Despatches from Leonora (January-February 2011)

In January 2011 Giovanni Torre travelled to Leonora to interview local residents, community leaders, Traditional Owners and asylum seekers detained at the Leonora Alternative Place of Detention. He conducted further interviews in February.

The names of unsuccessful or unresolved asylum seekers have been concealed to protect them and their families.

“Pashtun always say; Tajik go to Tajikistan, Uzbek go to Uzbekistan, Pashtun live in Afghanistan and Hazara go to graveyard.”

When choosing between the graveyard and Leonora, Zed chose Leonora. More precisely, Leonora chose him. After three months on Christmas Island, the young Hazara man had spent seven more at Leonora, 230km north of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia’s eastern goldfields, when we spoke.

He does not know if he will be accepted as a refugee in Australia. His last interview with an immigration department official was 98 days earlier. He describes the time in days, bringing a searing clarity to the wait; the uncertain hope every morning, the anxiety every night.

Zed exhibits signs of emotional fatigue, frustration and sometimes disbelief at what is happening to him.

“My case officer tell me Afghanistan safe, Afghanistan not safe for me. I talk to him about my situation, he say ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’. All Immigration say this; ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’ just like this.”


Sharmyla Janafark beams widely. Two days previously, after 11 months in detention, she learned she had been accepted in Australia as a refugee. The 23 year-old Sri Lankan Tamil journalist hasn’t had her security check finalised, so she’s not sure when she will be released from Leonora – but she knows it will happen, and that is enough reason to smile.

Much is made of the idea the war is over in Sri Lanka, that the fighting in the north and east of the country is over and the once indomitable Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam vanquished. Shrymala is from the south, but has been accepted as a refugee in Australia, so was the war the problem? Is it really over?

Australian-based Sri Lankan human rights advocate Dr Brian Senewiratne described the conflict not as between the authorities and the Tigers, but as “a war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil people”.

Shrymala explains; “It was not safe. The problem was the Government. There was fighting.”

Asked how many years Sri Lanka was dangerous while she lived there, Shrymala, nineteen years-old when she fled, looks genuinely surprised by the question.

“Nineteen years. It was not safe for nineteen years – for my life. It was very hard.”


Four weeks earlier, Dar, a Hazara man from Afghanistan, learned that his application for asylum had been rejected. He remains shocked by the decision.

“The Taliban target Hazara people. Eight years ago, they kill my brother.”

He says the Taliban are only part of the problem - that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, is opposed to Hazara people living prosperous lives and does not want Hazara’s based in Australia to assist their relatives back home. Asked what he had hoped from Australia, his answer was simple;

“For my life, I want to save my life.”

Dar has spent ten months in detention in Australia but remains determined and animated. He is stoic, but his voice cracks when he speaks of the murder of his brother. The atmosphere in the centre – hot and claustrophobic, is taking its toll.

“The people like me, ten months, one year in here in detention centre, some people are going now crazy, like me.”


When we met, Nar - Zed’s wife - had been in Leonora APOD for seven months after three on Christmas Island.

“First husband killed by Taliban. Brother-in-law killed by Taliban. One year ago, my brother was killed by Taliban.”

She fled from Afghanistan into Iran, where the regime denies basic services to the refugee population, then into Pakistan, where Taliban and Taliban-aligned militants continue to target Hazara people. The trip from Pakistan to Australia took one year.

Nar has seven children in Pakistan living with her sister and the mother of her late first husband. Her hope was to reach Australia with her second husband, receive asylum and then have her children brought safely to their new home.

“I would like my children to come here to be safe from the Taliban killing.”

She and her husband were in the first boat affected by the Gillard Government’s six month suspension of Afghan claims to asylum.


Leonora Alternative Place of Detention opened in June 2010 in a disused mining camp. It is now a rabbit warren of dongas with small courtyards, a dining room, medical clinic, children’s room and a recreation centre with computers, telephones, a television and table tennis. Outside there is an Astroturf five-a-side soccer pitch. There is a canteen open 7-9am and 3-5 pm from which detainees can buy food, toiletries and other items using a point system, and a 24-hour office at which essential supplies can be accessed for no charge.

As of January 27th, 203 asylum seekers were detained at Leonora. While the Department does not provide figures on a centre by centre basis, nationally there are 1039 minors in detention, including 464 unaccompanied children.

