Friday, July 27, 2007

Day 15: Perth – Cocos (Keeling) Islands

The Cocos Islands are a picture perfect tropical paradise complete with white sand, coconut trees, perfect weather, warm, clear water. And they are fascinating. The island we are on, West Island, is home to 120 people most of whom have come from mainland Australia. On the airstrip at West Island is a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Hercules. The strategic location of this place nearly 3000km north west of Perth means that it is an ideal stop-off point for RAAF planes heading to and from the Middle East. Australians who have served in the Iraq war stop here and get drunk before making the final leg of their journey back to peace.

The Cocos are also perfectly placed as a base from which to survey Australia’s waters for boats that may be here without official approval. This includes the boats of asylum seekers.

There is a quarantine area on the island where the elephants that ended up in Australia from Thailand were brought. And before them, small numbers of asylum seekers were housed there.

Home Island, another of the islands in the Cocos group, is home to 450 other Australians. The ancestors of the Cocos Malays were brought to these islands eight generations ago. Until the late 1970s, the Cocos Islands were owned and run by the Clunies-Ross family. The Cocos Malays lived in a feudal existence under – denied freedom of movement, paid in plastic money that could be redeemable only in the Clunies Ross-owned store, and prevented from meeting outside visitors. They lived an isolated existence where their commitment to Islam flourished and where they spoke an old Malay Trading language of the East Indies. Even now, as they have become more integrated into the wider world, the Cocos Malays seem keen to maintain a life that is quite separate from that of West Island.

This is the first time we have made it to the excised zone. The flight to Christmas Island stops over at Cocos and we squeezed in 24 hours here. The Cocos were removed from the migration zone as part of the original excision of 2001. This means that any asylum seeker who lands here cannot apply for protection in Australia except with the express permission of the immigration minister. They can also be forcibly removed to places like Nauru where a demonstrably flawed protection determination process is in place.

We met a guy on here who had been a detention centre guard all over the country – in Curtin near Derby, in Baxter at Port Augusta, in Woomera and at Villawood in Sydney. He even said that he had been to Nauru. When we first met him, we were struck by his easy smile and his gentle demeanour. He seemed like the sort of bloke it would be easy to like. After a few drinks, he began telling us about his views of asylum seekers. He told us that ‘Arabs are c—ts.’ He knew this because he had guarded them. He told us that at Curtin, the asylum seekers had set fire to new accommodation for detention centre staff. I recall the unrest throughout the whole detention system that during the early 2000s as desperate asylum seekers began clocking up years of being detained there without having committed a crime and with no sign of release. When I asked our friend why he thought the asylum seekers would have set fire to the detention centre, his reply came quickly: ‘Because they are c—ts!’

And there was the story – completely beyond belief – that having forced a fence down, asylum seekers at Woomera used their children as protection as they scrambled to get over the razor wire.

The conversation left a bitter aftertaste. It is worth recording, however, because it offers an insight into the way some people, including some detention centre guards, think about asylum seekers – people who have not committed a crime, but who have come here seeking protection. There is no doubt that our friend was speaking from his own experience, and that the experience of violence and unrest at immigration detention centres was frightening and challenging. But his comments reveal an underlying set of assumptions. All Arabs, according to him, can be reduced to a simple, lesser category of person.

It is this way of thinking that became central to Australia’s political life when it was said – inaccurately – that asylum seekers threw their children overboard and that because of what this action revealed about those people, that they ought not to come to this country. The government’s political message at the time was that such people, because they were somehow different from ourselves, did not feel the same depth of love and attachment for their children that we feel for ours. It was an insidious political message, elevating a sort of racism to the centre of Australian political life. Tomorrow we go the waters near where that very incident was said to have occurred.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Day 11: Pimba


The third day wasted on the trailer. Got a call from Simon that he had bought a new trailer. He sent the message through that he was due to arrive back in Pimba at 3.30. The plan was to get Will to do the welding in the early afternoon, then we will head west. Will is at work this morning and working again tomorrow. The window is this afternoon. It was all going to plan. Then got another call from Simon. He’s been held up by and won’t be back until 6.30. I went up to check with Will that he can do the job in the dark, but he’s not home. If he can’t we’re stuck again. The likelihood that we will make it to Perth for our Christmas Island flights on Friday morning seems increasingly remote. If we get Will on the job this evening, we have some pretty serious distances to put behind us over the next few days.


