Another black death in Footscray

Nowadays, the Maribyrnong River looks beautiful and peaceful as it passes through Footscray and the surrounding areas abundant with parks, walks and wetlands. You still wouldn’t swim but you can boat, and, on a peaceful Sunday, you can stroll along the banks for miles, enjoying the sunshine and exchanging pleasant greetings with picnickers.

But that’s not the European history of the river. Until the 1960s, the river meant blood and death. Footscray was where the abattoirs were, among the largest and most advanced in the world. Tallow was the first source of Melbourne’s wealth. During the abattoir’s peak, tonnes of blood a day went straight into the river. Industrial waste and acids from the factories flowed into open sewers. And more sinister things, too. Footscray had the developed world’s highest infant mortality rate. Often the bodies went straight into the river, to join those thrown off the five prison hulks in Willamstown; these were places of torture and horror. A tenth of Footscray’s people spent time in these rotting ships, which also had a high rate of deaths. These days, of course, we keep that offshore.

Thirty-year-old Rezene Mebrahtu Engeda often used to walk along the Maribyrnong’s banks, dreaming of a future in Australia. Rezene came from Eritrea, one of the world’s five most repressive countries, described as ‘a giant prison’ by the international Red Cross. Virtually all young men aged 18–35 (and sometimes as young as 11) are forced to work on useless, backbreaking ‘development projects’. They work far from their families, ragged, starved and forced to buy food and clothing from meagre wages. What little money the government has – a substantial portion from Australian mining for gold and potash – is now scarcely enough to maintain the elite part of their army, recruited from foreigners who don’t have local contacts or speak the language. Border guards desert. Young men escape. They make the long dangerous journey across the sands to Sudan or to Ethiopia. Ten years ago, it was a hundred refugees a month; by 2012, over 600. Today, it’s more than 1000 a month. Eritrea is emptying.

When Rezene left, he took the northern route. He crossed Ethiopia, entered Kenya, avoided the huge concatenations of misery, disease and death that are the Somali refugee camps near the border, and arrived in Nairobi. Like Cairo, Jerusalem or Tripoli, it’s a city prosperous enough for a poor person to eke out some kind of living, supplemented by funds scratched together by disadvantaged relatives overseas and shared around. He was young, strong, quite intelligent.

Five years ago, he also seemed lucky. An Eritrean woman in Australia had an affection for him. Ineligible for an Eritrean passport, Rezene got one the usual way – bribery – and entered Australia on a spouse visa.

But the relationship did not work out. There is no suggestion that Rezene was a bad man, or unkind to his wife. Perhaps it was simply a difference in personalities; perhaps, as so often happens within refugee communities, the woman adapted to a changed conception of marriage better than the man did (a problem that refugee communities here are working to educate their communities about). Perhaps she wanted to be free to continue her search for a father to her children. For whatever reason, DIMA (now DIBP, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) was contacted.

Rezene Mebrahtu Engeda was in a desperate position. He had no status in Kenya. The only possible destination was Eritrea, where he was considered a deserter. In Eritrea, army deserters are executed. People who flee for other reasons usually also meet this fate, or  imprisonment, or vicious torture and starvation. This is not mere casual brutality: the study of how to keep people alive for as long as possible while inflicting the maximum agony is a refined art. UNHCR, the International Red Cross and Human Rights Watch have issued strong advisories that people who have fled Eritrea are not to be returned (‘refouled’). During 2008–12, various countries such as Egypt, Libya, Israel and Mali forcibly returned people who had left Eritrea. In the Egyptian case, one planeload of 118 returnees was driven screaming onto the plane with boots and rifle butts. The International Red Cross has, in almost all cases, been unable to find any trace of these asylum seekers after their return.

Rezene applied for refugee status, and began the long, tortuous process of trying to prove that status to DIMA. But the very compromises that he had needed to make just to save his life were held against him. He was in a Catch-22: it seems that DIMA does not consider people refugees simply because on their return they will be killed.

The process dragged on for three years. Even for educated citizens, communications from the government can be incomprehensible, sometimes frightening. To someone who needs to pore over every letter with friends and advisors to make any sense of it, they can be very frightening indeed. Rezene had no work visa and was not entitled to benefits; he supported himself by his proficiency at small building jobs and relied on the kindness of friends.