Leonora Shire CEO Jim Epis wrote in November 2010 that 37 per cent of the detainees at Leonora were under 18.

Zed believes that of the 203 people detained at Leonora 30 are under ten, perhaps even eight years of age.

“In Leonora have pregnant woman. Little children two years, three years. Five month-old baby inside detention.”

Pregnant women at 32-34 weeks are moved from the centre, with their families, to be near a hospital in a capital city.

There is a laundry with three washing machines and three driers, and there are plans to install a kitchen in which detainees can cook for themselves. The inability to cook for oneself and one’s family has been a source of some consternation for detainees. Being able to prepare food for your own family is of enormous importance, mitigating to some extent the sense of helplessness that can accompany detention. The site is rented by the Immigration Department from a company called NT LINK. Catering is provided by ACS (Australian Camp Services) and their OH&S standards require no resident to enter the current kitchen, only staff.

According to the Department of Immigration;

“There are a number of programs within detention facilities aimed at contributing to personal development and wellbeing and quality of life. They include English classes, art crafts, card making, kids’ activities, education for younger kids, sport, visits by relevant religious leaders and bingo.”
Iranians, Afghans and Tamils make up the vast majority of the centre’s population.


Psychologist Marcus Hampson, an advocate with the Refugee Rights Action Network – was in Leonora as part of the Caravan of Compassion, thirty activists who made the 13-hour bus trip from Perth via Kalgoorlie on January 21st to visit detainees at Leonora, to protest their detention and to offer moral support to the asylum seekers.

In 2002 he met a 17 year-old Hazara man at Perth detention centre and over a number of visits watched detention take its toll, which galvanized his opposition to the policy.

“(These visits are) …important for the people in detention because so often they have been told - not just by Australia - that they are not welcome… Australia was the big hope for them as a place that would welcome them and offer them security, so when they got here and found out that they were not welcomed by the government it was a real punch in the guts. A year in detention can really leave them feeling there’s no hope of ever finding a place in this world, so a visit like this is aimed at counter-acting those experiences. We show that people do care, that when they go through this detention centre experience and get out into the community there will be Australians that will welcome them.”


Richard Evans, leader of the Koara people, was born in Leonora 57 years ago, went south to Kalgoorlie for high school and work, then returned home two decades later. Like the Hazara in Afghanistan, the Koara people were once made to feel like an unwanted intruder in their own land, but times have changed and so has the town.

“We were not accepted in the community. We were isolated. We had our own houses to stay in, when we would go down the streets there the police would come hunt us and get us home, say ‘you can’t come here, get off’. We had that sort of upbringing here… It’s a lot different now because the old brigade has all gone, the new influx of people have a different kind of mindset to those people back then. You can sit down and have a yarn with them. Most of them are all different nationalities.”

Evans isn’t opposed to some form of mandatory detention, arguing that security checks are needed for asylum seekers, but, he adds, “not like this” and points towards the detention centre – which is almost literally in his backyard. “They can’t even go for a walk… It’s degrading to a human being.”


Shire of Leonora CEO Jim Epis said Leonora had a long history of welcoming people from diverse and often strife-riven backgrounds.

“In the 1950s, Gwalia and Leonora [twin towns] offered a haven to those European men and women who were picking-up the pieces of their war-shattered lives. At one stage there were 28 nationalities working on the Gwalia mine. They came to a town which offered them friendship and opportunity. Much of the history of Leonora relates to these people. The majority of people living in Leonora today are aware of its history and possibly consider the arrivals of the refugees as no different to the arrival of the Europeans in the 1950s.”

He added that the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Leonora live and interact in harmony.

“It is very important to consult. The ‘basic rule of thumb’ in consulting with Aboriginal people about their business is the same rule that applies to negotiations in any context - honesty, openness, frankness and good humour. Aboriginal people have, over the past few years, expressed increasing pride in their aboriginality and have expressed pride in the community in which they live. Australia is a nation of diverse peoples where diversity should be celebrated within a unified whole.”


Terry Demasson has lived in Leonora for 54 years. He works for the Leonora Painting Service and believes the centre has been of significant economic benefit to the town, but his acceptance of the centre stems from a deeper philosophical standpoint.

“I’ve lived in Leonora since 1957, but I can’t say I’m not a boat person – who isn’t a boat person?”

