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Detainee "Commemorates" 2000 Days In Detention

MEDIA NOTE:
Detainee "commemorates" two-thousand days in detention

Please note that the detainee Peter Muhammad Qasim, a Kashmiri refugee, has this week "commemorated" his 2000th day in detention in an Australian detention centre.

Below is also the speech at the second reading of the Migration Amendment (Duration of Detention) Bill 2004 by Michael Organ, member for Cunningham.

From: Greg Egan
Sent: Thu, 4 Mar 04 08:16:38 +0800
Subject: 2,000 days in detention

On 1 March 2004, Peter (Muhammad) Qasim, a Kashmiri refugee presently in Baxter (who has given permission for his plight to be publicised) completed 2,000 days in immigration detention. That's 5 years and 5 months. Because he has no papers to prove his Indian nationality, the Indian government will not issue him with travel documents, so despite having agreed to face the risks of returning to his homeland, he remains in detention.

Yesterday the government attempted, yet again, to change the Migration Act to make it impossible for courts to issue interim release orders for asylum seekers when there is a case to be tried that their detention is unlawful because there is no prospect of them being deported in the reasonably foreseeable future. This would not prevent the courts from releasing such people once a final decision had been reached that their detention was unlawful, but it would stop the courts from saying -- at an early stage in proceedings -- that it was unfair to keep people detained for the many months it would take before a final judgement, and allow them to be free in the meantime. Many of you will have heard of the case of Stephen Khan, who was released just short of 5 years in detention. If this law had been in force six months ago, Mr Khan would still be locked up, waiting for his next court hearing.

Fortunately, the Opposition has indicated that it will block this bill in the Senate. When the government tried the same thing last year, the Opposition refused to pass the bill until amendments were made that limited the applicability of the law to criminal deportees and people whose visas had been cancelled on character grounds. But the government's real target has been asylum seekers all along, and it clearly intends to keep fighting for the power to keep people imprisoned for their entire lives if they cannot be deported. A judgement on the government's High Court appeal on two test cases is still pending.

In a second reading speech, Mr Michael Organ of the Greens raised Peter Qasim's situation in Parliament.

Mr ORGAN (Cunningham) (5.27 p.m.) - It gives me no pleasure to rise to speak today on the Migration Amendment (Duration of Detention) Bill 2004, just as it gave me no pleasure to speak on this bill when it came before us on 26 June last year. This is, in reality, an indefinite detention bill. This bill is designed to prevent the release of a Œprisoner¹‹and I use that word advisedly‹held in an Australian immigration detention centre, pending a court¹s final determination of the substantive matter as to the lawfulness of a person¹s detention or whether a person is an unlawful noncitizen. Despite what the member for Forrest would have us believe, this is undoubtedly the most heartless, repulsive and inhumane bill that I have had to deal with since being elected to this place in October 2002‹and that says something. As the member for Perth has clearly pointed out, the High Court of Australia ruled that immigration detention should not be punitive. Yet there is no doubt that the government, by its action, has instituted a punitive regime. In no way can detention now be seen as merely necessary for immigration processing for entry or deportation. With this bill, the government has sunk to new depths in its abuse of basic human rights and treatment of legitimate and legal asylum seekers in this country. Its action is most likely in conflict with decisions of the High Court and the Federal Court‹as the member for Perth went to some pains to point out.

This bill is being introduced into the House because the previous Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, now the Attorney- General, saw fit in his wisdom to accept on an interim basis some amendments proposed by the Australian Senate to the original bill back in June-July 2003. These were amendments that restricted the impact of the bill, at least in the mind of the then minister, and he told us at the time that he would be bringing it back for more changes after it had been reconsidered by the government. This bill is the result of that reconsideration. As such, it is further proof that the government¹s support of its beloved mandatory detention regime is threatened by the Australian courts¹ ability to release men, women and children from Australia¹s desert prisons and other immigration detention centres.

Whilst the bill as passed last year in response to the Federal Court Al Masri decision was harsh enough, this bill goes further. It makes it more difficult for Australian courts to intervene to release people from our immigration detention centres, especially those who have no likelihood of finding a visa to another country or who have real fears for their personal safety, and the safety of their families, should they return home. That much is obvious. Unlike the government, however, I, and thousands of other Australians, believe that releasing people from Australia¹s desert prisons‹for that is what an immigration detention centre is; nothing more or less than a prison‹is a good idea. We do not believe, as the member for Forrest has just argued, that asylum seekers must be kept in detention outside of those periods when they are required for processing. This is where the government is completely out of step with feeling out there in the wider community.

