Photo by Belinda Pratten.
Prof. Penelope Mathew
Occupation: Freilich Foundation Chair, The Australian National University
Born: 19 January 1965, Boston, USA
Resides: Canberra, Australia
Interview date: 24 August 2013, at Australian National University
Q: Please tell me of your experience working in Hong Kong with Vietnamese refugees. When were you there and why?
A: I was in Hong Kong for 12 weeks from May to August 1992 – just before I go on to do my graduate study at Columbia Law School in the US. At that time, the Jesuit Refugee Service had set up a project where they send volunteer lawyers and interpreters to assist Vietnamese boat people in the camps in Hong Kong. And our job was to explain the ‘refugee definition’ and to listen to people’s stories and to talk to them about the fit, or lack of fit between their story and the refugee definition.
“Because it’s not enough to just want to move somewhere if you’re applying to be recognised as a refugee, you have to show that you have a well-founded fear of being persecuted of one of the five reasons, which are – race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
Q: What made you interested in that job?
A: I’d begun a little bit of work on refugee issues and with refugees. I think my interest was really sparked by a conference that was organised by Professor Jillian Triggs, who is now the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission. She organised a conference about refugee issues in our region. And as a young lawyer, it seemed this was the perfect area of Law for me because it involved people, it gave me the opportunity to help others and it involved a really fascinating interplay between International Law and Domestic Law.
I’m quite interested in International Law because you see the politics behind it quite plainly. I’d also begun to volunteer at what was then called the Refugee Advice and Case Work Service. So I have begun to work a little bit with refugees myself. And I will never forget the experience of interviewing someone who was a Somali, and was looking to find his mother and family members. And I could see that this man had been through a lot. There were physical marks of scarring on his face, and he really knew a lot more about the whole process and how to do things and what to tell me, and what was relevant about his story and why him and his family were refugees. And it was shocking. It was shocking to listen to what had happened in Somalia and to him and his family in particular.
I think most people who work with refugees have those moments, the first time you hear someone’s story you can’t forget it. And once you’ve realised the reality, I don’t think there is any danger of you thinking that you have to stop the boats, or anything like that. You understand that this person needs to be dealt with compassion. So I had a little bit of experience, but I must say my knowledge was more theoretical than practical. But by the time I went, I’d grappled a bit with James Hathaway’s work on the refugee definition. And I had a very good sense of how Human Rights was important to the Refugee Convention. And I can remember very clearly interviewing a young woman who I suspected something dreadful had happened to her because she was a woman. We were just on the cusp of recognising that women can suffer particular forms of harm, rape, for political reasons and so on. And can be vulnerable in a way that sometimes men are not. And I was able to write up the notes and say that I think this woman probably has a claim, based on the fact that she is a young woman and doesn’t have protection in Vietnam. And I am pretty sure she was successful in her claim for refugee status.
Q: Sometimes when you hear dreadful stories like that, it would make you either want to stay away because it is so hard, or it would encourage you to do more, what was your case?
A: It has encouraged me to do more, but I must admit I became an academic for all sorts of reasons. I thought I might be a good teacher. I liked the idea of being in the University and being able to acquire more knowledge but also being able to use that as the base for some advocacy work. And I think I have managed to combine that successfully.
I haven’t done a lot of the face-to-face work with clients. I think that kind of work would be incredibly draining. Because you’re hearing about people’s pain and suffering all the time. Sometimes you’re dealing with stories that maybe very tragic, but don’t quite fit into the refugee convention. And you have to say to someone, I don’t think your claim is a very strong one. Sometimes the wrong decision gets made, and someone that you think is clearly a refugee gets determined to not be a refugee. So in some ways, I think I can cope with it better because I am dealing with it at a more intellectual level.
Q: What was your day-to-day work with the Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong like?
A: We worked in two of the camps, Whitehead Detention Centre and Tai A Chau. We would go in each day and we would interview maybe five or six people, and spend around an hour with each person. And of course you’ve got your interpreters for who this is a really exhausting day. They’re sitting there trying to listen to the story, and they’re trying to translate for both the lawyer and explaining to the client as well. It is a very long and exhausting process. Sometimes really emotionally draining because of the kinds of things you are being told, some are quite horrible. With the young woman who I think something dreadful had happened to, she was not able to tell me about it. I knew there was something else going on. She was crying but she couldn’t actually tell me. Which is very typical of a person who has been through a sexual assault, they can’t actually tell what’s happened to them.
“And in some cases, there were things that had happened and you could see that someone’s life wasn’t really good but they didn’t really fit into the Refugee Convention and you’re having to explain to them about that, and that’s really hard as well.”
Q: What are some of the responses that you remember when they were told they didn’t have a case?
A: I can remember a young kid who would have been about seventeen, and he was an unaccompanied minor. And he’d been in detention for about three years. I found the idea that we would have children in detention quite shocking. He told me a story about his father being through re-education for many years. And I listened to what he had to say, and at the end of it, I had to say to him. “I think that because of the low level of his rank, I believe that he went to re-education camp, but I suspect that he may not have spent quite that amount of time. And if Hong Kong Immigration Authorities don’t believe that part of what you’re telling them, they’re likely to disbelieve everything else. And so, I understand that this means you have a weaker claim for refugee status, but on the other hand, if you’re not telling the truth and Hong Kong Immigration Officials feels that you are not telling the truth, they are just going to deny you refugee status anyway.” That was very difficult.
Q: What was the average success rate while you were working with them?
