David Cohen on Mon, 8 Apr 2002 08:10:02 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] 5th longest serving asylum seeker in detention

By freelance journalist David Cohen

Less than five hundred metres from where Stephen Khan lives there’s a
constant riot of arrival and departure. On an average day at Perth’s
domestic air terminal, nearly 10,000 people either fly in or out of the
city, coming from or going to more than 60 locations. At times the check-in
line for flights to Melbourne and Sydney snake out the sliding doors to the
pavement. People climb out of taxis, lug suitcases, get into cars -
they’re on the move.
Stephen Khan, however, isn’t going anywhere. He hasn’t been
going anywhere for more than three-and-a-half years. He’s the
fifth-longest serving detainee in Australia, the second-longest in WA, the
longest in Perth - and is one of about 20 asylum seekers who have been in
detention for more than three years.
He lives at the Perth Immigration Detention Centre, a squat anonymous brown
1960s building just across from the terminal. The Centre blends in with the
unlovely and utilitarian architecture of the buildings around it - until
you notice the razor wire and barbed wire strung around the top of the high
brick walls.
The Centre is set on a plot of land little bigger than the typical suburban
quarter-acre block. But instead of being home to a family, it holds up to
50 people who aren’t welcome in Australia.
Khan sleeps with five other men in a bunk bed-filled dormitory about half
the size as a family living room. With that many people in the room, sleep
can be elusive. If one man is awake, the others usually are as well. The
slightest sound rouses those who have managed to drop off to sleep. Since
he’s been in the Centre, Khan’s sleep patterns have changed: he
usually nods off at about three o’clock in the morning, and wakes
around noon.
Two of the dormitories lead out into a small exercise yard. The yard
sometimes has up to 40 people in it - if a farmer kept 40 animals in the
same-sized space, he’d be pursued by the RSPCA, and his animals would
be taken away from him.
There’s a recreation room with a pool table, three toilets and four
showers. There’s a laundry, kitchen and store. Beyond the main
security door is the property room and nurses’ quarters, the dining
room for Australian Correctional Management (ACM) staff, a family room,
control area and a new recreational room under construction. The
Centre’s capacity will soon be 60 - more rooms are being converted to
There’s also a visiting room. It’s in this room where Centre
detainees can meet people who have come to see them. Inside are plastic
chairs, a long table, a Coke machine, three tatty sofas and pictures of a
European mountain scene and dolphins on the walls.
Getting into the visiting room takes a few minutes. To visit a detainee,
you have to be on the official list. You go through the front door and fill
out a form, indicating the 100 points of identification you have (a
passport scores 100). You divest yourself of metallic objects and store
them in a locker. Once ushered past the first security door, you sign the
register and are scanned with a metal detector. A plastic strip is attached
to your wrist.
“What’s this for?” 
“Security,” I was told.
Once through another security door, you walk past the staff dining area and
are escorted into the visiting room. You stare at the snow-capped mountains
in the picture on the wall and wait.
“The strip is in case there’s a fire or something like
that,” Khan explained to me. “That way the guards know not to
get you mixed up with the rest of us.”
The visiting room can get very crowded, especially on weekends. There have
been 25 people in the room at one time: babies, children, adults, detainees
and their visitors; perched on sofa arms or milling about.
Khan never expected he’d spend so much of his life next to an
Australian airport. He was born in Kashmir, the mountainous valley of lakes
and rivers subject to a long-term territorial dispute between India and
Pakistan. His home village, Pulwama, is south-west of the Kashmiri capital,
Srinigar, and not far from the Pakistani-controlled sector. With its
houseboats on the lakes, Srinigar used to be an exotic tourist destination,
but twelve years of ugly conflict between India and Pakistan over the land
have put an end to that. There are many groups in Kashmir either fighting
or agitating for independence - like the Islamic Front, the Democratic
Freedom Party, the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen and the Al Umer Mujahideen - and
the Khan family was swept up in the slipstream of separatist violence.
“I was 20, and studying for a diploma in mechanical technology at
Srinigar Polytechnic,” Khan recalls. “One day I was told my
father had been killed by Indian security forces. I went back to Pulwama
and viewed my father’s body. There were visible signs of
Khan says his father’s fatal mistake was allowing a separatist group,
the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), to use his printing press to
issue anti-government literature.
“My mother was extremely distressed and eventually collapsed into a
coma,” he says. “She never recovered, and died three months
Two years later, Indian security forces arrested Khan and three friends.
