Asylum seekers flee from all sorts of persecution. Some of them are gay. Mij Tanith talks with a gay man living in appalling conditions at the Baxter Detention Centre outside of Adelaide.
He’s a tall Middle Eastern man in his mid-20s, thick-set, with dark hair and brown eyes. He greets visitors with a gentle smile of shining white teeth. His manners can only be described as impeccable; he seems to hold himself in check, which might be natural reserve but more likely this betrays a tight control of inner turmoil.
This man is a prisoner although his only crime is his attempt to flee persecution. He’s been at the Baxter Immigration Detention Facility for nearly four years awaiting a decision on his fate. Because he is gay, he fears that he will be killed if he is sent back to his own country.
I will call him X. Even here he fears to use his real name.
It’s very difficult to be gay in my country. The law forbids it. If you get caught, I think you would be stoned to death. This punishment is not publicised, though; the government rules by fear and secrecy, X says.
I had a partner, too, but I don’t know what has happened to him. When I was leaving, he said he would leave too, if he could. I phoned my mum once, and asked her, but she didn’t know where he was. I think she was scared to talk too much about him.
Anyway, because I could not live the way I wanted, I decided to leave my country. It was a very big decision, as you can imagine. I left with just one small bag, and I really didn’t know where I was going. My path led to Australia. And now I’ve been here for nearly four years.
It’s a terrible thing to be here, doing nothing, watching my life dwindle away, just hoping that one day I will be free. But I can never go back, because people here know I am gay, and if I were forced to return home, I would be killed. So I wait -¦ How long? I do not know, X says plaintively.
Baxter Immigration Detention Facility is a three-and-a-half-mile drive from Adelaide, just outside Port Augusta. It’s surrounded by the red dirt of the Australian desert. The former army camp was turned into a high tech prison at a cost to the Australian tax payer of over $40 million. Security is so high that only one major door in the complex can be opened at a time.
Alex is an Adelaide gay man who visits X and other detainees at Baxter. He’s out and proud but in this instance he won’t use his real name because he doesn’t want people to make connections between him and those he is known to visit.
I didn’t realise the security would be so full-on, he says. The electrified fences, the razor wire -“ you read about these things but, until you see for yourself, you don’t realise how over-the-top the security is.
Alex got involved with refugee issues through a friend. He first began talking with X by phone.
I had one conversation with X, and immediately I wanted to visit. I had no idea -“ it isn’t until you’re actually there, until you meet someone face to face, that you realise how horrible their situation is, Alex says.
The whole experience is mind-boggling. I am struck by the fact that when people are in their compounds, they have absolutely no views. They can see the ground, which up around Port Augusta is quite red, and the sky.
They have no pets, obviously -“ all they have are the magpies that fly overhead. I heard once of a homing pigeon that landed inside the wire. A couple of the guys fed it, gave it some water, and then released it. It must have been hard to see it fly off again, while they were still imprisoned, Alex ponders.
Boredom is the other big issue that the detainees face -“ the mind-numbing endlessness of their lives in detention. X stays up all night till five or six in the morning, and sleeps most of the day. The longer you sleep, the less time there is to sit and do nothing.
Personally, I’d go crackers in a week, Alex says.
For Alex the visits to Baxter have been a life-changing experience.
Once I started visiting, I became aware of all the freedoms we take for granted -“ the sexual freedom, the freedom to work, the visual freedom. Now, whenever I look at the sky, I see it as a symbol of freedom, he says.
You see the human face of a situation you read about in the papers, and you start really thinking about it. And when you think about it, you feel embarrassed, you feel ashamed of what the government is doing. Apart from anything else, what an enormous waste of money to keep people locked up like that. These people -“ not just X, but everyone I meet there -“ would be such a valuable resource for South Australia. I mean, I thought we were crying out for more people, Alex says with a sense of both anger and bewilderment.
There are a number of men like X in Baxter, and, I would imagine, in every other detention facility in Australia.
Certainly there are gay men in detention, and there are others for whom sex with men is situational, explains Norman Radican, a counsellor with the gay men’s health program of the AIDS Council of South Australia. I was called in to run a training session for the Mental Health Service staff at Baxter. One of the difficulties is, of course, that there is no shared culture between the Australian staff and the detainees -“ no shared awareness of gay issues either -“ and so no-one knows how to approach the situation.
I also spoke with a number of men who had asked to see me. There was one, I remember, who stayed in his room. I took my shoes off before I stepped through the door, and he cried because no-one in Australia had ever showed him that respect, Radican says.
There is an agreement that I will return early this year with Farsi and Arabic translations of HIV, STI, and homophobia information. For me, my work in the area is ongoing. I’m also working with refugees in the community. These men may be free for the moment, but they’ve faced enormous difficulties -“ oppression and enforced silence in their own countries, the highly dangerous journeys they have made, the trauma of spending years in detention, followed by more years in limbo for those on Temporary Protection Visas. Added to that is the discrimination shown to them by local gay men, and the discrimination they face within their own ethnic communities. It’s no wonder they have problems dealing with the added issue of sexuality.
We need to salute the courage of those strong enough to talk about their lives. And to everyone in the GLBTIQ community, I would say, -˜Get off your arses and start supporting our brothers in detention,’ because things are not going to change unless the weight of public opinion shifts, and that won’t happen unless we get involved, Radican says with quiet passion.
Mij Tanith is an Adelaide lesbian activist and part-time TAFE teacher who is preparing to stand as a Greens candidate for the next Senate election. Anyone interested in contacting her about gay and lesbian refugee issues can call her on 0405 086 533.