The West Australian
Weekend Extra, page 4-5
Saturday 17 July 2004
by Norm Aisbett
Pictures by Ken Maley
From the unlikely setting of Narrogin, Jack Smit is conducting an effective worldwide campaign against the Federal Government's asylum seeker policy. Norman Aisbitt reports.
ack Smit, mobile phone pressed to left ear, paces the cluttered room in which he's bunkered for up to 12 hours most days. He can't use the landline because, as usual, he's logged onto the internet, the key weapon in his dogged, two-and-a-half year war against the Federal Government's "mistreatment" of asylum seekers.
This time, the Melbourne Age is calling. A reporter wants to discuss Mr Smit's latest emailed press release about an Iranian man facing imminent deportation. He has seized the moment.
"I think there will shortly be a statement by the heads of Australian churches highlighting the scandal that we have the audacity to deport (to Iran) someone who has converted to Christianity," he says, u-turning towards his computer, beside which is a tin-can ashtray and a half-empty pack of Peter Jackson ciggies.
"They carry someone into Perth at night time . . . The detention centre is only 500m from the tarmac. "They are deporting this person to a country where he's very likely to face hanging from the gallows, from the back of a crane, from the top of a goalpost, be buried half way and stoned to death, or have his eyes gouged out because he's a heretic by definition.
(Prime Minister John) Howard knows that. (Immigration Minister Amanda) Vanstone knows it. I hope they have fun in church on Sunday. That's also my statement, if you want it."
The "stubborn", 51-year-old email activist is delivering the kind of quotes which newshounds relish but he's had lots of practice. He's been at it since late 2001 when his "disgust" over the Tampa affair spurred him to launch his Project SafeCom (safe community), an incorporated organisation with a steering committee and 50 members around Australia and overseas.
That he lives in relative remoteness in Narrogin, 180km south-east of Perth, would once have been a drawback but the internet has brought email into play. It's been a huge boon. With a single tap of keyboard button, he can instantly and simultaneously send the same press release or statement to scores of people on the same "e" list.
He has "e" lists for journalists, politicians and fellow activists, in Australia and overseas. The pro-asylum seeker groups include the estimated 10,000-strong Rural Australians for Refugees. Using a clever method of addressing his emails, he also penetrates the email in-boxes of government politicians to drive home his criticisms of official policy.
And anyone accessing his self-created website (www.safecom.org/refugees.htm) can access all manner of information, including statistics, articles from newspapers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees guidelines, and summaries of conventions or public meetings.
Former WA premier, Dr Carmen Lawrence, who metamorphosed into Labor's harping conscience on the issue, has been a speaker at three Project SafeCom events.
"He's a decent man, highly committed and typical in a way of those people who roll up their sleeves and won't let go off it (the issue) because it's too awful," she said. "He spends hours and hours of his time doing it. I don't know how he manages but he does. He keeps himself up to date with what's happening and is a very useful conduit for people who want to know what's happening but can't otherwise get the information."
In a June 11 "media alert" he likened new "compliance and training methods" employed at SA's Baxter camp by Global Solutions Limited, which runs Australia's detention centres, to the Guantanamo Bay camp and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The "alert" claimed that inmates who were regarded as being "not respectful" or were guilty of a punishable offence, now went into a four-stage program that begins with a week's detention in a locked room for 20 hours a day, with only one phone call allowed per day and one visit per week.
And, as usual, he provided convenient contact details for the Baxter centre, as well as for himself and other key activists.
A June 14 release applauded the "turmoil" in Channel Ten's Big Brother show over a live protest by evicted contender, Merlin who, instead of giving an eviction interview, taped up his mouth and carried a Free The Refugees sign into the studio.
"Most Australians know the Coalition's asylum policies are a disgrace and Channel Ten has now its own taste of it," Mr Smit's release said. "We encourage all media networks to give news coverage where it's due, and in-depth exposure to what needs to be exposed."
He says that in not being connected to a church or a bigger refugee organisation that receives funding support, he has the freedom to "go straight to the guts of what I'm saying".
"As an example, when the Baxter (detention centre) fires happened, I put out a press release saying 'I am delighted that it's burning and I hope it burns right to the ground'.
"That was one of my quotes in the press release. Within 24 hours it was in 45 papers around the world."
He claims other successes that include the circulation last year of more than a dozen official photographs giving the first, full picture of the infamous "children overboard" incident, as opposed to the limited release that let the government cloud the truth.
