The Guardian 25 May, 2005

Act now against draconian detention laws

Anna Pha

It took considerable adverse publicity in Malaysia about the deteriorating mental health of a three-year-old who has never seen the outside world and an offer from that country before the Howard government would release Naomi Leong and her mother Virginia from Villawood Detention Centre. The bridging visa that Virginia has been given does not allow her to work. She must now apply for a visa to be able to work and receive access to Medicare.

Virginia Leong, a Malaysian national, has been in the centre since 2001 and Naomi, who was born there, has spent her whole life in incarceration.

Ms Leong has a seven-year-old son Griffin who lives with his father in Sydney. She has not seen Griffin since being locked up at Villawood.

"My son is my punishment, my daughter is my torture", Ms Leong told the media while still in Villawood. "I can’t see my son because of my situation, but I see my daughter every day and she is so sad."

Going to Malaysia would mean leaving her son behind for ever. "It’s too much — there is a limit. If they make me spend 10 years here I will stay because my son is my life — my blood. I cannot go and leave my son behind", Ms Leong said.

Psychiatrist Dr Michael Dudley who has examined Naomi, described her as "mute" and "listless" and noted she has begun banging her head against walls at the detention centre each time she sees her mother distressed.

The most recent figures show that there are 62 children incarcerated in the hell holes that are the detention centres, Naomi being the longest serving of them all. After months of campaigning by concerned community groups and individuals, the Department of Immigration agreed to Naomi being allowed three hours a week at a play centre with other children to save her deteriorating mental health! That was to commence this week.

Then last week Malaysian media ran with the story, and the government’s intervention followed, inviting Ms Leong to return and Naomi to apply for Malaysian citizenship on humanitarian grounds.

Children Out Of Detention (ChilOut), a group of parents and citizens opposed to the mandatory detention of children in Australian immigration detention centres, reports that there are 68 children in immigration detention. "Any child in detention is ONE too many!" says ChilOut. "We are appalled that Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers breaches several human rights treaties to which we are a signatory."

The plight of Noami and Virginia Leong at the immigration detention centre in Sydney has become the central campaign for Chilout to get children out of detention centres.

"Like a caged animal"

Cornelia Rau, the German-born Australian, who was illegally locked up behind bars in a prison and then later the Baxter Detention Centre as an illegal immigrant for a total of 10 months, has spoken out about her traumatic experiences and is seeking an apology from Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone and compensation from the Government.

Ms Rau, who was suffering from mental illness at the time of imprisonment, said she had been put behind barbed wire in Baxter and "locked up there like a caged animal".

"I have never been treated so unfairly in all my life. I was put into prison because I didn’t have my passport… I couldn’t get a lawyer there. I couldn’t contact human rights groups like Amnesty", Ms Rau told a media conference on Monday.

The lawyers of Vivian Alvarez, an Australian citizen, who was forcibly and illegally "deported" to the Philippines in 2001, have asked the government to provide her with accommodation and welfare on her return to Australia. Ms Alvarez was born in the Philippines and is presently staying in an apartment rented by the Australian Embassy.

The above are only three of hundreds of cases of refugees and Australian citizens who are being held in detention or who have been wrongfully deported by a fascistic minded government.

They sound the alarm bells for the undemocratic and illegal conduct of a government which threatens ALL immigrants and refugees, and ALL Australians.

The government has established what in fact are privately operated concentration camps where people are being held indefinitely, without warrant, without charges in the most cruel, punitive and criminal conditions. There is no accountability. These camps and immigration procedures are beyond the law.

We must ask: Is this a trial run, a test of public reaction to such procedures — where the subjects are portrayed as "terrorists" or a "threat to Australia’s security"? How can a baby from birth be considered such a threat? Racial and religious vilification play an important part in gaining acceptance of these totally unacceptable procedures.

If the government gets away with this, and the centres are not shut down, and those detained in them released into the community, who will be next? Dissidents, trade unionists, Muslims, communists?

The Howard government’s "anti-terrorist" legislation and ASIO laws create the possibility of indefinite detention (repeating the detention in lots of seven days), without charges, without any public accountability, if the authorities suspect they might know something in connection with terrorism or a suspected terrorist organisation. It is illegal for those detained, the media or for anyone else with any knowledge of their detention to say anything publicly about it. They cannot even say where they were when they were abducted by the authorities and "disappeared" for days, weeks or months. There are prison sentences for breach of these laws of five years.

The question of torture being legalised has been raised in the media for "debate". Why else would a government want to lock people up secretly without time limits — even more secret than the conditions surrounding Guantánamo Bay prison?

The government must be stopped NOW. These laws are not to protect Australians from terrorism. They are for use against anyone and all of us.

Write to your MP and Senators, to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone and Prime Minister John Howard. Talk to your union, arrange a meeting with your local MP, get on talkback radio, write letters to the editor, begin a petition. Act now!

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