Since his father’s death, he’d become increasingly involved
with the JKLF - protesting peacefully, he says, against the Indian
government for an independent Kashmir.
“After a search of our home they found some anti-government
mujahideen literature,” he says. “We were taken to an
interrogation centre, separated and tortured. I never saw two of them
again. I was stripped and forced to endure the nights in a freezing cell.
They regularly threw water on me. Lights were shone in my face and I was
woken up at odd hours.”
The, he claims, his captors took a wooden roller and put it on his legs
while he was held down. A man stood on the roller and rolled it up and
“The pain was enormous,” he says. “They kept asking
questions about the mujahideen, but I didn’t know anything about
them. Then they ripped out one of my fingernails and poured chili into the
wound. That was very painful and horrible.”
After about ten days in captivity, Khan was told he was going to be moved.
He presumed this meant he was going to be executed. But he got lucky.
“Our convoy was ambushed by the Pakistani guerilla group, Lashkar-e
Tayyaba - a section commander was one of the prisoners,” he says.
“They freed me and saved my life.”
Khan escaped, and spent a year as a fugitive in Kashmir and the Punjab, a
northern Indian province below Kashmir. By 1997, he’d had enough, and
flew to Singapore on a false passport. He went to the port and stowed away
on a container ship, with no idea where it was going. It was a relatively
short journey: the ship docked in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s
While in Papua, Khan acquired the name Stephen. Church workers there
couldn’t pronounce his real name, and he uses his new name for fear
of reprisals from the Indian security forces, should be he returned to
Khan decided to try and reach Australia. He almost didn’t make it -
he and five others crammed into a dinghy that had a 40 horsepower engine,
and aimed for Queensland. For seven days they battled monster waves, sharks
and crocodiles.
“I can’t swim, and the waves were huge,” he recalls.
“At times we were vomiting, crying and just praying we wouldn’t
die. Eventually we made it to Saibai Island, in the Torres Strait.”
Khan had arrived in Australia - it was 9 September, 1998. He didn’t
have any documents on him. It was a long way in both time and distance from
Kashmir. He didn’t know much about this country, but he had heard it
accepted refugees. Unlike many other asylum seekers, he hadn’t paid
anyone to get to Australia. He considered himself a persecuted person, but
expected there would be an initial period of questioning and detention.
Nearly three-and-a-half years later, he’s still in detention, and has
been moved from Queensland to Perth, via Port Hedland.
How is it so? How can a person endure torture and fear, uncertain travel,
no income and be locked up for so long?
Khan’s first mistake was during his first interview with Australian
authorities in Queensland. He told them who he was, where he was from and
how he had got to Australia - but he didn’t mention his arrest and
torture in Kashmir.
“They wanted to know how I’d arrived, what routes I took, what
documents I had,” Khan says. “They didn’t ask me about
torture. They said, ‘we’ll give you a lawyer and you can apply
for a protection visa.’ Until the lawyer arrived, I was in isolation.
When he came, he said I should tell them everything. I gave him my whole
story - so then there was a problem, because I hadn’t mentioned the
More than 18 months ago, Amnesty International had become concerned at the
length of time Khan had been in detention. In a June 2000 letter to the
Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Philip Ruddock, they
“...we note that the Department questioned Khan’s credibility
because initially he did not mention his arrest and torture. Amnesty would
like to point out that often asylum seekers do not disclose all information
on arrival, especially after long journeys when the asylum seeker may be
tired, disoriented and fearful.”
There’s also an issue over Khan’s identity. He’s told
officials his name, and where he was born, and other details about his life
- but without papers and documents, it’s tricky convincing
authorities he is who he says he is.
“The Australian Government knows he’s from India,” says
his lawyer, Mary Anne Kenny. “They want him to fill out a passport
application form so they can deport him - but he refuses to sign the
documents. They have said they’re satisfied he’s a Kashmiri,
and that he was probably a member of a separatist group. But, because he
wasn’t a prominent member of a separatist group, he should be able to
go back to India and live somewhere else instead of Kashmir.”
It’s ironic - Khan isn’t a big enough troublemaker to perhaps
warrant a visa. If he was a lawbreaking and prominent separatist identity,
he might be able to stay here. As it is, he’s not dangerous enough.
So the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) suggested he return to a
‘safer’ part of India to live.
In a letter to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock in April 2000, the
Kashmir Council of Australia claimed no Kashmiris are safe in India.
