How could it all have happened?

‘Fools,’ said I, ‘You do not know
Silence, like a cancer, grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you’
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells, of silence

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, ‘The words of the prophets are written on the prison* walls
And detention* halls’
And whispered in the sounds of silence.

– Simon and Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence (*my adaptation)

For a long time, there has been a silence in Australia. Watching this silence grow, become understood by many who would ‘support refugees’ as a strategy to deal with ever-increasing neoliberal and colonial violence, I have come to a place close to despair. I have been silenced. I have at times bought into this silence, just as many witnesses to the atrocities enacted against people who have sought refuge in Australia have been silenced by those who are not imprisoned, but seem to be stuck in their own version of Resignation Syndrome, or is it a form of Stockholm syndrome, or is it about a maintenance of status and power.

Many who have sought refuge in Australia are dissuaded from speaking, are threatened should they speak out. And since I too have been prevented from speaking of what I know of the intimate violences being perpetrated by the state against these people, I will speak about some of the practices of silencing that shore up and extend the normalisation of this violence.

I want to tell you so much. I hold so much knowledge of the intimate violences being perpetrated by the state and its allies, including the legal and medical professions. I want to tell you about what it is to watch as someone you love, and have loved for years, is kept alive by a system that aims to destroy, has already succeeded in destroying a life, many lives – and any will to live. I want to tell you of the torture that this person, these people, are forced to undergo in our hospitals, here in our suburbs throughout Australia. Tortures that are seldom even whispered about.

I want to tell you of the way in which two SERCO guards are present 24/7 in the room of a dying person, of someone who cannot walk, hardly talk, cannot eat, drink, function, and when communicating, communicates with absolute visceral fear of the knowledge that they (Australia) are killing her/him. I want to tell you of how these guards say ‘this is what happens when you come by boat’; of how they sit and record every detail of a conversation between family members; of how bags are checked; of how the toilet door is held open by a guard even though the person who has been placed on the toilet is not able to move. I want to tell you of how it takes so much effort, so many submissions and interventions to enable a doctor to have some private time with their patient; of the arguments and numerous phone calls it takes to ABF before a social worker is allowed inside the room.

I want to tell you of the excruciating pain in the voice of someone who is begging you to find a way to allow them to die in order to escape the unbearable minute-by-minute pain of being forced to remain just-alive to endure this torture. I want to tell you of the impact on families who are forced to watch, are themselves surveilled and have no control over treatment or even their own lives, families who have already been deeply traumatised and continue to be traumatised further. I want to tell you of mothers who try so hard not to wail but cry out over and over again, ‘I cannot protect my daughter and son, my son, my daughter. If Australia does not want us please let us to die.’ Of a young woman, of young women and men who are themselves starving and so traumatised that decision-making is impossible, but who drag themselves into a hospital room each day to sit beside their dying family member, and spend each night debating whether to climb to the roof top and jump off.

I want to tell you of the misinformation passed to hospitals by IHMS, ABF, SERCO in an effort to place all blame on the victim; of the constant necessity to attempt to educate the medical staff on the realities of this, of trying to explain how this person has been criminalised, should not be handcuffed, should not be guarded, that the staff need not be afraid, that they must treat the person as they would any patient according to their duties as health professionals. I want to tell you of the ways in which the banter between guards and nurses makes the person more afraid, recognising the alliances that are forming. I want to tell you of the pain and confusion in the faces and words of some health professionals who come to realise the situation and yet feel unable to break the silence, are threatened should they break the silence.

I want to tell you of how negotiations ‘behind the scenes’, years of negotiations, between lawyers and government solicitors constantly lead to nothing, and of how those others involved, independent health professionals and friends who have been so close to these people, their cases, sufferings and illnesses are prevented from speaking because ‘to speak may jeopardise negotiations.’

I want to tell you that what we are seeing here is a pervasive move to appease the perpetrators in the hope that they may find some kindness in their hearts to stop torturing these people. I want to tell you that this sickness has spread throughout all parts of the community including those who would ‘advocate’ for refugees. I want to tell you not that this silencing is dangerous, for the danger has already passed. It’s already too late. This is lethal.


This article is part of a special edition we are running, ‘If you’ve come here to help me: solidarity beyond borders’. See the other articles in this edition:

– ‘But what are we backing when we #BackTheBill’: Jordy Silverstein

– ‘Beyond “refugees”?’: Max Kaiser

Editorial: Sian Vate


Image: Floating Building, Maison Volante / Cedric Gilbert

Janet Galbraith

Janet Galbraith is a writer and poet living in the unceded lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung. She is founder of Writing Through Fences, an online project that collaborates with artists and writers incarcerated in immigration detention. Her work is published in poetry and academic journals and newspapers. Janet's collection of poetry ‘re-membering’ was published by Walleah Press in 2013.

More by Janet Galbraith ›

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