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Day 10: Woomera/Pimba

The trailer looks like it is about to die. In the daylight, it looks like it has nothing left to it. Bits of metal that were once welded together have now come apart. The whole left rear of the thing is sagging and bouncing. Where once there was metal, there is now, in the best places, rust, and in the worst, nothing.

We crawled out of our camp site nursing the sorry thing behind us. We did some filming at the old Woomera detention centre. It has now been closed for years, but it still feels like a place you want to steer clear of. In its time, it was a site of trauma, violence, riots, unrest, protest and destruction…..I couldn’t get out of the detention centre precinct quick enough. A crow called and the nothingness of the place felt surreal.

We headed for the Woomera township to get some advice on the trailer. It was looking worse by the minute. Finally, we hooked up with the local mechanic in Pimba – the highway town 8km from Woomera. Graeme took one look at the thing, laughed, and ever so eloquently said that its time was over. There was no point doing any repairs on it. We needed a new trailer.
Over to Spuds Roadhouse to set up camp in the dust at the bottom of the car park. Simon took off for Adelaide where he will buy a trailer tomorrow. He will then come back to Pimba where we will get another guy, Will, to weld the racks from the old trailer onto the new one.


Saturday, July 21, 2007

Day 9: Port Augusta – Woomera

Arrived early in Port Augusta central. As I mentioned above, I’ve spent a bit of time in Port Augusta over the past few years during visits to the Baxter detention centre. My time here has always felt weighty – the usual routine was to spend the morning with asylum seekers at the detention centre, race in to town for lunch, spend the afternoon at the detention centre before a quick dinner and, when possible, an evening visit to the detention centre. This usually went on for two or three or four days, punctuated by nights alone in a motel. I always found it exhausting and wondered how some of the local people maintained such a commitment to visit detainees at Baxter every week or more.

But paddling into the little harbour brought at different perspective: it was really quite beautiful: yachts floating gently on the water, massive timber poles of the docks, the small sandy beach with a children’s playground beyond it.

After an hour or so drying out our gear, my family arrived with the car and trailer. Nadine, Tenzin and Annie will be with us for the next five weeks as support crew – and hopefully to have a bit of fun too. It took us hours to pack the trailer. And yes, it – the trailer – looks terrible. I have decided not to look at it too often – merely looking at it makes me sick to the stomach. I’m not sure how far it will get us now. I have a vision of us stranded in the desert with four 5 meter-long kayaks on an irreparable trailer. It is not a happy image!

By the time we set off for Woomera, it was approaching dusk. The evening sky in these parts are nothing short of stunning. Blue-white turns to yellow to pink and then red. We drove through Woomera and camped just out of town.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Days 6 - 8: Paddling in SA

Days 6-8: Port Pirie – Port Augusta

The first serious paddle for the project. And it has been truly magnificent. The Spencer Gulf has been kind to us. Although this is not the excised zone, it was good to get on the water. We had been told that the wind can pick up in the Gulf and when it does, it sets off a nasty chop. But apart from an hour-long northerly just before lunch on Thursday, the conditions were perfect. I was interviewed on the water by ABC Radio North and West on the third morning of the paddle and the day was beaming. On the final leg, we passed the power station on the outskirts of Port Augusta just as the sky turned pink and red and the water was a mirror (see above).

Even though the Spencer Gulf is a long way from the excised zone, I had been keen to paddle to Port Augusta because it is the location of the Baxter immigration detention centre – an important part of the story of Australia’s response to asylum seekers. Baxter had been purpose built as a high tech detention centre to house asylum seekers who had arrived without prior official authorisation. When the notoriously brutal Woomera detention centre was closed down, the asylum seekers remaining there were transferred to Baxter. They were joined by others from other remote detention centres. Despite being more modern, the Baxter centre did not ease the suffering of asylum seekers detained there. Men, women and children continued to suffer terribly in what is a high-tech prison.

