Tuesday, December 21, 2010


We must never revisit the horror of Howard's policies

Amalina Wallace's Letter to the Editor, SMH, 21.12.10

Tony Abbott has described the Christmas Island boat disaster as an ''unspeakable horror'', and called for the reintroduction of the Howard government's policies. I am a former refugee decision-maker who has interviewed asylum seekers at Woomera, Port Hedland, Derby, Villawood, Nauru and Manus Island, and it is his words that fill me with unspeakable horror. The scenes I saw at Woomera and Manus Island in particular have left shocking memories of people who suffered cruelly.

Under the Howard government, Australia introduced a process of "screening out" refugee applicants, so that hundreds of people were put into legal limbo, denied access to lawyers and separated from family members, with no information about what happened to them or why.

The first time I entered Woomera, people were crying and screaming. An interpreter told me they were calling out "where am I?" "what's happening to me?", "when can I ring my family?" and "please help me".

The heat and harsh conditions led to significant mental problems, ranging from chronic depression and self-mutilation to hysteria and attempted suicide. I still recall the shock of interviewing people a few months after hundreds of decisions had been frozen at the end of 2001.

I had previously seen refugees with scars from cigarette burns or mutilated faces from torture in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan; now I was seeing people who were going mad. I interviewed a man with large, curved, thickened scars on his arms and torso, not from torture in one of Saddam Hussein's prisons, but from throwing himself repeatedly from the roof of a building at Woomera onto the razor wire. Some people were so chronically depressed they were unable to make it to the interview room, their chance of telling their story to gain release.

The people from the "children overboard" boat were tricked into going to Manus Island, where they were held in concrete bunkers left over from World War II, with water for cooking and bathing that had worms in it.

It is a huge error that such abuses were not investigated properly, and those responsible dealt with according to the law. By sweeping things under the carpet, no responsibility has been taken, and as a result politicians seek to further their ambitions by calling for the return of such a regime.

We must never forget what happened, and never allow it to happen again.