The Australian Greens are clearly opposed to mandatory detention. We support the closure of the desert prisons and the facility on Nauru. We support the release of people seeking asylum who are not a threat to the Australian way of life. They must be treated humanely and must not be used by the government as a tool in the campaign to deter people-smuggling. It is clearly unacceptable to maintain this pretence of border protection as the reason for the present harsh mandatory detention regime, a regime which is severely impacting upon the lives of those unfortunate people caught up in it.

I do not want to repeat my comments of last June, but I will say that they still stand and that, until this government adopts a more reasonable and humane approach to the treatment of asylum seekers, it will continue to be rightfully held in contempt by a significant proportion of the Australian and international community. Frankly, it is disgraceful that we sit here in the comfort of this chamber and pass legislation which will have such a savage impact upon our fellow human beings. It is sickening when the Minister for Foreign Affairs uses question time, as he did today, to tell us about how other nations, such as Great Britain, are following the Australian model and looking towards developing offshore processing centres. It is sickening to hear the government gloat about turning boats full of asylum seekers away from our shores. Answer me this: how can a reasonable and rational assessment of the legitimacy or otherwise of an asylum seeker¹s status be determined on the high seas?

The government will undoubtedly be judged harshly by future historians when they look back to this period and deal with issues of justice, human rights and the role we played on the international stage. The government would have us believe that we will be remembered as playing a part in getting rid of Saddam Hussein. That is true, but I would suggest that the scars of the present inhumane mandatory detention regime will remain. I know this because I have spoken with a number of school students on this issue. Believe me, if you think my comments are rather emotive, then you should listen to what some of those students have to say. What they have to say does not mirror what we hear from government ministers and spin doctors. These young students feel ashamed at the way in which we are treating asylum seekers, whether they be men, women or children‹just as I feel ashamed.

My worst fears about how we are treating asylum seekers were realised when I visited Villawood detention centre near Sydney last year. There I met a man who had been in detention for six years. There I met a young boy who had been in detention since the age of
15. He was approaching 20 and had spent the best years of his youth behind the razor wire. Here was an innocent young man whose life in Australia had been made hell by this government. He was scarred for life. This is what we are dealing with here: real people; men, women and children, just like us. On numerous occasions I have condemned the government¹s approach to asylum seekers, and I do so once again here today. I do so for good reason. This time, though, I want to make it a bit more personal, for perhaps that is the only way in which the government will wake up to itself. I can only hope that it will become harder, with time, for the government to continue to hide behind legalese, statistics and spin, rather than acknowledge the harm that is caused by the detention of over 1,000 people in Australia¹s immigration prisons. I hope it will become harder to talk of those people in alienating terms such as illegal noncitizens¹, especially when we turn to the circumstances of individuals whose interests will be directly affected by the passage of this bill. In a debate dealing with mandatory detention, so-called queue jumpers and people bringing about their own detention by coming to Australia without appropriate papers, it might be worth while to consider the plight of one real, flesh and blood victim of Australia¹s immigration detention system. I would like to speak about Baxter immigration detention facility detainee No. 340. His real name is Muhammad Qasim. I spoke with Muhammad by phone today from Baxter.

He told me that he had been in every detention centre in Australia, except Villawood, over the last five years and five months. I asked him how old he was. He replied that he was not sure, as time is interminable in detention and one day is like a year. I know he is 29, though he said he felt like he was 100. He told me that he just wants to get out of detention and had asked to be repatriated‹somewhere, anywhere‹some eight months ago. But still he remains in detention‹in prison‹thanks to this government. How can anyone on the other side of the House condone such treatment? This young man has been held in detention in Australian for five years and five months, without any likelihood of release. The previous speaker, the member for Forrest, said that all these people will be released. But there are people such as Mr Qasim who do not have any likelihood of any release, because of their circumstances. And this is nothing less than criminal on the part of the government. According to the latest ABS statistics, during 2003 there were seven people in Australia convicted of murder who received terms of five to 10 years. Likewise, there were 367 people convicted of assault and 818 convicted of sexual assault who received similar sentences of five to 10 years. Has Mr Qasim been found guilty of murder or rape? No; yet his sentence has been five years and five months. His crime was to come to Australia in search of asylum, an action which is not illegal under Australian or international law. Nevertheless, he is being treated by the government in the same manner as the aforementioned murderers and rapists.