A fourth generation Australian with French Canadian roots, he argues that those who don’t welcome asylum seekers in their town need to take a closer look at their own history.

“They’ve only got to go to the Leonora Cemetery – who got this place going? Afghans. Afghans who brought the trading to Leonora. They were very pleased to use them then for camel trading or carting their stuff around, they were very pleased to use the Italians and the Slavs underground, they were very pleased to bring English here, now all of a sudden everyone’s a ‘boat person’ – and they’re not even boat people, they’re plane people – they fly in to Leonora (he laughs), and I mean plain people – P L A I N, just normal plain people.”

Demasson believes some of the fearful reactions in Northam and Inverbrackie featured heavily in news broadcasts is “f***ing over the top”.

“One mistake and you’re out. Now they wanted to come here… They’re not going to come out and rape and pillage and burn the place down – give me a break.”

Damesson supports mandatory detention and is critical of the protest, but believes Australia has an obligation to process and protect refugees.

“You have to have a detention centre because otherwise everybody would go ‘right-o let’s go to Australia’… But once they get to Australia you got to look after them, you can’t say ‘get back on the boat and go home’. So what do you do once they are here? You got to look after them, and that’s what we have been doing.”


Susan Johnson and her husband have owned and operated the White House Hotel since 1996. She’s lived in Leonora for 33 years, moving from Kalgoorlie to Mr Johnson’s town when it was home to about 600 people. The small, close-knit community made her feel at home.

“I’ve got four kids… I am glad that I’ve lived here with them growing up. It’s a quiet, safe place.”

Mrs Johnson says the town is about 2000-strong now, augmented by a population of mine workers. They’re predominantly fly-in fly-out but get along well with the permanent residents. She says that when the detention centre first began operating, some locals were aggrieved by a lack of consultation or even notice.

“Well some of us were not happy at the start because we were told nothing until the planes land and then ‘they’re here and that’s it’. Now, I live right next door to them and, other than at 12 o’clock at night playing bongo drums which pisses me off, they’re very quiet.”

Apart from the disquiet around the establishment of the centre which quickly dissipated, Mrs Johnson hasn’t seen it make any significant difference to the town.

Jim Epis said “before the Department decided to relocate the refugees to Leonora, they asked Council to obtain views from the community. Aboriginal leaders and others in the community responded positively.”

He said that when the first plane arrived there were “a few issues from a minority group of onlookers not happy with the new arrivals” but that had “settled down now”.

The most high profile example of an “issue” occurred on June 7, 2010. Local volunteer ambulance officer Jo Ruprecht had been at the airport on unrelated business when 86 asylum seekers from Christmas Island were arriving. Ms Ruprecht, still in her St John’s uniform at the end of a shift, was interviewed by a Channel Seven reporter and said she would not attend a call from the detention centre. She subsequently stood down after conversations with St John’s.
Alan Churchill, the Goldfields regional manager for St John Ambulance, said at the time; "A volunteer saying there's someone in the community that they wouldn't go and attend - there's no room for us to move on that. There are some things that are not negotiable with the organisation and choosing who we go to is certainly of them."

Letters, mostly in Farsi, were smuggled out of Leonora detention centre on January 23rd, 2011.

One Hazara woman, M, wrote:

“Since my entry into Christmas Island it’s been 8 months now,
and it’s been three months and ten days since my last interview.
I am lone woman who has left behind three small children to
go on a very hard trip. My husband has been deported to

I have left my children with my sister and my sister is very ill.
And I have come here.

With all the problems that I have, I have become very ill and
now I have tumour (in) my throat now. The hospital here and the
doctors here don’t do much. It’s now been four months that I am
going through severe pain.

The doctors, they only give me Panadol. They constantly tell me to come tomorrow with giving me a clear path. They are playing with me.

I’m extremely exhausted and in pain and at night I have severe
insomnia because of my life state (emotion and physical).

The only thing I ask for is to help the scream of this lone
woman. Please answer the interview as quick possible and save from me from this situation.

With lots of thanks”

In a second letter written the day it was smuggled out, she adds;

“…(still) no answers and I have been left between heaven and earth. My throat has a lump. Please take me to a hospital. Nobody listen to me. It’s now been six months that I am in pain and I have no sleep.

Of you people who respects humanity I ask you for help.”