During the week ending 31 January – ironically, New Year for much of the world – Rezene’s time ran out. He received a letter from (the now-named) DIBP telling him to attend a meeting the next Wednesday. It was clear to him that at this meeting he would be given a deadline to return to Eritrea. That Sunday, Rezene – now aged 35 – invited a friend out for a beer. The friend was too busy to accept (a memory that he now says is ‘Like a dagger in my heart’). On Wednesday 5 February, Rezene farewelled his flatmates and set out for the meeting. He did not get there. Later that week his drowned body was removed from the Maribyrnong River.

This, the fifth or sixth drowning in the community in the last two years, sent the community into shock. At a large meeting at Flemington, members grieved for the popular, compassionate young man. Michael Atakelt’s death in 2012 was recalled, and the endless meetings with police that brought promises that were broken, prevarication and few answers. The community reflected on how much, how often, and over how many years they have tried to form partnerships with the police, have invited them into their communities, all of which has made little difference to misunderstandings and profiling.

Christians and Muslims alike have joined in to raise funds to return this young Christian man’s body to his ancestral graveyard. Their shock and grief was at the loss and the damage to the community; they did not share my own Buddhist metaphysical horror at suicide. That the Maribyrnong River is turning into a symbol of fear for them is based on recent memories, not on the supernatural. But it is difficult even for me not to conclude that for Rezene Mebrahtu Engeda, a young man who came to Australia full of hope and who was about to be delivered to torturers and murderers, there was very little other choice.


Thomas Kent gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr Berhan Ahmed, members of the Eritrean Community of Australia and the African Think Tank in preparing this article.


Thomas Kent

Thomas Kent is a journalist and human rights worker who was nominated for the Premier’s Award in Excellence (multicultural journalism) in 2010. Tom is a well-known poet, photographer, essayist and artist whose work is mostly published in the USA. He is also a musician, known as My Melbourne Down.

More by Thomas Kent ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I want to thank Jacinta the deputy editor at Overland for her immediate concern over this issue. It seems that people in Italy have a different attitude to boat people than many Australians:

    Italy declared a Nation Day or Mourning when the refugee boat sank off the coast of Lampedusa Island with over 200 drownings. Mind you, it is also fair to say that the Italian government mishandled the sinking and the bodies, turning them over to the representatives from the Eritrean government. This is a pure guess, but I suspect that unless relatives swiftly pay the Eritrean government a large sum for the remains, they will end up bulldozed into landfill.

  2. I am surprised that this extraordinary piece has been printed.
    Two young people commit suicide in Victoria each day.suicide is a complex issue. Depression can grip anyone, of any background , in any place , at any time. It is always a tragedy.
    This article makes every mistake known to journalism. It assumes causality, is full of contradictions. There is nothing to assume that this young man was to be returned given the circumstances. Why the slur of the police? How were they involved ? You have tried to make (confusing!!!) politics of this young mans death. We can all imagine he was under great pressures , as all asylum seekers are, worldwide. Certainly we can understand the frustrations of dealing with government departments . But to draw contrary and conflicting conclusions ( why the reference to the Lampadusa tragedy??) without one piece of evidence, is highly offensive and unwarranted . How about waiting for some evidence through the coroners inquest? John Kilner

  3. I cannot understand how anyone is able to blindly wash their hands of responsibility in formally declining refugee status to someone who the rules clearly should apply to. Especially when it seems any compassion has been thrown out like a baby with the bath water. Disgusting!

  4. Totally biased and incorrect article written only to blacken Eritrea. Does he wrote a farewell letter that can back your cooked story? I guess not…Asylum seekers often take their lives because they don’t find the money flying on the streets as of in their dreams. By the way, there is no Eritrean whether deserter or others who was executed. NOT EVEN ONE.