“To be in the fighting age is a crime itself to qualify for
death,” the Council wrote. “In (our) opinion Khan will
certainly face death if he decides to go back to India. He will be safer in
Australian jails rather than in the so-called save (sic) havens of
Kenny has struggled to obtain information about Khan’s circumstances.
Most disturbingly, a Freedom of Information application on Khan’s
behalf submitted more than 18 months ago stills shows no sign of her seeing
documents relating to his case.
“I can’t get confirmation of what they’ve done and
haven’t done,” she says. “In July 2000 I submitted an FoI
request, seeking documents relating to his removal back to India. In
September, I received some documents - but they weren’t the right
ones. In May 2001, I was told the relevant documents weren’t on the
file, then they said they couldn’t find the file. I’ve
complained to the Ombudsman, who requested the documents urgently.”
The Immigration Department says, bureaucratic blunders or not, Khan has
exhausted all legal moves to stay in this country.
“He would have been released from the Centre a long time ago,”
a spokesman for Ruddock says. “As he’s refused to provide proof
of his nationality, the Government is unable to issue documents. He’s
not unable to provide the details, he’s simply refused.”
The spokesman says Immigration officials are going through rolls in India -
working their way through villages - in order to try and locate definitive
proof of Khan’s identity.
“It’s going to be long, slow process - if he was more
cooperative it could have been established a long time ago. Until the
Government of India are satisfied about Khan’s identity, we will not
issue travel documents to him.
“He’s certainly one of the longer-serving detainees...he
believes if he holds out long enough, we’ll give in. That strategy is
not a proper basis on which to allow people to stay in this country.”
“I don’t believe I’ll be allowed to stay,” Khan
says. I’ve seen other detainees deported after years in detention.
But I do believe that as long as I’m here my life is safe. No human
being wants to die.”
Khan’s RRT application was rejected in January, 1999. Afterwards, he
says, he was depressed.
“I was convinced I was going to be sent back to India,” he
says. “I had no idea about the Federal Court (the appeal process)
then. I was put in detention for seven days, in a padded room. I also went
on hunger strike, and lost up to 20 kilograms.”
Thinking he was going to be returned to India, Khan decided to escape from
detention as soon as he had recovered from his hunger strike - which was
about three months later. The spark for the resolution was a detainee from
the Punjab telling him he had some money, and they should escape together.
“Myself, another Kashmiri and two Punjabis decided to escape,”
Khan says. “The Punjabis had been students, and were caught in South
Australia before being sent to Port Hedland. One of them had $2000 hidden
in the heel of one of his shoes. They knew what was happening in Kashmir,
said they had this money, and that they would help.”
So, early one morning in April 1999, Khan and three other detainees made
their big break. They went over four fences of wire (one 10 metres high) in
sixty seconds and escaped. As they did, an Iranian detainee saw them and
shouted she’d tell authorities.
After escaping they went to the beach and washed the blood from their hands
(caused by cuts from the wire), but didn’t know what to do next..
“One of the Punjabis had trouble walking - I think after he jumped
from the fence he twisted his ankle,” Khan remembers. “We went
back into town, to the post office, and rang a taxi from there. But we
didn’t know where to go. We thought maybe we should catch a bus to
Perth or Melbourne.”
When the taxi arrived, the driver took one look at them and said it would
be a payment-up-front fare. The four escapees told him they wanted to go to
Karratha, 245 kilometres away. The driver said it would be about $350.
“We thought we could catch a bus from Karratha - the driver suggested
he drop us at the McDonalds,” Khan says. “We arrived there and
we got out of the taxi. The staff inside told us they’d be open in 15
Khan and his fellow escapees couldn’t wait. The Golden Arches! Fast
food! They were hungry, and were keenly anticipating the McMuffins and hash
browns. With the Punjabi’s cash, they could’ve bought hundred
of McBreakfasts! Things were starting to look much better - after a feed,
they’d be on the move again.
The two Punjabis decided to sit out the wait at the rear of the building,
and walked around the wall, out of sight of Khan and the other Kashmiri.
“After about five minutes of waiting, the taxi came back,” Khan
says. “We thought he wanted breakfast, too. He drove in a circle in
the car park, and then drove off.”
A short time later, vehicles pulled up in the car park and disgorged
Federal and local police. Khan had a sinking feeling he wasn’t going
to be able to buy his egg and sausage McMuffin, but tried to bluff his way
out of trouble.
