Water Torture: Two decades of fighting for Australia’s refugees


Words || Tess Peni

I’m on a long-distance bus full of refugee rights activists, headed from Sydney to Woomera Detention Centre, where 1,500 asylum seekers are detained in the remote South Australian Simpson Desert. It’s a 20 journey to the site. We are a mishmash bunch of members and allies of the Refugee Action Coalition. After too much singalong and upright sleeping, our bus finally stops in the middle of nowhere at the end of a bumpy track, 500 kilometres north-west of Adelaide. There’s not much out here except an old petrol station. Woomera’s population dwindled after its heyday during the Cold War, when it served a long-range weapon testing facility.

The protesters get out and stretched numb limbs, tired from the ride but invigorated by the sight of the razor-wired compound in the distance. If we wanted to get closer, we just had to walk across no-man’s land: a dry ditch in a red dirt plain dotted with hardy islands of spinifex.

It’s only three weeks after planes flew into the New York World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001; a month after the Tampa affair that left 433 Afghani refugees stranded in limbo between Indonesia and Australian on a Norwegian tanker; two months before the ‘Children Overboard’ saga will rocket Prime Minister John Howard’s popularity skyward just in time for his November re-election; and one lowly week before he and his Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, start implementing The Pacific Solution that will end in locking up refugees on Nauru and Manus, thus removing them from our physical and psychic reach, via the world’s widest prison moat.

The Government kicked things off by moving the goalposts. By “excising” Australia’s remote offshore territories (Christmas, Ashmore, Cartier, and Cocos Islands), out of Australia’s migration zone, one could no longer apply for refugee asylum if you reached these places by boat.  Politicians fiddled with the famous Migration Act of 1958 (governing immigration to Australia) so any boat arrivals to those places (‘offshore entry’) was now classed as ‘unauthorised arrival’, thus illegal. BOOM. Your refugee visa application is declared invalid. Go directly to detention. Do not pass Go. Asylum seekers took greater risks and headed for the mainland instead. Many people died during long, dangerous, overcrowded boat journeys.

Ministers also thought up Operation Relex – ‘turn back the boats’ – but their pièce de résistance was the opening of Manus and Nauru Regional Processing Centres. The pre-9/11 polls showed a wilting Liberal party was now surging ahead with every ‘strong leadership’ decision made during this time when the world was feeling insecure. Labor Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, took to the Migration Act to its mind-boggling illogical conclusion in a race to the bottom, culminating in the actual Australian mainland being excised out of our own migration zone (yes, you read that right), in 2013.

The camp seemed asleep, and it felt as though we had the advantage of surprise. Perhaps Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) knew we were coming, but this was a few years before social media. Maybe they had locked everyone down within the bowels of this shabby, overcrowded monster. There were over 400 children in there. Stories of self-harming minors suffering sexual abuse were being reported by nurses who were ignored by management, and Ruddock had gone into full shoot-the-messenger mode. Other busloads of activists arrived from Melbourne, Canberra and Adelaide. We started making noise: banging drums, barking into megaphones, singing protest chants, playing Arabic music. We wanted the asylum seekers to know we were there for them, to feel welcome. We waved banners and flags and flew kites. It did not take long before we spotted them, through the haze of metal fencing, emerging from the demountable buildings. Huddling in groups, there were ten, twenty, fifty … hundreds.

The uniforms arrived. ACM guards in fully padded, batoned, helmeted, blue and black riot gear nervously patrolled the external perimeter of the camp. We edged across no-man’s land till we were 500 metres apart. It was hard to make out any prisoner in detail; they stood in clumps staring across the Outback at us, as if disbelieving that real Australian people had come. They seemed quiet and hollowed. We were rowdy, colourful, obnoxious. We began to infect them with our rage, our privilege, our demands. The ACM guards attempted to block the prisoners’ view of us by parking an empty livestock road train in front of the fence; so they climbed onto the roofs to see us better. The desert was so flat, and we were barely higher than the tufts of cane grass. Out came their banners and flags, they started to bang things, too. They appeared to hold a meeting. You could hear them singing something like a national anthem. We see you. We hear you. Solidarity happened.

The sun was getting hotter; we didn’t stop to eat or drink. We continued to wave and shout, then formed a human banner: people wore large lettered t-shirts. It took a while to get everyone in the right order; it had to be correct.


On our side of no-man’s land we had the local police corralling us. Their uniforms were plain khaki, to match their dull beat. They were fat and moustached under wide brimmed hats, and tried to psych us out by filming the protest with a mini DV cam-recorder. They inserted themselves between us and the detention centre and crossed their thick arms, but were disarmed when the activists handed over boxes of donated fluffy toys and toiletry supplies to distribute to the refugees. A few chatted and smiled; some of those feral girls were pretty distracting.