  5. This article is the work of yet another angry, hand-wringing left-winger bastard. What exactly is your point? That it’s Australia’s fault we welcome people in from some of the most unfortunate sods on the planet and that sometimes they still kill themselves? No matter how good our immigration policies are, or how efficient, tortured people with difficult pasts will probably always commit suicide, or engage in self destruction. Especially if they have left countries where war and cruelty are so rampant, as in Eritrea. Are you trying to paint this man’s death as one that is Melbourne’s fault? Who are you trying to blame exactly? Africans in urban Australia can get every welfare resource and ally at their disposal. They band together, as any sensible person will when the chips are stacked against them. But most of these Africans here still choose not to finish high school, they still choose substance abuse, they still choose Centrelink to fuel their drug habits. They don’t really want help, and people like you don’t understand that. What’s more is when the authorities and other organisations try to step in when they’re in need, it is almost always people like you who label it an intervention, a racist interference or some other hideous “crime”. Don’t propagate ignorance about an issue that is extremely complex and sensitive.

    1. Most of what you say is completely irrelevant to the article.

      Re-read your Donne (a fine Churchman too):

      “No man is an island,
      Entire of itself,
      Every man is a piece of the continent,
      A part of the main.
      If a clod be washed away by the sea,
      Europe is the less.
      As well as if a promontory were.
      As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
      Or of thine own were:
      Any man’s death diminishes me,
      Because I am involved in mankind,
      And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
      It tolls for thee.”

      Dona is writing of the brotherhood of man. I invite you to rejoin it.

  6. To ‘MelbourneLeftistsAtItAgain : The name of your page invalidates your message and your participation in this thread because of the obvious bias. That’s my view and here’s why: Although I share your judgement of this emotionally driven piece – it feeds nicely into the thuggish right wing agenda, (because feelings are acknowledged?) but I doubt there’s any difference between all other ‘pro-humanitarian leftist propaganda pieces’ from your point of view. Okay, that’s a choice, a freedom you are enjoying.
    These 2 cases of suicide are as obscure as the governments policy on – and let’s be honest here – almost everything. – I think the article is shit, too, because it provides too little info about these rare cases. It does though raise the question of WHY people become refugees, and WHY they are most likely mentally and financially fucked up when deciding to leave. On the other hand I believe that the treatment of most, if not all refugees and the bizarre, non-sensical and economically puzzling waste of the australian ‘Processing Process’ & the poor execution of whatever law/policy is currently implemented in a clearly fascistoid secrecy-obsessed fashion we are now seeing (or rather not)is the worst possible path to take to deal with this tragedy, partially but nevertheless signifcantly enhanced by our absolutely non-sovereign cowardish foreign policy. Cow towing to the Yanks means we do have a responsibility. I hope you can read me.

  7. Why assume that people are left-wingers if you don’t know anything about them? But what gives you away is that you dismiss anyone’s views BECAUSE of some assumption about their political views. We should listen carefully to what all sides of politics have to say, because people on all sides have things to contribute to the dialogue – and there are people on both sides who don’t.

  8. Please check AJA code of conduct around discussion of suicide. This article, I suggest, violates the code . The linking of this mans suicide to his upcoming meeting: the suggestion of. “he had no choice “. Act promptly here please.

  9. Yes, maybe there is no absolute evidence of the reason for this suicide. But, really,are the sits that obscure they can not be connected? Sure, he nay have acted on sun assumption, but it was a four enough one to make. Yes, there are many other suicides, but the point of the article is surely not the suicide but the anguish that drew this man to Audtralia, and despite his future, or lack of it, in Eritrea if he was sent packing back there as seemed most likely yo him.

  10. All journalism starts from what is known – fact. Language should be circumspect, guarded . Conclusions carefully drawn . Otherwise it becomes conjecture . Inference . Speculation. Opinion. That’s ok, if made clear. Do you know that he faced being returned? Do you know his distress was caused by … ??? All is unclear. A short marriage. A false passport. How he interviewed for his 2 year post arrival application for a permanent visa. All inference. Causality is assumed – gosh, his suicide is assumed also! The issue is not whether he suffered. The article attributes and ascribes blame. It also violates reporting standards in Australia. For example, all reporting of suicide in Australia must includes tag lines to where people can seek help for depression. This article uses his death for political purposes. And also, I can tell you, that after 5 years in Australia, despite arriving on a false passport, it was highly unlikely he would be returned to another country. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works here in this article.He faced a good chance of being one of the 64 asylum seekers who receive a visa to settle in Australia each day .

