Refugees who claimed asylum during the Howard era are dying as they wait for compensation over their treatment by the Australian government. By Mary Allstrom.

Trauma of the Howard-era refugees

A smiling middle-aged man wearing a hat.
Refugee Danyal Shafiq in 2017.
Credit: Supplied

Warning: This piece contains descriptions of self-harm.

Let’s call him Imran. More than a decade ago, Imran logged a compensation claim against the Australian government. His claim joined at least 53 others from refugees who have been in Australia since the Howard era, initially held in detention centres at Curtin, Port Hedland, Woomera and Baxter. At least four of these refugees died waiting for their cases to be heard.

This month, on October 3, Imran’s case came up for a directions hearing in the South Australian District Court. The date followed years of delays. His first claim had been listed in 2011.

Prior to entering the court, Imran asked his lawyer if he could read out a short piece describing how he felt about the delays and broken promises, to impress upon the court the terrible impact on his mental health. The lawyers for the Commonwealth opposed the request and the judge stated a future statement would need to be provided to all parties before the trial was listed, possibly in 2026.

Hearing about the further two-year delay, and having had his ability to speak denied, Imran took a small razor and cut his left forearm. He said he had no reason to live anymore. I was sitting next to Imran, there as his advocate. Shocked, I compressed the cut, calling for bandages. With the help of security and his lawyers, Imran was taken from the courtroom.

Imran’s intention was never to hurt anyone, only himself. It is the first time he has self-harmed since his time in detention, from 2000 to 2005. With his friend and another supporter, we drove him to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, where he received kind and respectful care from the medical staff.

The day after the hearing, detained under the Mental Health Act of South Australia, he went on hunger strike. “They are killing me,” he said, “and I want to end this. Either now they hear the case or I will die waiting anyway. So I will do it my way not their way. They torture us.”

Some details are known of the men who have died while waiting for these cases to be heard. Possibly the most recent death is of a man named Babak, who experienced significant injury while in detention. Three months ago, he died of a heart attack alone in his home. He was aged in his late 40s.

Babak was suffering with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. His friends say he was despairing at the disregard by the Australian government of the years of mistreatment he suffered in detention. Another of his friends, Arif, died 14 months ago in similar circumstances. For the last six months of his life he lived with no electricity in the house where he eventually died.

Danyal Shafiq has also died since lodging his claim. He was one asylum seeker granted neither permanency nor citizenship. Originally from Bangladesh, he arrived in Australia by boat in 1999. He was detained and after more than seven years in detention, a record at the time, was granted a removal-pending bridging visa, to remain for the rest of his life under the constant threat of deportation. The United Nations Human Rights Committee determined he was a legitimate refugee but Australia disregarded the ruling.

In July last year, at the age of 48, he died of a heart attack. His friends believe this was brought on by the years of suffering from severe depression and PTSD that followed his time in detention and the hopelessness associated with his stateless situation. Danyal also had type 2 diabetes, which developed while he was in detention, the result of allegedly being prescribed inappropriate medications while in Baxter detention centre.

The claimants’ ongoing compromised mental health due to their experiences has prevented them from realising the potential they arrived with on Australian shores all those years ago, bringing with them a wide range of skills, knowledge, hard-work ethic and commitment to liberal democratic values. Due to the severe PTSD and depression they suffer, many now are unable to work and must live on the Disability Support Pension.

Babak’s Iranian friends, all Australian citizens and part of the group seeking compensation, mourn his death as they too suffer the long-term impact of their experiences held in indefinite detention. They wonder if it will be their turn next, without compensation or recognition taking place.

Another story. In 2000, a man I will call Javan arrived by boat off the coast of Western Australia. He was halfway through a university degree, from a caring, educated family, fleeing persecution in Iran. Javan was held for seven months in the isolation compound at Curtin detention centre, separate from other people.

He has since described how he lost all hope as the months went by in indefinite detention. He was not allowed to communicate with his family in Iran, was called by number not by name, was verbally abused and mistreated by guards. He watched people being beaten and mistreated, watched children see their parents self-harm. His mental state incrementally deteriorated with the degrading psychological treatment he was experiencing.

Javan went on a hunger strike, losing 20 kilograms. In a confused mental state he decided his only chance of survival was to escape. He was caught by guards in the bush, who pushed him to the ground, handcuffing him and bringing him back to the management centre of Curtin, called “India”, and placed in an empty isolation room.

His clothes were removed and he was left on the bare floor, handcuffed and without knowing what would happen next. He spent a further 10 days constantly observed in the small isolation room. A bed was finally brought in and he was allowed out, accompanied, to go to the toilet.

Javan was taken to court in Derby and from there to Broome Regional Prison. As he remained on hunger strike, which he believed was his only way of maintaining personal dignity and protest, the prison officers sent him to hospital. After a week in hospital, where he was chained to the bed, he was returned to the Broome prison and then to the Broome Courthouse, where he was sentenced to nine months in prison.

From Broome he was driven with three other prisoners to Perth. He says that “like dogs, four of them were herded into the back of a paddy wagon”. The journey took four days. Each night they arrived in small towns and were held in separate cells. They were strip searched each night and every morning.

Javan says he received much better treatment in prison than in detention because there were clear rules and regulations. Let out early for good behaviour, he was moved to the Perth Immigration Detention Centre, next to the airport, never knowing if he was to be deported back to Iran. A year later he was sent to Baxter Immigration Reception and Processing Centre, where he describes experiencing ongoing humiliation and degradation for a further three-and-a-half years. In all, he was detained for four years and eight months.

He is now one of the Howard-era compensation claimants. His case is awaiting a directions hearing. Like Imran and the others, he has no idea when he will hear the outcome of his complaint.

One might ask why these claims languish while the Manus Island claims, raised almost a decade later, were brought to trial so quickly and resolved.

When will compensation be offered to these people, acknowledging them as the good people they are, who legitimately sought asylum all those years ago but who were treated so poorly? When will an apology take place? How many more will die too young? 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 14, 2023 as "Unsafe haven".

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