The Refugee Rights Action Network gathered outside the detention centre on January 22 and 23rd, 2011. Some of the delegation visited with detainees inside.

Dar says he is glad to hear the Farsi words for “freedom” and “welcome” called out from beyond the centre’s fence but claims his attempt to go to the gate to speak with the protestors was thwarted.

“I am very very happy – the people inside the camp very happy. But the SERCO officer, don’t let (us), say to the people ‘it is very problem for you, you don’t go up’ – the SERCO people are pushing the people. Here is like jail, is not like camp - is like jail.”

Zed alleges guards told him speaking with the refugee advocates could be detrimental to his chances of securing asylum in Australia.

“Immigration and SERCO also told us lie. For example, refugee rights commission people come here, SERCO told all people ‘they catch your photo and they misuse your photo in internet and they don’t like you’ and like this, this, this, and also laughing, but we know, I seen them before in this detention centre, these people are not bad people, these people like us. Always SERCO lie, Immigration lie.”


After three years in limbo, moving from one untenable situation to another, Shrymala Janafark made the journey to Australia.

“The trip was very dangerous,” Shrymala says. “18 days in a small boat.”

She and 51 other people made their way to Australia almost one year ago, after which she spent seven months on Christmas Island, then four in Leonora. She said she preferred Christmas Island, where the facility was bigger and the weather less extreme.

“For a long time, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Before yesterday immigration told me my case is accepted – don’t know when I will leave but soon.”

Shrymala worked as a journalist in Sri Lanka and hopes to do the same in Australia after studying to improve her already impressive English. She has gone from reporting the news to being the news but soon will return to the other side of the microscope, her main passion being hard news and politics.


At peak times, more than fifty children from the centre have attended the local schools. Three demountable classrooms were provided by the Department of Immigration, along with six additional teachers with language skills.

At first the detainees were in separate classroom to assess their level and English, and then gradually filtered into the classroom – and by the end of the 2010 school year all detainee children were integrated into the local system. The children have played inter-school cricket and more than a dozen attended the school ball.

For younger children held in the detention centre, toys have been donated, many from the local community, 43 boxes from the Sacred Heart College in Perth, and some collected and donated by the Refugee Rights Action Network.

In early 2011, plans were afoot to start a playgroup with parenting classes at the centre with the help of an asylum seeker who is qualified as a pre-school teacher.


Jim Epis describes the detention centre as a “boon” economically.

“The Shire receives airport taxes paid by the airline everytime the aircraft land, that’s around $2000-$3000 each time. Payment for recreational facilities and other services all help the local economy. Hire of vehicles appears to be a lucrative business. The Department and its contractors prefer to buy from local retailers… There are 60-70 support staff who now live here, spending money in hotels, restaurants, retail outlets and tourism attractions.”

Mr Epis said the “newcomers seem to have been well accepted by the locals”.

“In the first week the refugees were here, the local residents, including Aboriginal people, asked when they could help by taking families sightseeing and on picnics. Some of the loca people have formed groups to help women with bead making, arts and crafts and so on. They use the recreation facilities and parks and oval, playing cricket and soccer and other activities [escorted by SERCO officers]. Children from the detention centre attending school in Leonora for the first time was expected to be daunting, not only for the vistos but the locals as well, however all went off without a hitch.”


The Hazaras seem to be refugees in their own land. Zed describes a lose-lose scenario, in which success of any kind attracts hatred and failure leaves people vulnerable.

“If Hazara have money, big problem for him. If Hazara have no money, also big problem for him. If they want to have education, is also big problem.”

For Zed, the war was an ongoing day-to-day reality – with NATO troops seemingly more focused on defending the capital and the dubiously entrenched Afghan government.

“If Taliban attacked in my province, fighting with Hazara, killing, US military just hear the sound of firing, not coming in the night… in the night very dangerous, you can ask UNHCR, UNHCR and US military can not move at night from one area to other area.”

Like many immigrants, he dreams of one day returning to his homeland, but says the problems there are extreme and entrenched.

“We thinking one day will come Afghanistan have peace and we will go back to our country… But now - no freedom of religion, no right to education, higher education… “It just talking, government, not doing anything. If you go in my area, if you are Christian, the people thinking if they kill you, they kill Christian - they will go to paradise, to heaven! Like this thinking!” He seems disgusted and outraged by this.