“We didn’t think they’d come for us - how could they know
we were there?” he recalls. “They said, ‘What’s
your name? Where are you from?’ I said I was a student, and I was
here for a wedding. They said, ‘Where are the other two guys?’
I said, what other two guys? But they said, ‘Yes, the other two who
escaped with you.’ They told us to put up our hands and spread our
legs. By the time we got in the van, the two Punjabis were already in
there, and they took us to the Karratha lockup.”
In his subsequent court appearance, after he’d spent a week in the
South Hedland lockup, Khan was made to serve as an example.
He pleaded guilty to escaping from custody, and was hoping for a six-month
good behaviour bond. But the prosecutor argued a custodial sentence was
needed as a deterrent: there were 350 detainees at the Port Hedland
Detention Centre, and letting Khan off scot-free would send the wrong
message to those people.
“I served three months in prison,” Khan says. “Afterwards
I was transferred to Perth. Conditions in prison are better than those in
detention centres, so this could hardly be considered punishment. While I
was in prison I was allowed to study: I was admitted to TAFE for a course
in Small Business Management, but when I was transferred here I had to
Since his arrival in Australia, Khan has spent 1,273 days in detention. 956
of those days have been in Perth. He’s kept himself occupied: his
spoken English is excellent, whereas before he came here it was
He takes a keen interest in current affairs - the detainees get a copy of
The West Australian and The Australian every day to read - and is
especially interested in reporting on the asylum seeker issue. An article
on a possible plan by the Federal Government to deal with long-term
detainees, for example, prompts hours of discussion in the Centre.
Khan is also responsible for bringing Foxtel to the Centre. ACM used to
hire videos for detainees: it was appreciated, but they soon got sick of
watching the same movie several times per week, before the new batch
arrived. Khan crunched the numbers and showed ACM it would save them money
if they stopped the videos and got Foxtel. Now they watch news, sports and
“We also really like the animal and nature documentaries,” Khan
And study is a possibility this year: some people at Murdoch University in
Perth are seeing if Khan can begin some type of external course with the
Khan is aware the Perth Detention Centre is preferable in many respects to
the other ACM facilities in WA, Curtin (at Derby) and Port Hedland.
He’s more accessible to visitors, and the relatively-small number of
detainees make for a more human relationship with the ACM staff.
But living in a small space with other desperate people takes its toll.
There have been suicide attempts and mental breakdowns as other detainees
crack under the uncertainty and sense of hopelessness.
And the Perth detainees have had to bunk down with some decidedly unsavoury
types. On a recent visit to the Centre, I was waiting in the visiting room
for Khan to arrive. Also present was an overweight man in his 50s, talking
with two visitors. He was discussing with his guests on how best to avoid
the media when he returned to New Zealand the next day.
The man was Rodney James McCormick, described by WA Attorney-General Jim
McGinty as a “very serious sex offender.” McCormick had been
imprisoned for 12 years, after being convicted of sexual assault and
deprivation of liberty. Once he had served his sentence, the WA Department
of Justice handed him over to the Federal Department of Immigration, who
deported him to his native New Zealand.
(McCormick failed to give the media the slip. Hounded by reporters and TV
cameras at Auckland airport, he eventually tried to take refuge in a
Another recent deportee from the Perth Detention Centre was David Little,
who was put on a plane to London last month. He killed his wife and
allegedly raped her daughter.
What can it be like for asylum seekers, sharing living quarters with
murderers and rapists?
What would Khan do if he was given a visa?
“I just want to live a normal life,” he says. “I’d
like to study, probably, and finish my diploma. I don’t want to be a
burden on the taxpayer. I’d try to be a good citizen.”
Would he stay in Australia?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I want to live wherever
my life is safe. I didn’t choose to come here - I just ended up here.
I want to live a normal life.”
He says his present existence, in a legal limbo, is frustrating and
“Three years behind razor wire is too much,” he says. “It
doesn’t make sense: if I didn’t have problems in Kashmir, would
I choose to stay this long in detention? Surely three years is enough to
check my character and health? Do I have to stay in detention forever?
Sometimes I feel like I’m in a grave with four walls. My morning
starts with fear, the days are spent in limbo, and the evenings in
copyright David Cohen. dcohen@wiredcity.com.au
An edited version of this story was published in The West Australian
newspaper, Perth, Saturday 6 April 2002.

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