Banned from Australia1/16/2013
Where to begin?
Ok I’ll start with my arrival from Bali, Indonesia to Perth. I arrived in Australia with the intention of exploring the city and finding a bit of work. I was looking forward to trying out some labor-intensive work. Picking mangos, farm work, and other labor related jobs pay anywhere from $18 – 24 USD/hr. Many and I mean MANY backpackers like myself come to Australia specifically to work.
I filled out the arrival card and put a check mark next to Looking for Work as my primary reason for visiting. I did not think anything of it. BIG MISTAKE!
A quick photo I snapped of the phone I used to make calls from.
There I am, sitting in the Australian Immigration Office. One interview turns into two and one hour turns into two. It’s almost midnight. “I am going to be REALLY late to my hostel”, I say to myself. I am asked questions like how much money I have in my bank account, if I booked return flight tickets back to the United States, and if I had any friends in the city.
At first, I thought I might be going through a training exercise. The lady there seemed very unknowledgeable of the process and her surroundings. She read from a script during the entire interview and could not even tell me how to dial out from Australia. Yikes! I’m beginning to feel a bit uneasy about my situation.
The room where the interview took place.
The third interview takes place and my fate is sealed. The Immigration Agent reads from a script informing me that I am an illegal alien entering Australia. In most instances, the traveler would take the next flight back to where they came from. However, my visa was expired in Indonesia, I could NOT go back to Bali. I’m escorted to a refugee camp about 10 minutes outside the airport. There I am informed that I am now banned from Australia AND New Zealand.
The Refugee Camp
I arrive in the Refugee Camp in Perth around 1AM. I go through yet another interview process, this time taking inventory of my belongings and asking me health related questions. The people who work the late shift are genuinely good people. They understand my situation and do their best to ensure a good stay. I am unable to take any of my tech gear with me (no photos allowed), but am allowed to wash all of my clothes that night.
My bed is in a dorm with about 12 other people. I hear snoring all around me and I finally crawl up to the top bunk around 2AM that morning. Exhausted, I fall asleep. The next morning I wake up early, expecting a quick exit from the building. Not so fast!
The refugee camp isn’t all that bad. The place has a big flat screen TV with many couches and a huge selection of movies, a small soccer field, guitars, ping pong, pool, and a computer room with technology that looks like its from the previous century. (I thought I was going to go crazy using Internet Explorer on the slowest computers I’ve used in years!) In addition, the cafeteria serves excellent food 3 times a day and various classes are offered daily including English lessons, Yoga, and boxing.
The cafeteria is where I REALLY got to know the people and their situations. Most of the people in the camp came over illegally by boat and have health related issues. A Middle Eastern guy mentions he’s been a full time refugee since we was born and has a heart condition. I think Iraq is the longest place he’s spent time, but his last place was Christmas Island. He does not like America, especially our last president. I could not of been from a worse location, (An American from Texas!) but managed to befriend him.
Almost everyone I meet has been in the facitiliy for around 3 – 6 months. They seem to be doing ok while their governments or lack their of, try to figure out what to do next. However, the reason why most are here versus a traditional Australian Refugee Camp is because of injuries or health conditions. The building I was placed in is reserved for short-stay visitors and people with ailments only. A traditional camp houses about 1500 refugees, I learn, while this one has about 150 – 200 occupants.
A Full Day at the Refugee Camp
I spent the entire day living the life of a refugee. I did not get very good sleep that night. A combination of nerves and the Oh my god I cannot believe I am here feeling combined to allow me to wake up around 6:45AM. I really wanted to speak to the U.S. Embassy that day to help me sort out my situation. We never did meet.
I spoke with many of the employees that worked at the refugee camp early that morning. I enjoyed speaking with them and they were very curious about my situation. Apparently I was the first American in 6 months to arrive at that particular location. When referring to the last American to say here one of them mentioned, “She was really funny, but in a very ghetto way”. I find out it was an African American lady trying to re-enter Australia on an expired visa. Apparently she threw a big fit at the airport threatening a major American crisis if she did not get her way!
A few of the employees and I bullshitted about sports, government, and stereotypes for a good 30 minutes early that morning. They seem like good blue-collar workers who look at their situation as just a job, and only that. My goal that morning was to get Internet access to inform friends and family of my situation and to get out of Australia! Unfortunately, my day was only beginning.
I ate breakfast around 8:30AM. As mentioned above breakfast is where I met most of the refugees and experienced first hand stories of living a life on the run. I talked a bit of Malay with a couple of Indonesians and introduced myself to anyone who asked where I was from. I had a full meal that morning, including eggs, cereal, toast, yogurt and an unlimited supply of coffee.