His source remains secret but he delightedly says his press release was headed "Exclusive, Project Safecom scoop". "It got people's attention . . . a super scoop, really," he chuckles.
He also takes some credit for alerting Australian refugee advocates to the fact that, while in Bali last year for an anniversary commemoration of the Kuta bombings, Prime Minister John Howard had met the two children of an Iranian man, Ebrahim Sammaki, who was in detention in Australia.
Mr Sammaki had previously lived in Indonesia for eight years and had an Indonesian wife, who bore their two children. She was killed in a taxi outside the Sari club when she went to Bali to consult an immigration lawyer about her husband's case. The children then went into the care of relatives and friends and Mr Sammaki's inability to have them visit him in Baxter detention centre (SA) became controversial.
The government appeared unmoved until a photograph showing Mr Howard holding hands with Safdar, 8, and Sarah, 4, at a Bali football match was published in Australia. One month later, Mr Sammaki was granted permanent residence on humanitarian grounds and released from detention so his children could join him in Australia.
Despite the official line that the PM was unaware of the identity of the children, Mr Smit claims Sammaki family members had asked if the children could meet Mr Howard at the main ceremony, only to be refused and told to see him at a football match (that was not part of the TV coverage).
Mr Smit, who says it was Project SafeCom that first brought the story of the death of Mr Sammaki's wife before the Australian mainstream media, says he phoned another activist on the morning after the commemoration weekend, and was told:
"Jack, I am just coming off the plane from Bali and guess what, he (Howard) met the kids, but he wants to be very hush-hush about it".
"I said 'Well, we'll see how hush-hush it is' and we immediately sent an 'alert to action' to all refugee groups listed on the internet, urging people to write to (then) Opposition leader, Simon Crean and (then) shadow immigration spokeswoman, Nicola Roxon, to have questions put to the prime minister in parliament.
The alert went out on Monday, October 13, 2003 and referred to Mr Howard singing the National Anthem, including the ironic line "We've got boundless plains to share."
By the Wednesday, Crean and Roxon had put out a joint press statement and Crean had asked questions in parliament about the government's consistent refusal to grant visas so the children could visit their father. On the Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald ran the photo on its front page.
Days later, South Australian Magistrate Brian Deegan, who lost his son in the Kuta bombings called on Mr Howard to grant visas fo the children, and in the following week, former Governor General Sir William Deane added his voice to the call.
On November 6, Senator Vanstone made her announcement that the children had been granted permanent residency visas and their father had been given a permanent protection visa.
Anne Coombs, one of the founders of Rural Australians for Refugees declared the result "a win for refugee advocates who had fought a campaign of email activism to get the issue on the floor of the parliament."
In 1999, to cut his living costs, he shifted from Fremantle to Narrogin and rented for three years until buying his weatherboard cottage for $42,000. It was a bargain, he says. "I beat them down from $45,000 and got my Johnny Howard first home owners' $7000.
He's not at all well known in town, though. He says he keeps to himself because he's so busy on the internet, and also because he has not found Narrogin to be a strongly supportive environment on the asylum seeker issue.
Unmarried ("that's one of the things that hasn't happened, but I'm very heterosexual") he remains European enough to wear socks with his sandals and slacks, while also sporting a loose-hung, Aboriginal Arts Australia "Dreamtime" T-shirt. And, no, he's not lonely. "I'm connected to people all around Australia (on the internet)," he adds, with the same air of friendly informality, which belies an impressive degree of organisation.
The former Dutch youth worker and university qualified social worker says that apart from running Project SafeCom, he contracts himself out whenever possible, usually as a community development worker and trainer. For instance, he has helped indigenous people prepare for employment in the mining industry. When there's no contract work, he has had periods on Centrelink payments.
His empathy for asylum seekers can be traced to childhood in Holland in the 1950s "in the smoke of World War Two". He became aware of the holocaust and remembers walking past Jewish synagogues that were boarded up with planks because there were not enough people to attend.
"It made an impact on me . . . you grow up with a sense of the refugee," he says.
Mr Smit says part of his passion had been in doing things well and he took pride in running Project SafeCom website in "a professional and accountable manner". Noting that 125 new people visit the website daily, he adds: "It's being read by people all over the world."