The cops were fewer in number, spread out along the line, with the invisible law filling the spaces between them. Some people didn’t see the law and meandered through the gaps. The line moved closer; now we were 300 meters away. I had already used up most of my film – this was the pre-digital era. I was a 30 freelance photographer and concerned citizen. Most of my images so far were of the protestors: a quirky rabble which included my mother. We were all there to bear witness to what was being done in our name.

A fire broke out in the detention centre. They’d dragged out mattresses and set the pile alight. We could see smoke rising. The refugees were sending a distress signal. You see us. Help us. We tried to run toward them, but the law swarmed. Shit got serious. Grumpy cops begged us to comply. We inched closer. With each drumbeat or chant, with each flag or t-shirt torn off and waved from the desert or camp roof, the activists and the asylum seekers felt closer, felt some of our impotence unblock, felt some sense of explosive relief from injustice.

Then the truck came.

This was not your regular fire truck. It was something from a movie: Mad Max meets LAPD riots; a hulk on wheels; a grey-blue desert whale that aimed its angry spout toward the fire. I began to scream in desperation– “Who has film!?” Running up to people I’d never met and begging, “Do you have any film?” Everyone was all out. I finally chanced upon a man who was staring at the horizon, at the war, at the Enlightenment ideals being wrestled to the floor and put in an ugly headlock, all its dignity irrelevant– he threw me his last roll. Use it well.

I loaded my camera fast. I’d been drilling for this kind of moment back in my Bondi flat; every time a helicopter flew over (which was many times a day) I ran to my gear: film loaded-check, aperture set, shutter speed and ISO-check. Focus, aim: shoot the chopper. Like a soldier training for any surprise attack. Here I was, holding steady at the wobbly law line: ready, aim, fire.

The truck was power-hosing the pyre through the chain-link-barbed-wire, just one of the barriers that denied these people their humanity. It was armoured, with super-phat tires hunched in the sand on its low wheelbase, belching black smoke and growling at the screaming refugees. It was political power made machine. It aimed its water cannon at the fire, then next to the fire, then not at all at the fire but into the refugees. Simmer the fuck down, it said to their once hopeful, now fear-filled faces. Water was the weapon Australia aimed at illegals; it was trying to wash them away like dog shit off the driveway.

Some detainees were distressed by now and managed to rip a bit of fencing loose. God knows what the guards on the inside were doing to them. One man who had already survived a war and a perilous boat journey, climbed to the top of the fence but could not face what awaited him on the other side: an agitated swarm of batons, boots and bile. The local cops were not sure which way to look– they had their backs to the camp, eyes trained on us. Our law looked over its shoulder and did not like what we could all plainly see.

Perhaps Immigration minister Phillip Ruddock chocked on his morning toast when he opened up the Sydney Morning Herald the following day and saw my photo on page 2. Or not. In hindsight, 17 years later, if I had known they were planning to move the camps offshore, using more water as their weapon, an entire ocean to isolate and defeat them, I wonder if I would I have begged for that film. Bloody hell, did I help make things worse? Activists reported the riots were provoked by the actions of the guards. Ruddock criticised the Refugee Action Collective and accused them of causing the riot, but he knew his government could no longer use the desert as a barrier to keep his political pawns hidden, and by hidden, dehumanised. This was the week they initiated resorting to worse measures; their final Pacific Solution.

I grew tired after that. Burn-out they call it. It’s not just a physical weariness, it’s heart-weariness. During the last two decades the Australian Government found the political will to inflict every conceivable cruelty upon the detained refugees. Their policies white-anted the law and our hard-won human and refugee rights. They wear down their own citizens till we can no longer feel compassion. It flinches the soul. You can’t bear it, just like them, you can’t bear it. So you clock out, disassociate.

But I’ve rested now, somehow repaired, and I’m returning to the fight. It isn’t just the people seeking sanctuary that the government has messed with. Their values have unstitched of the fabric that was so meaningfully woven from the lessons of World War 2.

How to go on? Three things I know, through valuable mentors and experience: (1) Anger or disgust is necessary to get you off your arse and do something, it’s okay to feel it, but don’t let it be the only thing that you have; (2) You can express– you must maintain –  empathy and compassion. The least you can do is acknowledge their trauma and accept their humanity – this you will survive, they have. Find a community to do this with, whether it’s a like-minded friend, a refugee charity or forming a documentary crew. It helps. Finally, (3) Sustainability: when you need to take a step back and recharge, don’t fully disconnect.

Find ways to self-care but retain a niche where you can, at least minimally, remain alert to moral transgressions. Even if it just means admitting to yourself, ‘This sucks.’ When you eventually re-engage you will not have abandoned your ship of core ethical values; you will not have shelved the part of you that celebrates the fair go character of our country, the aspect of our species that has evolved by connecting.