My oldest kid is in year 6. She came home one day, face alight. The class had been reading Anh Do’s book, The Happiest Refugee. She loved it. The story was dramatic and dangerous. It featured heinous pirates, a heroic father, brave children. ‘They put gold in the baby’s nappy,’ my daughter said.
My kid has a gifted teacher, a young Irish man. He came here by plane. His girlfriend is a Vietnamese Australian woman. Her parents came by boat, refuges like Anh Do.
The children were learning how to form an opinion. Should Australia let the boats in? Should the boats be stopped somehow? These were the questions the class was considering. We also thought about them at home.
One thing I did was to encourage my kids to read the stories in The Age and discuss them. I still buy a hard copy newspaper and in June and July, ‘the boats’ often made the news. One morning, there was a blue banner across the top of page one. It said: ‘SIEV 358 16 emergency calls, zero response, 100-plus dead’. Inside the paper, there was a photo of an unturned boat, a tiny thing, with about two dozen men on top waving for help.
The photo grabbed my children’s attention. ‘At least they have lifejackets,’ my oldest one said. ‘Most of the boats don’t.’ She walked off, satisfied somehow. I didn’t tell her that the story said all those men drowned and another 80 with them.
The photo galvanized me too. I wanted to do something. I thought of the Refugee Review Tribunal, an independent body that was set up 20 years ago to review cases in which an asylum seeker had either been refused a protection visa or had a protection visa cancelled.
I sometimes read tribunal decisions on the amazing Austlii database. The transcripts were redacted but the published reports were still amazingly detailed, a window into other worlds, lives that were chaotic and dangerous, often tragic.
In Melbourne, the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Migration Review Tribunal offices are in a high rise across from Southern Cross station.
The refugee tribunal hearings are closed to the public but the migration tribunal ones are not. I decided to visit. I went up to the desk and said I wanted to find out what happened in here. I said I was a writer, a concerned Australian, a mother.
The staff were courteous, the foyer bright and new. I was invited to wait in one of the booths opposite the hearing rooms. The next migration review hearing was due to start in an hour. I would be welcome to sit in.
Wooden screens with cut out motifs of trees divide the waiting area from the six hearing rooms. I sat on a banquette upholstered in leatherette and a softer fabric printed in bold oranges and greens. There were round tables, comfortable chairs.
Three men sat down one table along. What were they doing here? The men talked to each in loud voices. One of them was from New Zealand, like me. He had ‘just walked in’, he said, back in the 1960s.
A clerk came up to me and said the migration review hearing had been postponed because the applicant hadn’t showed up. Did I want to wait? I decided I might as well.
Along from me, the three men’s voices changed pitch. I looked over. They were holding hands. Their heads were bent. God botherers!
‘We pray that the tribunal gives consideration to the truth that is in his heart,’ the man from New Zealand said.
‘Help him to stand,’ the second man said. ‘Help him not to get flustered Lord. Help him to find the truth.’
‘Lord, help him to know when to keep his mouth shut. We pray they will hear his words and they will lean favourably towards him. Nevertheless, Lord, let it not be our will but yours that is done. Amen.’
They lifted their heads. The men had named someone in their prayers but I was not able to catch this word.
Suddenly, a young man appeared at the table. He was wearing blue jeans, white sneakers and a grey jersey. All brand new. He was very agitated.
‘It is very hard for me to explain these things,’ he said. ‘It makes me cry.’ He was still crying. ‘It reminds me of all these terrible things,’ he said. One of the others got up and offered him his seat. He slumped into it. He put his head in his hands. His weeping got louder. The man who was standing up put his arm around the refugee’s shoulder and rubbed his back. ‘They kept asking me the same questions,’ he said. ‘It reminded me of all the terror I had at that time.’
One of the other praying men said something to him softly. A fifth man came up to the table and spoke to him in his own language. ‘It’s not about the convention,’ the crying man said, loudly. ‘It’s about the truth.’
‘You are getting emotional,’ someone else said. ‘Just calm down… you don’t know what you are saying. Just calm down.’
The whole group gathered in close to comfort the young man. Eventually he was able to stand up and walk off on his own.
‘It is worse now,’ one of the men said. ‘It is worse now than five years ago.’
There was a lawyer sitting opposite me. He was waiting for a migration review client. Like me, he was listening to what was going on. Unlike me, he understood both the languages being spoken during the exchange.
He went over and introduced himself. ‘You were there when all this happened?” he asked. No, they explained. We are just supporters, friends. We have known him for 18 months, since he has been here. ‘We are quite sure that he is telling the truth,’ they said. ‘He should be allowed to stay.’
A window had opened into another person’s house. I had stood there eavesdropping for a while, straining to understand but also scared to know more, to get involved. Two things hit me: the intensity of that man’s weeping and the sincerity of the prayers uttered on his behalf.
I waited a bit longer in the foyer but the next migration review hearing was not until later that afternoon. I had to pick the kids up from school. My life, at least, was going on.
Weeks flew by and I wrote nothing about what I had heard in the foyer. Eventually, I contacted the tribunal’s media team and asked whether asylum seekers resettled in Papua New Guinea will be able to appeal to the tribunal and the answer was no. The tribunal could only review decisions in relation to a person who was in Australia.
Both Labor and the Coalition are scrutinizing the tribunal. Labor has already ordered it to consider new country information prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs. For now, the tribunal remains independent and considers information from government agencies and ‘other sources’. It is a place of last resort, a scrap of integrity remaining in a debased system. A lifejacket.