In the middle of the Indian Ocean, nearly three thousand kilometers from Perth, lies Christmas Island, home to one of Australia’s offshore immigration detention centres.
It’s where hundreds of men, women and children are forced to live within a huge grey maze of concrete and steel and too many security check points and surveillance cameras to count. There‘s also an imposing wire fence that rings around the perimeter of the compound separating those in detention from the outside world.
I visited the island twice in 2014 to meet the people the Australian government does not want anyone to see: the people seeking asylum being warehoused indefinitely. People I met had had their security assessment done within 3 days of their arrival and found to be of no threat to this country. Ineligible for Australian visas based on a snap decision by the Australian government, they were anxiously waiting removal to Nauru and Manus Island. Many I met had been waiting in limbo for over 12 months.
Among the people I visited are babies born in Australian hospitals after their parents arrived on our shores by sea. The families of these newborns are terrified of being moved – without notice – to another offshore detention centre at Nauru.
They explain how every night parents go to bed fearing they may get a fateful knock on the door telling them it’s time for their family to leave.
These people have been purposely placed here miles away from civilization so they are out of sight of the Australian public and the media. And especially, lawyers like me.
The room in which I meet many of them is airless and cramped as 15 families at a time squeeze inside. A guard remains just outside and I am fairly sure he can hear everything we discuss, given how paper-thin the walls are.
Solicitor-client confidentiality means nothing here, like so many other basic human rights.
I tell them we’ve come up with a way to argue that babies born here and their families have a right to stay, but explaining the complex law and the risks associated with our strategy is hard to convey to these terrified people. They listen carefully and are grateful for my help.
Once the meetings are over, a mother takes my hand and escorts me past several grey demountables until we arrive at her doorway. It’s marked XYP018, because here on Christmas Island, people are referred to by their boat number rather than by name.
We stand in the doorway and I peer in. It’s tiny, about two meters wide and three meters long. It’s also dark and I notice the curtain is drawn over the plastic window. “It’s my daughter”, she whispers. “She can’t get out of bed.”
I can see the outline of a small child in the bottom bunk. She’s covered in blankets despite the blistering heat in this tropical hell.
Her mother tells me it’s been five days since she’s eaten or gotten out of bed. She hands me a note that her daughter, aged 10, had handed her a couple of days earlier.
On it she had drawn the face of a young girl behind bars with tears coming out of her eyes, together with the words;
This is my life now.
Now I am here behind the wire.
I have no friends.
I have nothing to do.
I hate my life.
I want to die now.
I turn over the page and there is one word written in large childish writing: WHY?
I have come to this island to give legal advice and provide practical assistance where I can. But for this bigger question I have no answers.
Later that afternoon, I sat in the shade with a young father. His hand shook slightly as he signed the consent form confirming that he would like me to assist his child in her legal claim.
His young daughter sat squirming on his lap and she has an angry red heat rash over her neck. He speaks softly and apologises for his wife not being present.
Two days earlier, he explained, she tried to end her life by drinking a large bottle of cleaning product.
Before I get up I ask if he has any more questions to which he replied: “When can I cook my daughter an egg?”
He and his family have been detained on Christmas Island for more than a year and their lives remain in limbo.
“I have this recurring dream,” he tells me. “I’m in a kitchen. It’s bright and it’s warm. The sun is streaming in through the window. I am standing at a stove and behind me my daughter and child are sitting at the kitchen table. I am making them breakfast and I am boiling my daughter an egg. Just like my father used to do for me when I was little. We sit down and we eat as a family. This is my dream.”
Later, a guard explained that families can’t cook or eat together here. Every day they have to line up with everyone else outside the mess hall at set times and they are given the food they are served.
There are no eggs in this camp.
As I leave the camp later that day the story about the egg plays on my mind. I can’t stop thinking about it.
As I drive up the dusty road I am suddenly struck by a memory from my childhood. It’s a cold wintry night and the wind rattles at the window. I am warm and clean in my pajamas, fresh out of a bath.
My baby sister and I are watching my dad cook us dinner. And he is making boiled eggs on toast. He serves us the egg and I remember the butter dripping down my fingers as I hungrily eat them. I feel warm and I feel safe.
When I get home from my trip the first thing I want to do is head for open space. I need to feel the wind on my face and fresh air in my lungs.
I walk for hours around Melbourne’s Yarra River and through parklands. I try and explain to one of my oldest friends who is with me what it was like at Christmas Island, but no words could do it justice.
It’s hard not to think back to my time on the island and the people I met and the stories they shared about their many different hopes and dreams.
It has made me realise that freedom is actually about the little things.
It’s the ability for a child to learn to crawl on a soft clean surface, and for that 10-year-old girl to play with her friends and to run around in a park and graze her knees when she falls of the monkey bars, rather than feel so helpless that she is confined to a bed.
And it’s about that father being able to cook his daughter an egg and eat with his family. After all, it’s these little things that make us human.
And these are the things worth fighting for.
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