Zed presents a scene of uncertainty, of shifting alliances, corruption and no rule of law.

“Pashtun work with government in day, at night they go with Taliban, make Taliban. In this situation Hazara can not live in Afghanistan. When we call our (home) area the people told us, Taliban come here and kill 20 people – front of their children, front of their families, front of their wives.”


As of late January, 2011, there were more than 2,500 Afghan asylum seekers in Australian detention centres. Forty-nine had had their applications rejected after exhausting the legal process.
Days before I first spoke with the detainees, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Dr Jamaher Anwary, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Regional Representative Richard Towle.

“In order to dissuade people from risking their lives by joining people smuggling ventures, it is important that Afghans found not to be owed protection by Australia are returned to Afghanistan,” Minister Bowen said.

The Australian Government pledged to assist the Afghan administration repatriate unsuccessful asylum seekers, promising funds to upgrade Afghanistan's passport system and for a housing project near Kabul.

"Never before today has there been an involuntary return from Australia to Afghanistan. So this underlines the importance of today," Minister Bowen said. "Without today's agreement it would be impossible to contemplate involuntary repatriation to Afghanistan."
Zed slammed the deal as a sham that would facilitate corruption in Afghanistan.

“Minister Jamaher Anwary come in Australia and want people who was rejected… forced to come back in Afghanistan. Afghan government promises good education, for good work, for peace – in this, is kidding. Because - three million Afghanis in Iran as refugees, two million in Pakistan, so why he come here, just for 2000 people? Because of money. Because Australian government give the money for refugees, and they (the government) keep in their pockets.”

“They don’t care Afghan citizens, they don’t care anything, only for money… All world give money to Afghan government for rebuild, maybe trillion dollars but Afghan government don’t invest two per cent of all money, it goes to ministers, it goes to Karzai, goes to Karzai brothers… All money goes in their pockets.”

The response of Dar, who could be sent back to Afghanistan under the deal between ministers Bowen and Anwary, is less detailed but no less powerful;

“My message for Australian people – for all the people of Australia – I need help for my life, I just need save my life. I need help please – for my life.”

Two weeks after cutting the deal, under pressure from international human rights groups, the Afghan government denied the arrangement reached with Australian authorities would provide for forced repatriation.

Minister Anwary claimed reports of unsuccessful Afghan asylum seekers being forced to return home were "poisonous propaganda".
The head of the Kabul sub-office for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Grainne O'Hara, was furious at the denials.
"I think the Afghan government, having gone through a very lengthy process of negotiation with the Australian Government, is quite fully aware of the terms of the agreement," she said.


It has been alleged that one staff member at Leonora Alternative Place of Detention was sent home for bringing a camera on site and taking a photo of a child, and another officer was allegedly suspended when a sexual harassment charge was brought by a detainee and issued with a first and final written warning for breach of conduct. On this, and on the alleged pushing of detainees by guards during the protest, a spokesperson for the Department said they would not be able to go “into that level of detail” when discussing claims of wrong doing.
“SERCO trains staff appropriately to deal with detainees in a professional and humane manner and ensure all staff are trained in client interaction. The safety and wellbeing of people in our care is of paramount importance to the Department. Any allegation or complaint of inappropriate or criminal behaviour is taken extremely seriously and investigated and appropriate action is taken. The Department and SERCO have a robust complaints mechanism in place.”


Richard Evans sees the fate of his town, his land and the detainees themselves as symptoms of the dominance of the white settler communities.

“Two hundred metres from here you can see my people living in third world conditions, while the wealth of his nation has been pillaged and taken out of this country. I am supposed to be king of my country here, and I am living in poverty. John Howard’s 10 Point Plan made it impossible for us to receive native title. He changed the rules to benefit the white society and we are missing out because of this.”

Evans holds “no bitterness” towards people seeking asylum in Australia and is not opposed to them being in Leonora.

“220 years ago the First Fleet came into Australia and took over. Now they are telling these people here, boat people, ‘nick off, get going you boat people’, and that’s the First Fleeters saying that.”

He hopes to build ties between the Koara people and the asylum seekers and applied to visit the centre to conduct cultural awareness activities, but has not heard back in five months from the centre’s management.

“I want to be able to take these people out to the country and tell them the story of the land, so they can have an understanding of the land.”


