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.

1 comment:

BiddyB said...

Keep up the good work!