In between eating breakfast and having lunch I spent the morning watching Bourne Legacy. Slowly a crowd gathered around my movie choice and by the end about 10 people watched the conclusion. The entire time I waited around wondering when I would get a chance to use the Internet. The process of getting a user name and password took about 4 hours. Apparently my Internet usage also needs to be approved. I suppose the government was checking to see if I have anything on my record to prevent me from using the Internet. Soo slow!
I finally get to speak to my US Consultant at the Embassy, over the phone. He mentions a representative would visit me later in the afternoon or the next day. The vagueness of the conversation leads me to believe they really have better things to do. I never did get to meet with my rep.
Lunchtime was similar to breakfast, a large choice of menu options for the hungry. I settled on fish with an assortment of vegetables. Again the good was very good! Not restaurant quality but a step above airplane meals! More and more people got to know my situation and me. I met an American security officer working the building. He introduced himself to me and seemed happy to talk to someone from his homeland. It’s good to know if anything does go down I have someone to watch my back! We played a couple rounds of Ping-Pong after lunch. Even though he has home field advantage, my skills I honed working in the start-up culture in America helped me easily win the games.
Throughout the day I receive updates from my US rep in Perth and my airlines. The airlines (Jet Star) I find out, is paying for my stay at the Refugee Camp. They want me out as soon as possible. I am in agreement with them and we settle on a flight from Perth to Kuala Lumpur. I finally receive my Internet password and confirm that is one of the cheaper flights from Perth. Jet Star offers to pay for my flight from Perth to Singapore under one condition, I must book a flight back to the United States.
Out of money and out of options, I reluctantly book a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Dallas, Texas. I feel a bit defeated having my hand forced. I want to choose my own destiny. On the other hand, I know my family misses me and it’s been one heck of a travel adventure. My flight to Kuala Lumpur leaves just past midnight. I am to stay two days in KL before beginning the long journey back home to the U.S.
I watched an intensive soccer game that evening. The employees and the refugees both played in the games. In addition, it was an awesome experience watching three of the refugees participate in band practice. One guy played the 6-string guitar, another strummed the ukulele, while the final member used the table as a makeshift drum set. They took turns singing American and international classics. It’s great to see such a positive and lively spirit in the room!
My final meal consists of fish (again) and various breads and vegetables. I start saying goodbye to the people who help shaped my experience inside the Refugee Camp. It’s a funny thing sometimes when leaving places and people. In my short stay, I felt like I got to know many of the refugees on a personal level. Even though I only stayed a full 24 hours, the lessons learned and stories shared will stick with me for a lifetime.
I am escorted to Perth International Airport with a posse of 3 security officers around 11PM. I am thankful to finally leave Australia. I’m reunited with all my belongings (Hello GoPro, laptop, and cellphone. Glad to have you back!) and take the 5 hour redeye flight to Kuala Lumpur!
One of the biggest decisions I’ve had to make in a longtime!
The old saying of when life gives you lemons you make Lemonade rings true in my situation. Before leaving Perth, I emailed a work buddy of mine offering my services to work remotely. We had worked together on and off in the past on various email marketing projects, but recently lost touch due to my travels. Upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur, I talk to my friend on AIM and discuss the details of my proposal.
He agrees to my terms.
The past 24 hours takes me on more twists and turns in life than I can ever remember. I go to Australia to look for work, get informed I’m an illegal alien, spend a day in a refugee camp, book flights back home, arrive in KL, and receive a job to work remote. Irony!
However, I am now faced with a HUGE decision. Go home, see my family, and start life over in the United States, or continue the journey by working abroad. I book a cheap flight to Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. (If I am to work abroad I want to work here! I visited over a month ago and fell in love with the place). I have two days to decide what I want to do.
My January 11th flight from Kuala Lumpur to Dallas leaves without me.
The whole process was an experience I’ll never forget. When you travel expect the unexpected. However, I never thought an experience like this would happen in a native English speaking country.
I know next time I will do much MORE research before entering countries with visa. Unfortunately, when dealing with immigration, I’ve learned it’s best to be as vague as possible. Do not elaborate on your answers, but answer with a smile directly.
Australia or New Zealand will NOT be in my travel plans for at least the next 3 years. Yes I AM BANNED from these two countries for a full 3 years.
On the other hand, I now have a job I can work remotely from. I am back in Malaysia with the goal of working abroad (Again) and learning more about language and culture. In the end these things tend to work themselves out. I left in a better situation than I started.
Note: I could not snap any pictures because my cameras were all confiscated during the entire process. The title picture is the actual stamp on my passport.