I visited asylum seekers detained at Baxter on a number of occasions over my years as research associate at La Trobe. To visit, you first had to get onto the ‘visitor list’ of a particular detainee. Then you had to apply to visit at least 72 hours before visiting for permission from the detention centre authorities. Once there, you had to empty your pockets of coins, keys, mobile phones etc. and leave them in a locker. You were given a plastic bracelet with a number on it and then escorted to the front of the detention centre. There, the guard accompanying you pushed a button at the front gate. The guard was asked by central control to state their purpose. Central control then unlocked the gate. All the while, you were subjected to CCTV surveillance. You then walked down a caged corridor to the next door where the same procedure occurred again. This time, you entered a small room. Any food you were bringing to share with the people you were visiting was passed through an x-ray machine. You were then required to walk through an x-ray machine before being passed over by a metal-detecting ‘wand’. Having passed through this, you would wait for the guard to push the button at the next door, before being permitted by central control to exit and walk to the visitors section. The same process took place before you entered the ‘office’ of the visitors’ centre. Once inside, you were stamped on the hand with an ‘invisible’ stamp that could be viewed under a violet light. This meant that you could not trade places with detainees at the end of the visit: only people with a teddy-bear stamp (or whatever it was on that particular occasion) could leave the visitor centre through that exit. Suitably tagged and stamped, central control allowed you into a sort of airlock. When the door was locked behind you, the door in front would be unlocked so that you could walk into the visitors’ section. There, you waited while the people you were visiting went through whatever indignities they were subjected to before they were brought over to the visitors’ centre. Sometimes, this wait took an hour and a half or longer.

This level of control in order to visit people whose only ‘crime’ was to come to Australia in search of protection seems merely indicative of the control over the minutiae of the every day lives of asylum seekers in detention. Asylum seekers were subject to a behaviour control regime where, as if they were insane or criminals or children, they were rewarded or punished according to whether their behaviour was deemed appropriate to detention centre authorities. Punishment included being kept in isolation and subjected to constant surveillance in what was known as ‘management.’

When I conducted fieldwork with returned asylum seekers in Iran, I met one man who had been returned from Baxter to Tehran. This man explained to me that his life had become so tightly controlled in detention that he no longer was able to make decisions. The decision to leave Australia was eventually made for him and he was forcibly removed.

I hadn’t returned to Port Augusta or to Baxter for some years. Now, as the sun set in crimson and gold, the lights of the detention centre behind us came on. We will come back to Baxter in a day or two to see it close up.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Day 5: Excised on the Streets - Rundle Mall (Adelaide)

Days 4+5: Adelaide

My parents’ home feels like an under-resourced non-government organisation in the midst of a massive campaign. We’ve spread ourselves across every surface we can find: benches, tables and floor. Paddling stuff, computers, phones, papers. Press releases, merchandise, last minute arrangements. It feels like we are trying to cram too many tasks into too small a time frame.

On Tuesday evening we headed into the ABC studios in Adelaide for an interview with Peter Goers. The most entertaining part of it occurred after the interview was over. Peter raced us outside during the news break so that he could have a smoke. He drew heavily on his cigarette while frantically telling us the story of the South Australia’s Lieutenant Governor-Designate, Mr Hieu Van Le, who was himself a refugee, arriving in Australia from Vietnam in the late 1970s. Peter spoke of the different reception that Hieu Van Le and others received when they arrived as refugees compared to those who have sought our assistance since then.

On the way home from the studio we had what we hope is the only car trouble for the journey. We were engaged in some sensitive and highly important shopping for the success of EXCISED when our car, which I took charge of just a couple of days before we left Aireys and which looks great, broke down. As luck would have it, I hadn’t had time to join the RACV before we left. So I dipped my hand deeply into my pocket and joined the RAA on the spot. A few hundred dollars and a new battery later, we were on our way.

Read about Hieu Van Le’s story at


Sunday, July 15, 2007

Day 3: Warrnambool – Adelaide

We’re having trouble getting the EXCISED juggernaut moving. The Adelaide part of today day took a long time to come about. The day began with a photo shoot for the Warrnambool Standard which published an article about EXCISED in its next edition. But then we discovered that our trailer was beginning to fall apart. It had been generously lent us by the Fairhaven Surf Lifesaving Club, but years of sea water had begun to take its toll. As we loaded the kayaks onto the trailer after smiling for the camera in our best adventure gear, we discovered a crack that opened and closed as though it was talking as we rocked the trailer. We thought that we shouldn’t go on to Adelaide without having it looked at by expert eyes. Those we found in Wangoom. My old friend, Murray, blacksmith, welder, and all round fixer of things spent most of the day repairing the damage and teaching us how to grease and protect wheel bearings – the best insurance policy for the trailer, he told us. After he had kitted us out with an inverter so that we could charge up our electrical equipment, and Gage had fed us on ‘roo that Murray had shot, we hit the road to Adelaide, arriving there late in the evening.

Check out the Warrnambool Standard article at


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Day 2: Warrnambool

One of the most remarkable things about working on asylum seeker and refugee policy over the past decade and a half has been the incredible people I have had the privilege to meet. Such people have stood against inhumane policy and practice and the sort of exclusive nationalism from which these stem. On the banks of the Hopkins River, overlooking the inlet, we had lunch with just such people. Thanks, David and Lou. Their commitment to the dignity of asylum seekers was a reminder, if we needed it, of the purpose of this journey.