Ngalia elder Kado Muir grew up in and around Leonora, now spending “half of his time” there and the rest in Perth. An anthropologist and human rights advocate, he opposes the mandatory detention of asylum seekers outright. While Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she understood “the anxiety around unauthorised boat arrivals”, those fears are something of which Muir takes a wry view.

“What we see it as is one group of boat people getting hysterical about another group of boat people.”


For Zed, the Taliban – who still control significant swathes of the country - is only part of the problem. The Karzai government can not be trusted, and the history of the Hazara in Afghanistan is an unhappy one.

“If government promises for peace, in my opinion they are kidding with us. Not peace in Afghanistan. Because Pashtun have power, Pashtun come in my area and do anything they want, take anything; my money, my land, my wife, my sister - kill, kidnap, anything. Before Taliban, before 70 years, before 100 years (Pashtun) also kill Hazara. They are thinking Hazara is Pashtun enemy, not Pashtun enemy – Hazara just want peace.”

Zed seems painfully aware of some of the claims and allegations that have been made about asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia.

“You can’t show me any area where Hazara Afghan live (involved) with any terrorism activity, you can’t show us. Hazara want peace, Hazara want freedom… Hazara very very good nation… But Pashtun - Pashtun always say; Tajik go to Tajikstan, Uzbek go to Uzbekistan, Pashtun live in Afghanistan and Hazara go to graveyard. If education, if everyone can read and can write in Afghanistan, if everyone thinking good thinking – maybe peace come in Afghanistan. But, you can read history of Hazara, Pashtun killing us before 125 years ago… After Taliban, maybe some more, maybe Karzai.”


Shrymala Janafark passes the time in the centre reading books, talking, drawing her surroundings. She keeps an eye on the news via the internet and hopes to move to Perth and, after improving her English, work as a journalist. Her impression of Australia while living in Sri Lanka was of a free, tolerant and diverse nation. It was this, and not changes in Australia’s government or domestic immigration policies, that made it her destination.

“All people here of different nationalities… a very good thing, with people leading an independent life.”

Asked what she would say if she could say anything to the Australian people, she; “All we want is a peaceful life – an independent life.”


This letter in Farsi from K, an Afghan asylum seeker, was smuggled out on January 23rd.

In God’s name,

Peace be upon you, my name is K_

It’s been 11 months that I have been left in these camps.
And it’s been five months that our case has been accepted. And there is no sign of any visa.

When I say this to anybody, there is no answer.

Because I have a sick mother and her age is great. Day by day her sickness is getting worse.

Honestly this place for living is horrible and we a very tired.

With thanks and sympathy.


While troubled by the claims from the Afghan government about safety, Zed is not entirely surprised by them. What does surprise him is the attitude of Australia’s immigration officials.

“When we come in Australia, Immigration told us in Afghanistan now have peace. We shocked. How is possible Afghanistan have peace? But immigration told us – no, Afghanistan have peace… Everybody, especially Iranians, Arabs, when talking with us they know about my country. They said ‘in my country in news I saw Afghanistan big war, killing everywhere.’ Every citizen in any country in the world know about my country, know the truth, but Immigration – I don’t know how they don’t know about our life, about the truth. Everybody comes here, his body has blood, bullet, injury.”


That weekend saw days of 43 and 45 degrees in Leonora but fortunately the dongas are air conditioned. Zed and Nar tell of extreme heat, dust and, sometimes, snakes. Zed claims that medical problems are ignored for long periods, or not taken seriously.

“Lot of sick people. If some people complain… bad pain in tooth, SERCO give them Panadol for three month, after four month SERCO come call them and say ‘come you go to Kalgoorlie’… “When someone ask Immigration, what’s my answer I’m here 10 months, nine months I feel very bad here, Immigration answer ‘you feel very bad, you must go to your country, (then) you feel good’.”

The emotional strain of indefinite detention has been well documented and its effect on children believed to be particularly deleterious. Zed describes a woman at Leonora who has a son living in Australia as a resident but had her claim to asylum rejected after a ten-month wait. “She was crazy after rejection,” he says.

A Department spokesperson says all detention facilities have qualified medical and health service personnel on site.

“All people in immigration detention are provided with a range of healthcare services, including mental health support. DIAC continues to work with health experts such as the Detention Health Advisory Group to ensure health policies for people in detention are informed and evidence based.

