David Corlett’s Following them home: the fate of the returned asylum seekers is an invaluable addition to the, as yet, scant body of literature that tracks the fate of failed asylum seekers under reckless western deportation programmes.
It is particularly important that a UK readership notes this Australian book, as so much of Europe’s asylum policy is now modelled on Australia’s notorious ‘Pacific Solution’. Corlett’s journalistic style ensures that this is an accessible read for those not well-versed in a policy which has led to the creation of offshore detention centres at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and the denial to detainees there of access to Australian courts.
Corlett has a good eye for detail and, in his search to establish what happens on return, describes well the places he visited – Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Thailand. (An unofficial ‘Thailand experiment’ involved arranging for Palestinians to be sent to Bangkok!) During his research, Corlett also encountered many asylum seekers returned from Europe and he includes their testimony.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are among organisations that have documented individual cases where those returned to countries such as Iraq, Somalia, DRC and Afghanistan have been interrogated, tortured and/or murdered. But because Corlett’s focus goes beyond individual miscarriages of justice, he is well-placed to establish what happens to national groups targeted for return to supposedly ‘safe countries’.
If there is a principal villain to emerge from the heart-breaking stories he records, it is the Australian policy of mandatory detention that has left asylum seekers emotionally and physically wrecked (hardly the right condition in which to re-establish a life in the precarious zones to which they are returned). Returnees speak of sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, an inability to concentrate or make decisions – symptoms that first developed in Australian detention as they retreated into themselves, attempted suicide and other acts of self-harm. As Corlett cogently argues, prolonged detention in a prison-like setting has left an ‘existential scar on returnees that resembles what Primo Levi described trying to rebuild his life after surviving the Nazi labour camps’. Many returnees, furthermore, have no kinship or support networks in the countries they are returned to, partly because of the callous practice of denying asylum seekers phone access in the first months of detention in Australia.
The predicament of minors is a telling indictment of Australian policies. Reza, from Afghanistan, was a teenager when he ended up detained at Nauru for two years. When he was returned to Afghanistan, his family had disappeared and Reza now wanders aimlessly around Iran looking for them, occasionally jailed and beaten on account of his illegality. Or take the case of Mohammed Kadem, whose Iraqi family were immediately placed in detention on arrival in Australia in 1999. Mohammed, then 14, took part in several protests against prison conditions. During the first, when he was locked up with adults, he began to wet his bed and consume alcohol. After sewing his lips up in protest he was hospitalised and, then, screaming in distress, placed in solitary confinement. Months later, and after several more detention protests (during which he witnessed a man slit his stomach open and partially disembowel himself), Mohammed started to use drugs to ease what his mother describes as a broken mind. Mohammed was a registered psychotic and a drug addict when he was repatriated to Iraq in 2003.
Following them home explores a range of other issues, including the denial of family reunification and its impact on women and children and the disgraceful role that the International Organisation for Migration has played on Nauru and Manus Island.