After lunch, it was the Warrnambool Surf Club (thanks to Jo for providing the venue) where local musicians, Owen Eleamor, Robbie Bundell, Oriel Glennan and Aniar (Don Stewart, Andrew Hallett, Jemma Belfrage and Airley Tate) entertained a small but enthusiastic crowd to mark the beginning of the EXCISED national tour. Thanks Owen for organising the event, to Maree for MCing and to Don for providing the gear.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Day 1: Aireys Inlet to Warrnambool

Getting started sometimes feels like the most difficult part of the journey. You’ve got to push hardest to get the momentum happening. And it was a big mass we were trying to get moving….or so it felt.

The plan was to paddle from Gully Beach in Aireys Inlet to Lorne and then to drive to Warrnambool. There was no need to do the paddle bit – the Surf Coast is not yet excised – but since EXCISED is about sea-kayaking, we thought it would be good to start the journey with a paddle.

Despite predictions of foul weather, the early morning sea looked good. The paddle was going to be possible. But the hours of packing and talking and coffee and last minute arrangements pushed launch-time back. By the time we got down to the beach, the weather predictions were proved right:

The wind it was howling and the seas were outrageous.
We cut through the surf…….then turned back again…
Apologies to Bob Dylan, Isis.

Not deterred by the foreboding skies and the hellish ocean, we bid our friends and family farewell and headed off beyond the break. It was big. Really big. And scary. Really scary. Not that we were scared, of course. We’re adventurers, after all. Aren’t we? So we braved the waves, balancing against the chopping water, as we turned our 5 meter vessels………. and headed back to the safety of the beach…..

The kayaks felt extremely heavy as we carried them back up the steps, loaded them on the trailer and headed back to the warmth of home.

A sense of anti-climax??? No. More a sense of relief. And an awareness that the next two and a half months will be unpredictable and that even the best-laid plans at times will have to be abandoned.

By the time we got to Warrnambool, having driven to Lorne, we had almost given a radio interview on Perth ABC, almost lost the load off the trailer, and spent most of the day fluffing around at Aireys Inlet. Friday the 13th. First day of the journey.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Welcome to the excised blog.

A welcome to the EXCISED JOURNALS

These are the records of EXCISED, a sea-kayaking and road odyssey around Australia and into the ‘excised zone’.

Join us – Simon Keenan, David Corlett and friends (some of whom may be Very Important and very familiar to observers of Australian politics!) – over the next two and a half months as we travel to the frontlines of Australia’s response to asylum seekers who arrive without official authorisation by boat.

Our journey will take us to the human implications of Australia’s little understood policy of excision. Excision is the basis for Australia’s ‘offshore processing’ regime – a regime that is immune from important checks and balances that help ensure that people who need protection actually get it. Excision means that asylum seekers cannot apply for protection within Australia and sets up a system that has led to Australia returning refugees to persecution and other serious human rights violations. Some have been killed. Every island across Australia’s north, some 5000 in total, has been ‘excised’ from Australia’s migration zone.

EXCISED will take us around the whole of the Australian mainland – from the Surf Coast in Victoria to South Australia (home to the Woomera and Baxter detention centres) and on to Perth; to the excised territories of Christmas Island and the Western Australian coast; across to the Northern Territory and to Melville Island (which has been excised, unexcised and excised again); and over to Queensland where Magnetic Island and the cultural icons that are the Whitsundays have also been cut out of the migration zone.

Come with us on this adventure: witness some of Australia’s most awe-inspiring coastline; meet some amazing (and maybe some not-so-amazing) people; hear stories that will put a smile on your face and others that will have you in tears. Share our story too, as we make this frantic 15,000 km journey in an effort to publicise the little understood policy of excision and its devastating human implications. It is a personal journey into the unknown as we learn not only about policy and practice, but also about ourselves as individuals and each other.

We hope that you will come back to the EXCISED journals and that you find them stimulating, moving, inspiring, fun and entertaining. Read the written word, listen to the audio recordings and watch footage captured from the surf to the street. And in all this, we hope that we might be able to explore how Australia might respond to some of the world’s most vulnerable people in a way that reveals our own and their full humanity.

Let us know what you think. Send us a message. Share your ideas and thoughts...we’re really keen that you might also come along for the journey!! And do tell your friends about the EXCISED odyssey.

Simon Keenan and David Corlett