On 26 August 2001, the MV Tampa rescued Palapa 1, with 438 asylum seekers on board (369 men, 26 women and 43 children). In September 2001, the Howard government signed an agreement with the Nauru government to establish off-shore processing of asylum seekers on the island—marking the beginning of the Pacific Solution. It ran until February 2008, when the Rudd Labor government formally announced its closure.
In November 2001, Mohammad Ali Baqiri was a ten year-old Afghan asylum seeker who was travelling to Australia with his brother’s family, and a cousin; together making five kids under ten years old. They left because of the Taliban and the war that came with the NATO occupation. Mohammed and his brother sailed straight into Howard’s Pacific Solution. He spoke to Solidarity’s Feiyi Zhang.
How did you get to Australia?
We sold everything we had in Afghanistan and spent it all to get smuggled to Australia. They took us to Pakistan and made fake passports for us. Then we spent six months in Indonesia until a boat was ready to take us to Australia. Different smugglers all worked together because they couldn’t afford things on their own like the boat.
It took us seven days and nights to get to Australia. As soon as we reached Australian waters we were intercepted by the Australian Navy. The told us to go back but most of the people said we were not going to leave. Then they said they were going to force us to leave. All of the sudden a fire started on the boat.
Everyone was panicking; children, families. My brother’s family had six kids. Everyone was throwing themselves in the water. Luckily we had some life jackets. But they didn’t fit the kids. Two people died in that incident and my own nephew was unconscious for six hours. It took the navy two hours to pull us out of the water.
We were kept on the navy ship for a few days; then we were taken to Christmas Island. We didn’t even have beds at first. One pair of shorts and t-shirt was all I had for more than a month. We didn’t have any shoes and it was very prickly ground.
Then they said that if we wanted to go to Australia or have our cases processed we needed to go to Nauru. We were happy—we thought why not? But, we were in Nauru for nearly three years.
What was it like in the detention centre on Nauru?
Our detention centre was in the middle of Nauru. [This detention centre at Topside was the one re-opened by Julia Gillard.] We had to shower with salty water; the toilets were really dirty. It was just off. For a few months the food was good but after that it just kept getting worse. Most people slept on the ground because there weren’t enough beds. You had to do all your washing by hand.
I was young but for my brother it was very difficult. Many people suffered depression and anxieties.
They interviewed us and told us that we were not refugees. They told us that whoever wants to go back will get $2000. But people like us had sold everything. Half of the people took the money and left because they thought there was no hope. A couple of people I knew went back and they are now dead.
Before you came did you know anything about Australia’s policies?
When you live in Afghanistan, when you’re a refugee, you don’t think about whether you will be accepted because of policies. You are just running away to be in a safe place.
Why did people start hunger strikes?
They were sick of staying there for two and a half years and still being told there was no way they were getting to Australia. People got angry and thought we have to do something; we can’t stay here. They thought if we aren’t the real refugees, who are the real refugees? Unless we do something we wouldn’t be heard. We needed to do things together.
Three people sewed their lips and groups of people would join in every week to support them. My brother didn’t sew his lips but he was part of the hunger strike. He became unconscious and was sent to the hospital. Every time someone became unconscious we would send a picture to the media.
What was the result of the hunger strikes?
The hunger strikes put a lot of pressure on the Australian government. They showed that the government was keeping us there with no decisions. Then, suddenly, without any interviews they said that people were accepted into Australia.
People were happy but also crying because they wanted to know [why] didn’t they recognise us as refugees at the start, why did they keep us here for three years and now you are telling us that we can go to Australia?
The manager of the detention centre would say we would never go to Australia. But, we were actually the first family after the hunger strike to land in Melbourne.
I was ten when I got to the detention centre on Nauru; when I got out I was 13. They gave us Temporary Protection Visas and we got to Australia in July 2004. We were given three years and then they reconsidered whether we could stay.
What do you think about asylum seekers being sent to Nauru again?
They are going through the same problems we faced. We can’t let this happen again and again. I just feel really sorry for those people in those far away places and there is no media..
People need to take action, join forces and tell the government to not do it anymore. It’s also a waste of taxpayers money, they could spend money on something that is actually good.
Nauru detention unlawful?
As Solidarity goes to press, the constitutional challenge to detention on Nauru is winding up. A successful challenge could mean that asylum seekers would be free to leave the detention centre.
Human rights lawyer, George Newhouse, told the ABC, “Under the Nauruan constitution it’s unlawful to hold an asylum seeker unless they are being deported, removed or extradited, which clearly these people aren’t.”
All the asylum seekers have now been moved from tents into the newly-erected buildings in the Topside camp, which unfortunately is reported to now have room for another 100 asylum seekers. In recent weeks, the Australian government sent another 28 asylum seekers to Nauru, and told them it will be six months until they get an interview. But the half of the camp that arrived after 12 October 2012 are still waiting for their first interview.
Meanwhile the waiting takes its toll. The numbers using sleeping pills grow weekly and there are still reports of self-harm. Yet, there are plans to expand Nauru’s detention regime. More dongas and heavy construction equipment have recently been shipped in. More reasons then to oppose off-shore processing.