“In 2009, in Sri Lanka, there was the big war,” says Ramsiyar Sabanayagam. The pain in his voice is palpable. “We lost our families. I am injured.” He’s talking about the Sri Lankan civil war and its conclusion, which led to the mass persecution of Tamils like himself. Only 29 years old, he had to leave school and has had his whole life disrupted. He still has shrapnel embedded in his shoulder from the conflict, for which he has not been able to get treatment even after all these years.
He and Thanush Selvarasa, sitting beside him, are sharing their stories to show the Australian public what the government is doing every day to refugees.
“I came here for safety,” Ramsiyar says, voice wavering.
Instead of finding safety, Ramsiyar and many others were met with torture and degradation upon arriving in Australia.
The two of them spent six and a half years on Manus Island, followed by another year and a half in hotel detention in Melbourne.
“We were straight away put into the hotel detention with no fresh air and sunlight.”
“People think, oh, we are in a hotel,” says Thanush, implying that people think they must have it pretty good while they’re in there. “It’s not a hotel. It’s a torture hotel.” Conditions are cramped and detainees are completely isolated. Rooms often do not meet basic hygiene standards, and the food is barely edible.
Despite being removed from Manus under Medevac legislation, neither of them received the medical treatment they needed while in hotel detention. The shrapnel in Ramsiyar’s shoulder pains him every day, but the government will not pay for its removal. And of course, there was the psychological torture of uncertainty and isolation.
“For the past eight years they always said, ‘You’ll never ever settle in Australia.’”
“Finally, after eight years, we were released,” says Thanush. “We got the six-month bridging visa, but this is not a good solution for after detention. If we go to an interview for a job, the company always needs a permanent visa. They don’t want temporary visa holders.”
“When we go for a job, they ask about experience,” says Ramsiyar. “We don’t have experience! We have eight years in detention.”
They are currently on what is known as a Bridging Visa E. The Department of Home Affairs states that this visa “lets you stay lawfully in Australia while you make arrangements to leave, finalise your immigration matter or wait for an immigration decision.” This gives some insight into what the government wants to achieve with these visas: they want to make life so difficult that refugees choose to leave instead of waiting and hoping for a permanent visa.
Holders of this type of visa are prohibited from studying. Many are prohibited from working at all, while others like Ramsiyar and Thanuraj are forced into very insecure and exploitative work. Due to their already very precarious situation they are preyed upon by employers looking for workers to do unsafe work, long hours and who are unlikely to speak up about wage theft.
Unionists For Refugees
The treatment of refugees is, and always has been, union business. In the pursuit of equality, the existence of a class of people in our society with fewer rights than the rest of us cannot be allowed to continue.
“Unions have been part of the struggle the whole way through,” says Chris Breen, an AEU delegate and state councillor, as well as a tireless activist for Unionists for Refugees. “From Baby Asha and the #LetThemStay campaign, to the #KidsOffNauru campaign when teachers walked out of their workplaces.”
It is unsurprising that unionists would act in solidarity with people seeking asylum. It is working people who engage with refugee families - teachers, community workers and health professionals. If people arrive in Australia having left behind their worldly possessions, they join us in working class communities. They become working class communities.
“The next big thing coming up is on May 29,” says Chris. “Unionists For Refugees have called another rally outside the Park Hotel where there are still 24 refugees locked up. It’s backed by Trades Hall, the ANMF and the HSU.”
Beyond these urgent and immediate releases that need to happen, union members are organising around the bigger picture.
June 20th is International Refugee Day, and unionists all over the country will be coming together to seek an end to offshore detention and the bridging visa system. Find out more on the Unionists for Refugees Facebook page, where you can stay up to date about events to show your solidarity.
Bring them here! Let them stay!
If you want to support workers in our community being able to stay permanently, you can also sign this petition from the Migrant Workers’ Centre. All workers in our community deserve a secure life and place to call home. But Australia’s visa system is stacked against migrant workers. The pathway to permanent residency and citizenship is increasingly filled with barriers that make a stable life in Australia impossible.
“In 2009, in Sri Lanka, there was the big war,” says Ramsiyar Sabanayagam. The pain in his voice is palpable. “We lost our families. I am injured.” He’s talking about the Sri Lankan civil war and its conclusion, which led to the mass persecution of Tamils like himself. Only 29 years old now, he had to leave school at the time and has had his whole life disrupted. He still has shrapnel embedded in his shoulder from the conflict, for which he has not been able to get treatment even after all these years.