  11. I think there’s been a fundamental mistake in understanding by Mr Kent of the process Mr Engeda , the asylum seeker , was undergoing. In fact. Australia was following United Nations protocols on refugee applications!! The delay in the application would have occurred in Sweden , USA, any country with a humanitarian refugee program .
    Coming from a bad country does not make you a refugee. The UNHCR has a process for reviewing claims. First , protocols for assessing the claim. Questions about incidents , events, locations, verified by various sources . Very time consuming . Then assessment of suitability for resettlement – Health, etc . Most refugees do not seek resettlement. Many things can slow this process down eg false documentation. Researchers may ask for confirmation , more information. False information may affect the process very much . These protocols are similar across the world. In fact, Australia’s recognition of refugees is recognised as most lenient eg Sweden had 25k applications last year , about. 3000 recognised as refugees and resettled . Australia had slightly higher figure, over 80% recognised, roughly. So Australia was following standard protocols and procedures worked out, drawn from, UN auspices. The result, a delayed outcome in his refugee application, would probably have occurred in any of the nations that offer a humanitarian program. why did mr kent get this so wrong ? Two reasons . This kind of advocacy journalism spruiks points of view from a meeting of angry people. You need to have an attitude of scrutiny and questioning. Step back, question. Clarify. Detach. Secondly, lack of knowledge .This is a hellishly complex issue. You need to read and think and research a lot to write just a little . Not the other way around.

  12. I deeply appreciate the effort and thought that went into the replies, even those that totally reject my writing and article.

    I was employed for ten years as a professional writer within African Communities. Sometimes I was paid out of grant monies that I had submitted – in other words I was self-funded – and sometimes as a volunteer. That I was employed by these communities rather than, for example, a social worker from outside, was unusual and attracted international attention from Sweden, the UK, The USA and the UN. One of my ghostwritten Senate Reports was praised by Kevin Rudd and I played a small part in publicising the plight of 15,000 refugees in terrible straits in Ethiopia, who were then accepted and resettled by the USA. It has been said by the leaders of these communities, such as Professor Ahmed and Yaseen Musa, that I have the best understanding of their communities than any other outsider in Australia. They say that the very low rate of African Crime in Maribyrnong is the result of programs that I funded and helped design.

    Incidentally, I have also worked for the Immigration department.

    Because of my experience, it is immediately apparent to me that some of the replies were from people who have no understanding whatsoever of what happens on the ground in these communities. The usual statements that I am wrong, without addressing specific points in my article or providing any counter-evidence. The usual myths that refuges are growing fat on government money. Please do not propagate these harmful myths.

    With reference to right and left wing, I helped Adam Bandt get elected due to the 250 swinging African votes that decide the seat of Melbourne. I helped Professor Ahmed, who could be called Centrist. I am proud to say that we achieved what may have been a first in Australian political history. Every other candidate gave Professor Ahmed their second choice. I also assisted Ken Betts, a Family First supporter (running as a Liberal) who is a wonderful community helper and regards Attila the Hun as a Leftie. Kern is the sort of right-winger who believes that marriage is Christian and must be between a man and woman, yet would instantly employ or help an LBGTI person without any trace of prejudice

    Ye, refugees do need special programs to integrate into the community and not be seduced by the drug dealers and criminals who hang around government housing, working to recruit young people into criminal activity and addiction.

    But think: for an Australian-born person, the government has paid many thousands in education and health. The funding to run programs to integrate each refugee is only a fraction of what has been spent on each Australian-born. By running such programs, Australia in effect gets a new adult worker at fraction of the $$$ that would have been spent if they were Australian-born. A free gift.

    Australia has a small refugee intake compared to most developed nations. In 2014, Sweden took 162,877, compared to Australia’s 13,750. The population of Sweden at about 10 million is less than half of Australia.

    The law in Eritrea is that an army deserter faces the death penalty. The International Red Cross believes that such refugees are killed immediately they are returned to Eritrea. It’s true that there is little evidence that they are killed. The Red Cross simply loses contact and cannot trace such refoulees via their relatives or any other means. They are simply not there anymore. They have disappeared.

    With regard to Rezene’s interview, there was a substantial chance that he would be arrested on the spot and refouled to some other country, perhaps Eritrea. This happens.

    The way that Australia treats refugees has drawn criticism from the UN and other quarters. Such criticism is well based on study and evidence should not be dismissed. The Minister’s decisions flout the law and he has even been described as criminal by Australian judges.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.