A true telling of Australia’s immigration detentions

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres? ...

Safder Ahmed holding his book, ‘Still Alive.’ Credit: Safdar Ahmed

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be in one of Australia’s immigration detention centres? The recently published graphic novel ’Still Alive’ is the first of its kind to offer a glimpse into the daily experiences of refugees in detention centres.

Graphic journalism can be powerful in raising awareness of social and political issues as they are easy to consume yet often have a strong impact on its audience. The Walkley Awards winning artist and author of the graphic novel, Safdar Ahmed, explains that comics are a very subtle and sophisticated way of communicating, however they remain to be one of the most effective tools for activism. “Art can provide a context for understanding our place in the world, and using art to challenge power, to open our minds and to not just accept the way things are when they’re wrong and unjust,” said Mr Ahmed. 

‘Still Alive’ is the culmination of almost a decade of visiting the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre and witnessing the lives of detained refugees and asylum seekers. Mr Ahmed has been visiting the centre since 2011, where he volunteered to run art workshops for people in detention, alongside other local artists. The workshops sparked the idea of facilitating a space for refugee artists, prompting the establishment of ‘The Refugee Arts Project’ that runs workshops, community dinners, and exhibitions for emerging artists.

The not-for-profit community arts organisation has successfully created a community of local and refugee artists who produced various forms of art from coffee painting, realistic drawings, resin artwork, music, poetry to zines. “The book is a natural outgrowth of community work with the Refugee Arts Project,” said Mr Ahmed.

The book illustrates various aspects of a refugee’s life in detention, including the struggle with food, sleep, relationships, education, spirituality and the lingering trauma from their survival journeys. “I wanted to put a spotlight on the way people resist detention and to show their agency, and I think resistance isn’t just about when people protest or when people riot or when people speak to the media. Resistance can occur every day in many other small ways,” notes Mr Ahmed.

Credit: Safder Ahmed

The author notes that most Australians are unaware of human rights violations that occur in immigration detentions. He adds that politicians have misled the public regarding the reality of the detention system for the past 30 years, and have succeeded in dehumanising and criminalising refugees who are often labelled as ‘que jumpers’, ‘illegal arrivals’ and ‘foreigners who will steal Australian jobs’. “The whole policy of mandatory detention is also an outgrowth and a continuation of Australia as a colonial project,” he said.

Despite efforts to raise awareness, the heart-breaking reality lingers that thousands of refugees continue to suffer from Australia’s immigration policies. Only one refugee mentioned in the book received an Australian citizenship, while the rest are left in limbo. “They don’t have family reunion, they’re still alone, they’re still in a very difficult legal situation which is isolating and punishing,” he notes.

According to the Department of Home Affairs, around 1,484 people are locked up in detention centres, and more than 500 reside in the community with no visa and minimal rights. This is in addition to 30,000 asylum seekers and refugees whose claims have not been finalised as mentioned in the 2019 Australian Human Rights report.

Mr Ahmed encourages his readers to hear directly from refugees who shared their stories like Behrouz Boochani. He adds that being more active in the politics of this nation is equally important. “People can protest, people can write letters to their local politicians, people can join associations that support refugees and asylum seekers directly… send a clear message that Australia’s position is unacceptable and immoral,” he said.

Credit: Shayma Abdellatif

You can purchase ‘Still Alive’ from the Twelve Panels Press website.


The lucky (racist) country

Dinusha Soo dissects racism in Australia through the lens of Reg Mombassa's art....

For many of us growing up in Australia, we were often reminded of the fact that we live in the ‘lucky’ country, made up of a rich fabric of multiculturalism. Our diversity is touted as one of our key strengths, particularly when compared to other Western nations.

But for several Australians – our diversity is the very thing that can lead to oppression. One in five Australians have experienced racism in 2017 alone, according to a poll commissioned by the SBS with Western Sydney University.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a large portion of this racism has been directed to Asian-Australians and prior to this, the Muslim population.

So, what makes Australia racist and has this always been the case?

When the White Australia Policy came into effect in 1901, anyone from a non- European background could not enter the country. This was not abolished until as late as 1973, all while the Stolen Generations period was occurring between the mid-1800s to the 1970s.

Then if we look at our current national anthem, which surprisingly came into effect in 1984, we would all be familiar with the words, “for we are young and free.” Harmless enough? “These very words sung in our Australian anthem ignore the 65,000 years or more of Indigenous Australian culture,” says France Mao in a BBC article.

Reflecting on Australia’s laboured efforts to recognise and afford rights to those of Indigenous descent, it presents as a mere example of underlying racism in this country.

One of Australia’s most renowned artists, Reg Mombassa provides searing political commentary through his artwork. When asked by Troublemag what he perceives as the most important societal issue in Australia today – his response was racism.

Design by Dinusha Soo
Design by Dinusha Soo

Reg has done several pieces discussing racism, one of his more notable designs was for Mambo, where an Australian representation of Jesus extends an olive branch with the words “Australian Jesus welcomes the boat people.”

In recent times, these ‘boat people’ have been denied entry to Australia, even if they were facing persecution in their homelands. Australia currently has agreements with neighbouring countries, to process asylum seekers ‘offshore.’

The Refugee Council of Australia states that this means that people seeking asylum are generally detained, often for long and uncertain periods”. Additionally, there is no independent review of the decision to detain, and people have been detained for increasingly long periods.