“DIAC recognises that some people in immigration detention arrive with pre-existing mental health issues while others can develop over time. The Department is aware that events such as refusal of visa applications can place additional strain on people. Detainees can gain access to a range of psychological services during their time in detention, provided by mental health nurses, psychologist and psychiatrist. Where required, people in detention are referred for more specialist care, including specialist torture and trauma services.”

The Department does not provide statistics on incidents of self-harm at individual detention centres, but can confirm that between July 1 2010 and November 18, 2010, 79 incidents of self harm were record in immigration centres throughout the country, excluding hunger strikes.
“Self-harm incidents happen from time to time in detention and there is always an appropriate response. There have been several incidents of self-harm, all of which received medical attention. We take our duty of care extremely seriously and ensure all clients have access to appropriate health services, and we actively engage with each person in detention… All personnel who work with people in detention are trained to recognise and respond to the warning signs and risk factors of self-harm. Health services provide response to all reported incident of self-harm and ensure that all people attempting self-harm receive adequate medical and psychological support and follow-up.”

The government had recently introduced three new mental health policies which reflect “best practice approaches to identify mental health issues, provide psychological and psychiatric support to people in immigration detention”.


Nar is extremely shy about her English but eager to communicate. She describes the mood within the centre as “very tension” as people await the decisions on their cases.

“I want to know the decision. I am very upset – long time, no message, no word. We are talking for a long time, from Canberra there is no message… I would like for my children to come when I am accepted.”

In Australia she hopes to work as a beautician and seamstress, work which had extremely limited opportunities in a country still heavily influenced by the Taliban. Not being able to pursue gainful employment, however, as both a woman and a Hazara, was the least of her troubles.

“Taliban killed Shia. We are Shia. Pakistan is now in this position – Shia people getting killed in bomb blasts every day… “Afghanistan very dangerous for Hazara. Taliban comes for us… Ladies in very bad condition in Afghanistan. Taliban come into the home, kill husband and brother… Taliban…” She pauses with a pained expression on her face. “Rape ladies. Young, big – all.”

Because of the heat and dust Nar spends most of her time indoors. To pass time, she knits items like scarfs and “mufflers” for other people in the centre, and speaks with her seven children in Quetta, Pakistan as often as possible. They are aged 16, 15, 14, 12, 10, eight and six.

“In Quetta, it is like Afghanistan. They live in the Pashtun area… I talk by telephone. Six years has the youngest. He says hello to me, says to me ‘go outside and play with me’ I must say ‘no I stay in camp’.”

She wishes she could speak to more Australian people to explain her situation and why she has come.

“Please help Afghani people for Afghanistan is not good, very bad conditions for Afghani people. Help all Afghani people. We are here for safety, very good here.”


According to the Department of Immigration, the Government suspended Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum applications on April 9, 2010 - which proved to be four months prior to the Federal Election - with a review of the freeze scheduled after six months “as a result of evolving conditions in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka”.

“At the time the government decided to suspend applications, the situation in Afghanistan was evolving include with respect to the Hazara people. The fall of the Taliban, durable security in some parts of the country and constitutional and legal reform to protect rights of improve circumstances of Afghan minorities including the Hazara.”

But did the Australian Government believe Afghanistan is safe for the Hazara in early 2011?

“A range of information is available to decision makers collected from a variety of sources including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the US State Dept and UNHCR. The information is complex, variable at times and can be conflicting. However there are indications the Hazara people are experiencing a period of relative stability and in particular there is an absence of wide-spread persecution.”

The suspension was not extended beyond six months because “the Government considers it is now in a better position to assess Afghan claims.”

A United Nations report published in June 2010, two months after the suspension began, said insurgents had increased the level of violence in Afghanistan, and suicide bombings had tripled from the 2009 rate, occurring three times a week on average.


In October, after the enforced freeze ended, Zed was interviewed. By the end of January, he had received no word, despite being advised a decision would come within four to six weeks. Zed’s father was in detention for nine months, including time in Leonora, and received asylum five months after his own final interview.

“We called ombudsman, ombudsman complain to Immigration and after four days accepted as refugee.”

His father now lives in Victoria, where Zed hopes to live and work if and when he is released.

