bush sleep in dongas like these and are well paid for their discomfort. But on Phosphate Hill families sit behind closed doors day after day with air-conditioners working away. There is little privacy. Heavy rain turns the camp into a mosquito-ridden swamp. Although the guards have gone from the gates, no one is free to leave without an escort.

"It's not a community," said an islander who knows the place intimately. "It's a shithole.

"Under John Howard, boat people were held in detention for years as a harsh warning to those who might follow in their wake. Labor has dramatically sped things up.

The Jaffaris have waited only two months and twelve days for this encounter in the rec room with the woman from DIAC.Her news is all good and delivered swiftly: "The paperwork has gone very quickly and I'm pleased to let you know that the minister has granted you a protection visa." Ali sags a little and thanks her quietly. The father nods.

In real life, victories aren't marked by shouts and high fives, but relief that mimics exhaustion. She slips documents from the envelopes for them to sign. Ali asks that word be sent to a friend he made on the boat who is being held at North West Point. Ali wants to say goodbye. "I only know his name as Said." Promises are made. (And kept.)

There follows a last, bizarre interrogation. It's so pointless it's almost insulting, yet it's proof the Jaffaris have now achieved the privileged status of ordinary travellers.

"Are you," asks the woman from DIAC, "carrying goods that may be prohibited or subject to restriction such as medicines, steroids, firearms, weapons of any kind?" Ali and his father confer. "No, we don't have any." Nor do they have $10,000 or its equivalent in foreign currency. Nor any dried, fresh, preserved, cooked or uncooked food.

The translator labours away and the woman from DIAC crosses each box in their entry cards. Tomorrow they will be driven to one of the most fickle airports in the world, where a plane will be waiting to take them 2600 kilometres to Perth. The scene is not quite finished. The air-conditioner is turned off and in the silence that fills the shed, Ali thanks those who have looked after them on the island.

"We can't consider them as human beings," he says, "but better than human beings, like angels. We are very pleased being treated well and feeling safe and secure here. It can't be described by words."