“The detention of people seeking asylum under this regime is one of the harshest in

the world and causes terrible suffering,” the Refugee Council of Australia states.

As Australians who recognises our past and indeed our current policies – we must strive to do better. This will require having a sense of empathy and understanding toward our fellow humans, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their creed or their cultural beliefs. It is only by striving for a more equitable society, will movements like Black Lives Matter, which resonates with people globally, have any profound impact on our own culture here in Australia.


Australia’s commitment to supporting Afghan refugees

Afghan refugees are thankful to be adjusting to life in Australia and urge the government to reunite their families. ...

On August 15, the day that the Taliban seized Afghanistan’s capital, chaos descended on the streets of Kabul as thousands were desperate to escape. Today, some of these Afghan refugees are thankful to be adjusting to life in Australia under a government program dedicated to protecting and resettling those in need.

Former reporter Shazia (not her real name) is among the three thousand Afghans being granted asylum under the Australian Government’s Humanitarian Program. She is currently living in Western Sydney with her eight-year-old son and hopes that the government will take action to rescue her husband and three other children that were left behind at Kabul’s overcrowded airport.

“I feel happy to be in Australia, and I am thankful to the Australian government for everything but being away from my children is extremely difficult. No mother can stay away from her kids for long,” she said. “I request that the Australian government please bring my family to me; otherwise, I cannot survive without them.”

A report by The Age in October says families spent days on the cold, dusty ground outside Kabul airport before they were able to board a rescue flight out of Afghanistan. Others, who were unable to be identified due to security reasons, told The Age how they were threatened and beaten at gunpoint by the Taliban as they were entering the airport. For many, they now face the heartache of being separated from their immediate family members who were left in danger.


Abu Bakr Zahid arrived in Australia on a rescue flight out of Afghanistan on September 1. Photo: Supplied.


On September 1, Abu Bakr Zahid arrived in Darwin where he spent two weeks in hotel quarantine before being moved to Sydney. Formerly employed in the finance sector, he is thankful that the Australian government helped all his colleagues escape. Mr Zahid says he is “very happy to live in a beautiful and multi-cultural country,” but urges the government to rescue his family.


“It is very difficult to live in Afghanistan under these circumstances, and the Taliban are after those who worked with foreign troops,” he said. “It is very unfortunate that we had to leave our homes and families behind with empty hands and couldn’t even bring our clothes.

President of Afghan Community Support Association of NSW Australia (ACSA), Mohammad Nader Azami says they have been working with the federal government to assist the new migrants. They have been providing emotional support as well as a massive amount of clothing, sanitary items, and fresh food through the Settlement Services International (SSI). “Upon hearing of the news of their arrival, ACSA representatives met with them and offered their support on behalf of the community,” he said. “After our meeting they got the confidence that some people speak their language and know their culture.”

The Afghans are temporarily living in Bella Vista and Penrith hotels, but Mr Azami has confirmed that they will receive a house package, and ongoing assistance to assimilate into Australian life, seek employment and enrol in courses. “Afghans living in Sydney are very generous and kind and are more than willing to help their fellow Afghans, here and in Afghanistan,” he said. “We want them to know that we are here to assist them in any way we are capable of.”

“It is our moral responsibility and obligation to provide assistance to these people who have left their country under very unusual circumstances,”

– Mohammad Nader Azami

So far, Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has agreed to accept three thousand refugees from Afghanistan, but according to Immigration News Australia, religious leaders across the country are calling on the Australian government to take in 20 thousand.  Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Kanishka Raffel, believes that the immigration cap should be increased because responding to the transparent needs of people is a feature of human compassion. “We went to Afghanistan to secure the freedom of Afghan people, and now we need to bring as many as we can, as generously as we can, so that they can share our freedom,” he said.

Afghan public figure and women’s rights activist, Arezo Younes, settled in Australia after escaping during the Taliban’s reign with her family, almost two decades ago. Since then, she has become a prominent voice for Afghan women around the world. As the nightmare returns to her homeland, she fears that it will once again be as it was when she was a little girl in Kabul – when they closed every door of hope for women throughout Afghanistan. “I believe that being born as a woman in Afghanistan is like paying for the bad karma you are unaware of,” said Ms Younes. “Living under the Taliban regime was like living in a jungle. You fear that your life could be taken by a hungry animal at any time.”


Afghan activist & public figure Arezo Younes escaped Taliban rule almost 20 years ago. Photo, supplied.

Ms Younes is especially concerned about those who worked with the US and its allies in Afghanistan, who urgently need rescuing. Compared to Britain, Canada, and the United States, she believes that the Australian government is not doing enough to help Afghans seeking asylum. “The amount of the messages I have receive from Afghan journalists, lawyers, and those who worked with foreign forces is overwhelming. They beg for their lives to be saved and ask me to help them and raise their voice to the Australian government,” she said. “I know individuals that worked with foreign troops, and their families are in great danger, but no urgent action has been taken to rescue them.”

As the Afghan refugees begin their new lives in Australia, they are urging the Morrison government to help reunite them with their families. Last month, in a statement by the Department of Home Affairs, the government acknowledged the “tremendous distress” that the crisis in Afghanistan has caused the Afghan-Australian community, but at this stage, there has been no official announcement regarding plans to expand the immigration cap. “It breaks my heart to see innocent people suffering,” said Ms Younes. “They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children hoping for a better future.”


The article was first published on The Junction.