REFUGEE SERIES: ‘Don’t stop the boats – find out why they are coming’

KATIE DEROSA
VICTORIA TIMES COLONIST

When two migrant ships carrying 568 Tamils arrived off Victoria’s shores, the federal government cracked down, bringing in a tough refugee law that will throw future boat people into mandatory detention in provincial jails. The plan is modelled on the one used by Australia — a system that studies say has cost huge amounts of money and has failed. Victoria Times Colonist reporter Katie DeRosa, funded by the inaugural James Travers Fellowship, travelled to Australia to examine the system and what it could mean for Canada and Canadian taxpayers.

Murtaza Murtaza Ali Jafari, a 24-year-old Hazara refugee, outside the Refugee Art Project. Submitted photo

Murtaza Ali Jafari sits on a deck in a large backyard in the picturesque Blue Mountains outside Sydney, adding light strokes of black felt pen to the image of a waxy candle on his notepad. Deep lines on his forehead and around the corners of his eyes make him look older than his 24 years.

His best-known piece of work is an intricate black-and-white drawing of a rope, knotted, tangled and twisting around itself. “Everyone is trying to untangle their life, trying to untangle our life in detention,” Jafari says quietly.

After 26 months in immigration detention, the Hazara refugee — a Persian-speaker from Afghanistan — is a free man, living with an Australian host family in what’s known as “community detention” and finding solace in drawing through the Refugee Art Project.

Jafari arrived on Christmas Island, the remote Australian territory near Indonesia, on March 21, 2010, on a crowded boat arranged by human smugglers. He spent six months in a maximum-security detention centre. Speaking little English, he was shy and reserved. He did not receive any visitors or socialize much with other detainees.

“I just stayed in my room. Even the guard said, ‘Why don’t you have any visitor?’ I said I don’t have any family or friends in Australia. I have only my God. He’s my visitor.”

Jafari and his family fled their home in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province after his older brother, who was 16, was killed by the Taliban. His family waited in Quetta in Pakistan, where many Hazaras have taken refuge, but they still feared for their lives. Six of Jafari’s friends have been killed by the Taliban since he fled Quetta, convincing him that he would “not be in this world” if he had stayed.

Jafari spent 20 months in Australia’s Villawood detention centre, separated from Australia by a barbed-wire fence.

He said he waited a year to hear a simple question — “How are you?”

The question was asked by Renee Chan, a refugee advocate with Asylum Seekers Christmas Island who has been visiting the “long-termers” in detention for two years.

Through Chan, Jafari met Bilquis Ghani, an Afghan woman who was volunteering with the Refugee Art Project, a non-profit group that brought art supplies to the detainees to give them a creative outlet to ease their mental anguish.

Jafari said his first drawing looked like the work of a child. But he kept at it. Dr. Safdar Ahmad, a University of Sydney academic who teaches art, looked at Jafari’s work and saw great potential.

“It’s a chance for them to sit with friends and relax and talk for a few hours,” he said of the program he helped found in early 2011. “Detention is bad for everyone, but at the very least, if (the program) can help them immerse themselves in an activity, then it’s a good thing.”

The project started with a small group of about eight or 10 at first, and grew by word of mouth. “I was really blown away by the quality and talent of the people in our group,” Ahmad said.

The Refugee Art Project workshop is based in two portable buildings of a vacant school. Beyond the vibrantly coloured door is a workshop of organized chaos, with paintbrushes in Pringles cans and a shelf full of paint tubes, most of them donated. The detainees’ work hangs on the walls.

A series of portraits — including the haunting image of a woman’s eyes showing between the folds of her headscarf — are made from coffee grounds diluted in water. Inside the workshop, there’s a sculpture of the Sydney Harbour Bridge made of raw spaghetti.

Another series, Imagining Australia, shows colourful images of what detainees hope to see upon their release.

Jafari’s tangled-rope image is featured on the poster for the Refugee Art Project’s recent Melbourne exhibit, Life in Limbo.

On May 4, Jafari was released into community detention, sponsored by a retired couple, Graeme and Sue Swinser.

“They are my Aussie mom and dad,” he said. Jafari now lives in the Swinsers’ cottage-style bungalow in the Blue Mountains, a staggering change from the bunk in the small, windowless room in Villawood.

“I hope I can make them proud,” he said. “It’s a new life for me in Australia.”

Recognizing the psychological harm caused by immigration detention, particularly for children and families, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen in October 2010 promised to release most families into community detention.

By Sept. 30, 5,351 people had gone that route, including more than 3,100 who have since been granted “protection visas,” which means they’ve been accepted as refugees.

In November 2011, with boat arrivals spiking and detention centres overcrowded, Bowen introduced a bridging visa scheme, in which asylum seekers, including many unaccompanied minors — teenagers who got on boats without their parents — could be released and allowed to work until they are granted full refugee protection visas. A total of 4,710 people had been released on bridging visas as of early October.

People in community detention are supported by the Red Cross, which provides housing and financial support to refugees until they receive their protection visas. The Red Cross provides a case worker who checks in on them every two weeks. Refugees receive government support of about $300 every two weeks, since they are not allowed to work until they are granted full protection visas.

Those who don’t have a host family also rely on the Red Cross. “We pick them up from the airport, we make sure we transport them to their place, we make sure everything is right in the place,” said Michael Raper, acting CEO of the Australian Red Cross. “We have a start-up kit for them, a bed, television, furniture.”

A challenge for the Red Cross is helping refugees find mental-health services for trauma encountered in the countries they fled, as well as in detention.

“They’re likely to have mental-health problems and we need to be very alert to that,” Raper said. “That detention, that institutionalization they’ve had, which we’ve imposed upon them and made them suffer, is a reality in their lives and something you have to gradually unpack.”

The Australian Red Cross wants to see more asylum seekers released into community detention or on bridging visas. There’s a strong economic argument, Raper said. Community detention costs $30,000 per person per year, significantly less than the $137,000 per person in detention the Australian government spends on average annually.

In Canada, before the arrival of Bill C-31 — which will require mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat — asylum seekers were released into the community after initial health, identity and security checks. Now, they will remain in detention until their refugee claims are decided, with reviews after the first two weeks and then every six months thereafter.

There is no limit to how long someone can remain in detention in Canada. It costs $239 a day, or more than $87,000 a year, to keep someone in detention, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

Jafari has grown from the reserved person he was in detention to a confident, curious young man. He wants to study carpentry in college and continue to volunteer with the Refugee Art Project.

Jafari recently talked to a group of primary school kids about why he fled Afghanistan and the conditions of immigration detention. “I said, ‘I don’t know why they keep us in detention. We are not criminals; we just ask for protection.’ ”

When Jafari learned that the Canadian government was imposing its own policy of mandatory detention, his eyes widened and he shook his head.

“I ask [the] Canadian government, please, please, please, don’t build detention centres, don’t play with innocent people’s lives. Don’t think about ‘stop the boats.’ Find out why they are coming.”

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