I am writing to complain about your forthcoming event featuring Phillip Ruddock. My name is Abdul Baig. I am a former refugee, now Australian citizen, and I was detained in immigration detention for three years during Philip Ruddock’s time as immigration minister.
The decision by the Wheeler Centre to invite Phillip Ruddock lends undue credibility to him as a human rights spokesperson. By inviting him to speak on human rights, you downplay his reprehensible human rights record, and add to the continued trauma and suffering of refugees like myself.
In the biography of Phillip Ruddock on your website, you distort by omission and through the use of euphemism, his human rights legacy. The words you use to describe his time as immigration minister are ‘turbulent’, ‘controversial’ and even ‘transformative’. I would like these words to be placed in their true context.
Woomera detention centre
I would like to remind the Wheeler Centre of the chaotic scenes that occurred at Woomera detention centre between 2001 and 2002 when the department was under Ruddock’s control.
Events at that centre included:
Mass suicide attempts involving the swallowing of detergent
Mass hunger strikes (the worst lasting 16 days)
People sewing up their lips
People digging their own graves
The centre being set on fire (this also occurred at Port Hedland and Baxter in November 2002).
Ruddock argued that the ‘behaviour’ of detained people in these centres was due to ‘alien cultural practices’ and that their acts were done with the intention of blackmailing the government into making positive visa decisions.
Up to 50 people were involved in a shocking 16-day hunger strike at Woomera in mid-2002. It was only when Ruddock feared that these people might die, that an emergency special advisory group was established to negotiate. The refugees at this centre asked for improved living conditions, better treatment and an open, transparent processing system.
Between July 1999 and June 2003, 3,125 children were imprisoned in immigration detention. Shayan Baidrie was one such child, detained at Woomera. Having witnessed some of the sights I’ve mentioned above, he became unresponsive, paralytic and would not feed.
Over a three month period Shayan was hospitalised seven times in order to be rehydrated. Ruddock’s response to Shayan was to blame the child’s parents for ‘coaching’ the boy. He also said that the child had not witnessed a suicide, as had been claimed, because the trees at Woomera were too short to hang from.
Ruddock’s position on the necessity of detaining children remained fixed throughout his tenure.
Deaths in immigration detention
In a three year period from 2000 to 2003, 17 people died in immigration detention; these deaths were from suicide and medical neglect.
A further 730 people died in this period at sea, 353 in one day alone in the SIEV X disaster. A Senate Committee report into this incident held that it was “extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles.”
Deportation of refugees
A report by the Edmund Rice Centre, a catholic organisation, tracked the fate of refugees deported during Phillip Ruddock’s tenure, in contravention of Australia’s non-refoulement obligations. In 2004 they released a report on 40 deported asylum seekers.
They found that 35 were living in conditions of acute danger. The report also argued that the payment of money and falsification of documentation by the Commonwealth government in the deportation process ‘invited accusations of corruption’.
The report noted that deportation practices under the period in which Ruddock was minister showed disrespect ‘for the standards of civilised behaviour and disregard for the human rights obligations imposed on Australia by various international treaties and declarations’.
The imprisonment of Australian residents and citizens
Under Ruddock’s leadership up to 200 cases emerged of Australian residents and citizens being falsely imprisoned in immigration detention, the most famous cases being the detention of mentally ill woman Cornelia Rau who was imprisoned for 10 months, and the detention and deportation of Australian citizen Vivien Alvarez Solon, who had been seriously injured in a car accident before she was picked up by immigration.
Architect of the Pacific Solution
Ruddock is the architect of the Pacific Solution. For three days, 438 shipwrecked asylum seekers were left aboard the Tampa, without adequate food, water or medical care as the government refused to allow the vessel into Australian waters. Up to 1,615 people were detained on Manus Island and Nauru between 2001 and 2008.
The Children Overboard affair
Ruddock was at the centre of the children overboard affair; he stated that parents had thrown their own children overboard when this had never occurred. Reports suggest that Ruddock was aware that this was not the truth.
Legislating to deny people asylum
Under Ruddock’s watch legislation was introduced to prevent people from seeking asylum. This was done though excising Australian territory from the Migration Act, interdicting boats on route to Australia and pushing them back into Indonesian waters, freezing refugee application claims and introducing temporary protection visas. Making conditions unbearable in detention centres through the systematic abuse of detained people was another well-known strategy.
Human rights organisations criticise Phillip Ruddock’s record
Australia’s detention centre policy has been resoundingly criticised throughout Ruddock’s tenure by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The United Nations Advisory Group on Immigration Detention, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Working Group on Immigration Detention, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Australian Ombudsman.
I struggle to understand how a person with this legacy could be invited by your esteemed organisation to speak on the topic of human rights.
The Wheeler Centre suggests its programs are politically neutral; it argues on its website that views which are presumably abhorrent to one section of the community can be ‘balanced’ at a later time, by events featuring people with different views. Yet this fails to recognise the profound harm and injustice caused to the victims of human rights abuses, when perpetrators are invited to speak on human rights topics.
Abdul Baig – RISE member and ex-detainee