Four months after he touched down in Australia, Clement Saidi says he’s finally arrived…
The flight from Tanzania, where Clement and his family [Congolese refugees from a pygmy tribe] had spent 12 years in a refugee camp, should have meant an end to squalor.
Instead, the Humanitarian Resettlement Program provided them with what was effectively slum housing.
Theirs was among five homes found by an Ernst and Young report commissioned by the Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to be in a ‘state of disrepair’.
One of these homes was deemed uninhabitable. There was ‘no hot water, holes in the roof, window panes missing in a bedroom for children and wholly inadequate heating’…
I found Clement, his wife and three of their children. My meeting with them was arranged by Sister Diana Santleben, a feisty refugee advocate. She’s had a series of battles with Navitas, the company which holds the contract for refugee resettlement services in the Hunter region. She and the local MP Sharon Grierson have for years been raising concerns about the service provided, and now she says openly that she’s on a mission to get the company out of the refugee housing business.
I was there to follow up on the recommendations in the Ernst and Young report. I wanted to meet for myself some of the people affected.
Simple, right? Apparently not.
Clement Saidi’s story almost didn’t make it to air.
After I interviewed him I called Navitas, whose subcontractor Resolve FM was until very recently responsible for accommodation services for refugees in the region.
The Ernst and Young report on the services they provided did not, in Chris Bowen’s words, ‘make for pretty reading’.
In addition to the inadequate housing, rents were often well above market rates and there were suggestions that refugees had been overcharged for repairs and utilities. The Department of Immigration was criticised too, for its management of the issues.
The Minister put the contractors and Departmental staff on notice, ordered a forensic audit of Resolve FM and a nationwide review of refugee resettlement services.
When I called Navitas the reaction was defensive. The company accused me of not having had consent from the refugee family to interview them. This was before they even knew which family we were talking about. They found out soon enough, by calling around all possible suspects. Navitas suggested Sister Diana had forced Clement Saidi into speaking to me. I replied that I had indeed obtained informed consent.
I clearly identified myself, did not misrepresent the ABC and informed Clement when the recording began and ended.
The company said it was very concerned about the fact that no interpreter was present at the interview. Clement’s English is limited, but I was confident I would be able to use small sections of the interview to illustrate his story…
I found myself getting a lecture from Navitas on what it meant to interview someone who has limited English.
The refugee may not have expressed himself correctly, the company said. It was important to treat these people with respect. Did I understand how his knowledge of English compared with mine? Refugees were vulnerable, the company said.
After I talked to Navitas, they talked to Sandi Logan. Mr Logan is the Immigration Department’s spokesman…
My experience with Clement Saidi was increasingly beginning to suggest that the Immigration Department and its contractor see similar threat levels even when the media speaks to a refugee who is not in detention.
“Shd we be concerned?” Sandi Logan tweeted. “Journalist w nun i/views African refugee today. No informed consent provided. Refugee says journo ‘was from department’.”
This seemed to indicate that the Department was prepared to go public with an accusation solely on the word of Navitas, without asking the journo concerned – me.
Mark Colvin tweeted back to ask Logan if he’d checked this version of the events with the reporter. “We’re emailing,” Sandi Logan tweeted and promptly sent me an email.
In it, he gave a briefing on multicultural settings and expressed his concern about my treatment of Clement Saidi, because he said he was “responsible for our service providers’ clients’ well-being in their media interactions.”
It was hard not to be sceptical. Where was the concern when these same people were languishing in appalling over-priced and over-crowded accommodation?…
Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of that discussion, let’s be clear.
Clement Saidi has been accepted as a refugee…
His days of not being free to speak should have ended the moment he set foot in this country…
Refugees like Clement Saidi are people, with faces and voices – and opinions – of their own.
Isn’t it time the Government – and the companies it pays handsomely to look after them – stopped trying quite so hard to stop us seeing and hearing them?
Barbara Miller is a reporter with ABC Radio Current Affairs and regular contributor to AM, The World Today and PM. Read more here