“We Afghani don’t like to take money, to take Centrelink money, we are also hard working men here, we are not criminal minds, we are very good thinking. If Australia accept me, I respect Australia like my own country. I respect the law, we understand we will do the hard work.”


Letter in Farsi from N, an Iranian woman seeking asylum.

From the beginning my entry into Australia now it’s been eight months.
It’s been 5 months since they (DIAC) interviewed me. I still don’t have an

I am a lone woman. My husband was killed 15 years ago in the
hands of the Iranian government.

I have four children with nobody looking over them - have been left
in Iran without supervision. And me, that is a mother, came for the
salvation of my children, in absence of support for my own safety,
and my children’s.

I have sent myself on this severely hard trip and have come here to maybe be given mercy.

Please, I am begging to help this lone woman as fast as possible.
Give me results to this interview as soon as possible, so I can
get psychological and emotional peace.


For Zed, the situation is becoming intolerable. He is convinced that if more Australians knew what was happening to asylum seekers – the position of asylum seekers would improve.

“Australian people must know, Immigration keep (us) for long time in detention and want we sign our deporting form and go back… People sign… when talking say‘we take death, we don’t take detention’.

“The people of Australia must understand we are not criminals, we are homeless. If peace in Afghanistan come back, we can’t stay (in Australia) because we love our country, we all want to help our nation. Every Afghani love Afghanistan. If Afghanistan have peace – no body come across a big ocean with 99 per cent chance of death for one percent chance, in small boat come here and many Afghani died in Malaysia to Indonesia trip, this ocean, and many people in detention (in South East Asia). All Afghani people take risk and our life risk because they want to work here for peace… Their life in danger – because of this they cross the ocean to reach here and want protected in Australia.”

Zed says the asylum seekers would be “happy” waiting six or seven months for a decision but waiting “one year, two years” without knowing their fate was crushing their spirits. He says they have not come “for good future, for money” and would have been happy to stay in Iran if the government had tolerated them, or in Pakistan were it not for the growth of Taliban influence and Pashtun nationalist militancy.


Physicist Peter Wilkie has been active in the Refugee Rights Action Network since the late 1990s. In Leonora for the protest, he said that some progress has been made since the Howard-Ruddock era but in many respects the situation has remained the same.

“While we have a government that is not actively pursing a punitive agenda as the previous government did, they’re certainly completely cowardly and caving on anything, any pressure for a harsh and regressive policy that the Coalition puts up. Every time you see a criticism from the Coalition - essentially saying you’re not being cruel enough to refugees - you see the ALP respond by hardening up. We’ve got a lot of work to do but that’s not going to discourage us. We’re determined and we’re going to keep fighting.”


The overwhelming impression from interviews with and letters by asylum seekers either rejected or still awaiting a decision is one of confusion and disbelief. Arne Rinnan, skipper of the Norwegian ship MV Tampa, was hailed as a hero in his homeland for rescuing 438 Afghan asylum seekers in 2001. Captain Rinnan said he never understood why his ship was boarded and turned around by Australian forces. Ten years later, asylum seekers seem equally baffled – which manifests itself in recurring themes; Why are we waiting? Don’t you know what is happening in Afghanistan? We are not criminals.

By all accounts most of the people of Leonora don’t believe the people in the detention centre are dangerous or even objectionable, and recognise benefits brought to the town by increasing the population by about 15 percent, including SERCO and Immigration staff.

Conventional wisdom suggests mandatory detention deters asylum seekers from endeavouring to reach Australia by sea, but could it be credibly argued that the increase in the number of Sri Lankan Tamils coming to this country has nothing to do with the Sri Lankan army’s final conquest of formerly Tamil Tiger-controlled territory and everything to do with the current government’s alleged ‘softening’ of asylum seeker policy? Could it be claimed that Hazaras in Afghanistan, after decades of discrimination and persecution, were scared off Australia by the threat of detention on Nauru but not by the threat of detention on Christmas Island?

Leonora Alternative Place of Detention is not Devil’s Island or Alcatraz, and nor should it be. The people who live in the centre are not criminals – and while individual Immigration staff members may remember that and treat the asylum seekers accordingly, the policy that comes from the highest tiers of government locks all parties involved into the twisted logic of the detention regime.

Giovanni Torre is a freelance journalist and an advisor to Senator for Western Australia Scott Ludlam.