A: It was pretty low. Refugee status determination under the whole of the comprehensive plan for Indo-Chinese refugees, that there were fairly low rates of recognition. There was a sense that this is so much later than the fall of Saigon, are these people leaving for economic reasons, because we’ve been re-settling all of them. So “is there a pool factor?”
I think there was an element of compassion fatigue, and countries in the region were sick of dealing with it, so they wanted to have a process for determining refugee status. But I listened to claims that were all over the place. There were people who were very clearly refugees with a fear that something would happen to them. And there were others where it was a pretty weak case.
Q: Did you get to go inside the camps?
A: Yes. I went in every day. We actually worked inside the camps.
Q: Could you describe the conditions of the camps?
A: I can remember very clearly, walking up to Whitehead Detention Centre on my first visit, and of course you can see that is surrounded by razor wire. I had visited a prison previously as a Law Student – I had been to Prentridge prison in Victoria – so I knew what a prison felt like. But it’s still very confronting, when you come to a place where there are human beings being locked up behind very tall fences and razor wire. It’s very, very confronting.
I was also hit by some kind of smell. I think that because it was very hot and you’ve got a whole lot of people crammed into this site, so it had a kind of peculiar smell- I can’t quite describe what it was – but it was just a sense of a whole lot of bodies being in the same place.
Whitehead was a very forbidding kind of detention centre. It looked a bit like a concentration camp, I thought. It had these things that were like bunkers. Like airline hangars for planes with three stories in them, covered with corrugated iron. And every family might have a couple of square metres of space basically. They might rig up some curtains to give themselves a little bit of privacy, and they’d have all their belonging hanging from plastic bags from the tops of the poles from the bunk bed arrangement.
I used to look at them and think ‘how on earth can you live like that, it must be so stressful’. Most of them were there for a few years, and you’re thinking, how can you bear it? How can you stand it? You’re locked up and you can’t go outside, and your living space is so confined.
I have to say though, that I admired the asylum seekers. Most of them were trying to get on with life in some way. And so they would do things like organise English classes and they had a little Non-Government Organisation that would come in and run schools for the children. They were trying to have as normal a life as possible as they could under the circumstances and I just thought, ‘you’re amazing’. To me, it proves how wonderful they would be as citizens, because they were so resilient. I kept thinking, ‘if it was me, I’d be in a foetal position on the floor somewhere, just unable to bear it’, and thinking ‘why is this happening to me?’ And here are these people just getting on with life. I really admired them.
I’d like to say though that it was interesting to compare the Whitehead Detention Centre, which was run by the Hong Kong Correctional Services, and Tai Chau Detention Centre, which was run by Hong Kong Housing Authorities. Tai Chau is an island, and so there wasn’t quite the need for this strict security, and so people could actually go to the beach and they could go fishing. And I have these amazing pictures of people using anything they could – sometimes their clothing – to catch fish so that they could cook them later. And they’d have a swim. And that was much better. And they also had a few industries – I think they made bread at Tai Chau. And we used to actually come in at the weekends, and we’d often stay the nights. That was quite amazing, because when you stayed overnight, you would see more of the activities that were going on. And some of the markets that they would run. So there was this whole kind of life, and Tai Chau was a much more pleasant place than Whitehead, which was really every foreboding, very prison-like. And it used to worry me a lot because they had a lot of children there. And I kept worrying about these children who wouldn’t be seeing any trees, an greenery, all they would be seeing is this corrugated iron and fences with razor wire and I though this can’t be very normal, even though they did seem pretty normal. The children used to hang around outside the door of our interview room in Whitehead Detention Centre and at lunchtime they’d want to play.
Q: What do you think about detention?
A: Well I’d already made up my mind that detention is not a good idea. I thought, ‘how do you justify particularly prolonged periods in administrative detention for people who haven’t committed a crime?’ I understand when someone first arrives and you don’t know who they are, and you don’t know if they pose any threat to your community, there can be a power to detain someone to check out their story, to make sure they are healthy, they’re not carrying some kind of disease. I don’t have a problem with that. But the idea that you can detain someone simply because they are seeking protection as a refugee, and that you will continue to detain them until their claim has been determined, seemed to me to be wrong.
And I was disturbed by the conditions as well. I didn’t see how the conditions were really humane, given how crowded it was. And how little privacy people had. And I’d heard too that it could be quite dangerous. I mean I never really saw any evidence of that. But, I knew that women had been raped, I knew that there had been violence, I think at some point there had been things that were burned down, accommodation burned down. And I think that’s what happens when you put people in a pressure cooker environment like that. And of course you will have some people who are not very nice people; you might have some criminal elements in there who are prepared to do things. And I don’t think the conditions met international human rights standards either.
Q: Do you ever think that the condition was intended to discourage people to stay longer and volunteer to go home?
A: That is a tough question. I know that towards to end of the comprehensive plan of action, there were things done – I think quite deliberately – to encourage people to go home.
Q: What did the experience mean to you?
A: I still think of the experience as one of the most meaningful jobs I’ve ever done. And it wasn’t even a job because I wasn’t even being paid. But the opportunity to use your knowledge in a way that was empowering to people, so that they actually knew what the process was going to be, what the law said, how what had happened to them fitted with that. It was a very wonderful experience for me. That sense of being able to help someone else. I learned a lot from the Vietnamese boat people. I learned about resilience. That people can get through amazing things and as I say, I really admire them. So I do carry that experience with me.