However, he is concerned that the asylum seeker/refugee issue is not such a "hot topic" these days and that it only heats up when there's a crisis, like a detention centre being set alight. "It is worrying but, on the other hand, I do know that the percentage of people who are acting for refugees is growing considerably, even though it may not translate into votes against Howard. "At all costs we have to avoid another term of the calculating Howard government and I have an addiction to expose them."
Jack Smit email: jackhsmit(at)safecom.org.au
The Nannup Times
by Mark Schneider
4 August 2004
Hands up who remembers the Tampa incident from the last election!
Remember the scenario? A sinking ship-load of asylum seekers, the captain who rescues them, the PM who refuses them even the common decency of food and a roof over their heads, then uses them as cheap political fodder.
Well it was during the notorious Tampa incident, that Jack Smit got as mad as hell and decided he wasn't going to take it any more.
Jack coordinates a group called Project SafeCom, working from his Narrogin home. He's just one of a growing group of rural people from across Australia campaigning for a fair go for refugees.
It's a labour of love run by a man with a burning sense of injustice and a low tolerance for some of our Prime Minister's methods.
"Howard's really manipulated the electorate by introducing terms like 'unlawful non-citizens', 'illegal immigrants' ... it's an outright lie. If you don't want to call it a lie, call it manipulation of the electorate," Jack said.
He also thinks the media were conned. He's been encouraging people around Australia to write a letter of complaint to media outlets over the use of the word "illegal" when they are referring to asylum seekers or refugees. Under some pressure the Press Council has now ruled that referring to refugees as 'illegal' is incorrect reporting, according to Jack.
Project SafeCom and groups such as Rural Australians for Refugees are having an impact in other ways too. Jack claims that Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone is coming under a lot of pressure from an unlikely source - conservative rural people who have had close contact with refugees.
Many Australian country towns are now home to refugees and many country people have found them to be hard working, well educated, thoroughly impressive people who have suffered enormously and deserve a fair go.
And they're telling the Howard government so in no uncertain terms.
"People discover refugees working in the community and they change their mind," he said.
There is a growing refugee support group in Albany keen to help refugees who will be an obvious asset to country communities.
"We have had incidences of qualified people such as Iraqi doctors working in an abattoir in Australia," he said.
The Albany group has had an impact on their Council who have passed a resolution supporting ethnic Hazara refugees from Afghanistan and calling on the government to give them permanent residency and better treatment.
Jack thinks rural-based refugee groups with their close links to actual refugees can often be a more powerful lobby group than city-based groups driven largely by professional people.
"Once you know the facts, you open your hearts, states the slogan of Rural Australians for Refugees" he said.
One of the facts of Australia's immigration policy is that hundreds of respectable, often well educated professional people are right now locked up in detention centres with all the trappings of a modern day concentration camp. And they have committed no crime.
On the contrary, they were among the cream of their societies, and for that very reason they were persecuted by dictators like Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and forced to leave their homes.
In camps like Baxter, Australia's immigration policy has achieved the remarkable feat of jailing the enemies of our enemies. And jail it is, according to Jack.
"Daily life means 24hr camera surveillance on whatever you do ... whenever you want to see a friend who lives in another block or maybe even a family member you will need to apply to go to that other little block within the same razor wire, nine thousand volt fence facility, and you will be escorted to that other compound by a guard, and as we were told last year you have to go through a locked gate, and you will have to be searched."
"We're talking about people who have committed no crime because contrary to what the Liberal Party and the National Party members have told Australians, it is not illegal to seek asyslum in Australia without being invited. It is part of the International Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14. It says that everyone has the right to seek asylum in another country."
Acts of desperation, like refugees stitching their lips together are a sign of the hopelesness of their situation.
"Any psychiatrist will tell you that self harm and self abuse, how it is done and performed, is often a symbolic act of representing the torture and pain that someone committing the harm goes through," he said.
"So if I stitch my lips together I don't want to talk anymore or I can't talk anymore, I can't say anything, and that's the situation we place them in."
He is adamant that the current approach to asylum seekers is utterly counterproductive.
He said that if the two billion dollars spent on border security and detention centres had been spent on helping refugees settle in they would all now be making a productive contribution to their communities.
Jack's campaign is focused on the internet. Ironically his work for refugees is better known internationally than in his own home town.
If you'd like to learn more of the work of Project SafeCom the website address is: http://www.safecom.org/refugees.htm
His email address is: jackhsmit(at)safecom.org.au
[not available online]