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GLW: Australia Abandons Victims Of Oppression, War

Australia abandons victims of oppression, war

Green Left Weekly - Australia
May 14, 2003.

“We chose Australia as a country of justice and freedom”, Iranian asylum seekers in Port Hedland detention centre wrote in an open letter to the Australian people on March 14. They were horrified, however, by what they found.

Towards the end of the 1980s, it was well known that Australia had taken in tens of thousands of refugees from war-torn Europe at the end of WWII, and tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the years after the Vietnam War. It was a country that many people migrated to, from all parts of the world, to make a life for themselves.

But from the early 1990s, some things began to change. Under then-prime minister Bob Hawke, the Labor government’s attitude to refugees hardened. All over the world this pattern was repeated: wealthy countries began putting up fortress walls, reducing the legal opportunities for people to migrate or seek refuge.

An increase in the “unauthorised” movement of people is the direct consequence of this clamp down. Legal immigration now requires money, skills and fluency in English. As the refugee crisis in different regions of the world has escalated — from Africa to the Middle East and parts of Asia — equal numbers, or less, of refugees are being accepted in the First World.

Since 1991, Australian governments have drawn a line between “good” refugees (who wait for years in Third World refugee camps to be resettled) and “bad” refugees (who flee, often by boat, directly to a country they feel can offer them real protection). Ironically, in deciding to demonise and punish “bad” refugees, the Australian government is compounding the suffering of those most likely to need this country’s protection.

Australian governments have led the charge internationally to stop the flow of “unauthorised” asylum seekers. In 1992, mandatory and indefinite detention was introduced; in 1999, cruel and discriminatory temporary protection visas (TPVs) were initiated; in 2001, the government began using the navy to repel asylum seeker boats and excised almost all island territory from the migration act; and throughout those years legislation has been attempted to curb the power of the courts and any other independent bodies to challenge or investigate the government’s actions.

Many Australians probably didn’t think it could get much worse — but they’d be wrong. In the coming months and years, several groups of asylum seekers — East Timorese, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians in particular — face forced removal back to their countries of origin.

As a signatory to the refugee convention, the Australian government is compelled not to return asylum seekers to their country if they are in danger of torture, persecution or death. A spokesperson for the immigration minister, however, told the April 14 Australian Financial Review that “Australia has no obligation to take into account the safety of the country, when it comes to returning refugees”.

Many of those facing deportation are on TPVs. Every one of the 8600 TPV holders has gone through the rigorous, complex and traumatic process of proving that they fled persecution and feared for their lives. They have proven their need for protection. Yet not one TPV renewal has been processed, despite 2500 passing the 30-month point at which such processing can begin.

The Coalition government argues that “regime change” has transformed Afghanistan into a blossoming democracy, that this will happen in Iraq too, and therefore the vast bulk of TPV holders can go home.

Britain is the first country to forcibly return asylum seekers. A group of 20 Afghan refugees were strip-searched before being strapped to their seats on a private plane to Kabul on April 28.

Those in the most immediate danger are 277 Iranian asylum seekers in Australian detention centres. According to immigration minister Philip Ruddock, the Australian government signed an agreement with the Iranian government in early March which included clearance to begin forced returns of failed asylum seekers. A spokesperson for the Iranian embassy in Canberra, however, told the May 2 Australian Financial Review: “We shall not accept the forced repatriation of Iranians from any country.”

The details of the agreement are not public, despite a recent Senate request that it be released. Even affected asylum seekers have been denied access. Iran may want to keep it under wraps so that it doesn’t trigger forced returns from all over Europe.

On April 29, Iranians in Baxter detention centre commenced individual interviews with officials from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA). They were told that they have 28 days from the date of their interview to decide to voluntarily return with the offer of $2000, after which time they will be forcibly repatriated. The deadline for 11 Iranians in Villawood detention centre is May 21.

Two Iranian men in Baxter have been told that their Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) appeals have been cancelled. One of the men has been hospitalised after slashing his stomach with broken glass.

Concerned that the Australian government is colluding with the “inhuman theocratic regime of Iran” to forcibly return them, Iranian asylum seekers in Port Hedland wrote in their March 17 letter: “We will be delivered to our enemy like sheep to wolf”.

Refugee-rights groups across Australia are planning a campaign to stop the deportation of Iranian asylum seekers and demand their right to stay.

They are not the only ones facing deportation. Hundreds of Afghan refugees have been accused of identity fraud, with DIMIA alleging that they are from Pakistan. Afghan refugees are also facing increasing harassment, including: being visited in the early hours of the morning by DIMIA officials and police; taken to detention; accused of lying to the government; and intimidated into leaving the country rather than appeal against their detention.

Afghan refugees have until June 30 to accept a “repatriation package” of $2000. Very few of the 4500 Afghans holding TPVs have accepted the package, and they are fearful that they will be forced back.

On February 3, 45-year-old teacher and physiotherapist Dr Habibullah Wahedy committed suicide in Murray Bridge. He had just received his “repatraition” offer letter. His visa was due to expire on April 11.

A spokesperson for the immigration department told the April 14 AFR that she expected Iraqi refugees to start returning to Iraq “after about three months of an interim government being established in the country”. There are 4156 Iraqis living in Australia on TPVs. Thirty-three Iraqis are still held in detention, most of them imprisoned on Nauru. There are grave concerns for their well being since the International Organisation for Migration stopped administering the camp on December 24.

Earlier this year, 28-year-old East Timorese asylum seeker Fivo Freitas, who lives in Melbourne, was awarded Young Australian of the Year by the City of Yarra for his services to the East Timorese community in Australia. Five days later, he received his deportation notice from the immigration department.

His treatment typifies the situation of many of the 1600 Timorese asylum seekers in Australia. They have built new lives here over the past ten years, while waiting for their applications to be processed. Families have had children who have grown up here.

East Timor, one of the world’s newest nations, is also one of the poorest. According to the 2002 UN Human Development Report, 40% of the population lives on 36 cents a day, life expectancy is 57 years, infant mortality is 80 in every 1000 births, and 45% of the population has no schooling or skills.

The applications for refugee status of close to 100 East Timorese families were recently rejected by the RRT. They must now appeal to Ruddock to grant them the right to stay. They have no way of knowing when their appeals might be considered. Once rejected by the RRT, asylum seekers lose the right to work and access financial assistance, health care and pharmaceutical benefits. Ruddock bowed to pressure to “bend the rules” and allow them to continue working and accessing health care, but he refused financial assistance for those who do not have jobs.

Ruddock’s real reason for refusing to grant asylum to such a small group of refugees was made abundantly clear when he told the April 2 Australian: “Every time you grant a special concession it just leads to pressure on another front. There are 13,000 rejected asylum seekers in Australia now. There are 4000 Iraqis on temporary protection visas. There are 500 rejected asylum seekers in detention. On each front, I am under direct pressure to find a solution.” The solution is clear — let them all stay!

Continuing its shameful record of shadowing the Coalition government in its treatment of refugees, the supposed “opposition” Labor Party has raised virtually no criticism of forced repatriation.

Australian governments owe a great debt to many of those who have sought asylum in our country over the past decade — most especially to the people of East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Canberra’s foreign policy has contributed to the misery and suffering of millions of these people through war and occupation. Australian government policy has directly contributed to reasons that people arrive on our shores in desperation. Justice demands that all these asylum seekers are given permanent refuge and a chance to start a new life.

****** ENDS ******

From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.
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