This is nothing less than disgraceful. Nothing that any minister or member on the other side of the House says can change this. I would like to read a section from the letter Mr Qasim sent to me on 20 January this year. It may help honourable members to better understand the consequences of the bill now before us. It reads:

Dear Mr Organ


My name is Muhammad Qasim Š As I write this letter, I have been held in immigration detention in Australia for five years and four months, and it seems I have no choice but to spend the rest of my life in detention. I am writing to you in the hope that you will listen to my story, understand my plight, and please, if you can, assist me to find some solution. I was born in the disputed region of Kashmir in India on 14 May 1974. When I was a young child, my father was murdered by the security forces because of his peaceful political activities, and my mother died soon afterwards. As a young man, my own peaceful opposition to the government¹s brutal policies in our region led to me being detained and tortured by the security forces, and after some years in hiding and on the run, it became necessary for me to flee my country. I passed through Singapore and Papua New Guinea on my way to Australia, but these were places where I had no legal right to remain and no way to have my claim for asylum heard.


I arrived in Australia on 9 September 1998. The delegate of the Minister for Immigration who assessed my claim accepted that I was an Indian citizen from Kashmir, and also accepted that I had been tortured, but she did not believe that I faced a risk of persecution. On 20 October 1998 my application for a protection visa was refused. I appealed to the Refugee Review Tribunal, but on 11 January 1999 my refusal was upheld by the single tribunal member who reviewed my case.


Since January 1999, 1 have pursued no further appeals, so I have been liable for removal from Australia. I believe that I would face the risk of arrest and torture if I returned to India, but I would prefer that possibility rather than dying in detention in Australia. However, for five years now, I have remained imprisoned here. Because I have no passport, birth certificate, or other official document from India, and because I was an orphan unable to afford any formal education, the Indian government has so far refused to accept the fact that I am a citizen of that country.


In January 1999, the Department of Immigration lodged an application for travel documents with the Indian High Commission in Canberra. However, it was not until August of
2003 that the Department conducted a language analysis test and an interview to collect background information, in order to provide more evidence of my Indian citizenship. I would have been happy to answer the questions that were put to me in this interview at any time, and I do not understand why it has taken the Department five years to do this.


In any case, I am afraid that the Indian authorities will continue to refuse to provide travel documents to me. The state government of Jammu and Kashmir is busy dealing with the ongoing conflict there, and might not have the resources to make time-consuming investigations to establish my identity. Also, because there are 20 million people living illegally in India who come from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it is difficult to persuade the Indian authorities to accept anyone as a citizen without definite proof.


I have applied to almost 80 countries, asking if they will accept me, but I have received no positive replies. So far I have endured five years and four months in detention. Living without the freedoms that ordinary people take for granted is very difficult. The conditions of detention involve small humiliations every day, and at times we are subject to great injustice, but the worst thing is having no certainty about when my imprisonment will end. Even a criminal criminal knows the length of his sentence, whether it is long or short, but I have no such comfort.


In April 2003, a Full Bench of the Federal Court ruled that it was not lawful to keep rejected asylum seekers detained if there is no real prospect of removing them from Australia. However, the Minister for Immigration has appealed that decision to the High Court. I do not know which way the High Court will decide this question, but the lawyer for the Minister argued before the Court that the government should have the power to keep people in immigration detention for the rest of their life.


What¹s more, even if the government does not succeed in its appeal, that would mean people who could not be removed from Australia would be released into the community with no visa, and no rights at all, obliged to live on charity. The courts might order our release, but they could not give us the right to work and support ourselves with dignity.


Therefore, I am writing to you to ask that you seek a real, practical solution to the problem faced by me, and by others who have spent many years in detention and whose countries will not accept them. We are human beings, and we need to live in freedom, and with dignity. To the nation that provides me with these things, I can only offer my hard work, my loyalty, and my lifelong esteem and gratitude.


If you require more information about my case, please contact me. Thank you for taking this matter into your consideration. I look forward to your reply.


Yours sincerely
Muhammad (Peter) Qasim
ID Number: BX 340

What linguistic gymnastics will the government offer in defence of its policy that allows such a disgraceful set of circumstances as outlined by Mr Qasim to continue to occur? The government will prattle on about border protection while Mr Qasim and others waste away in a desert prison, with no solution from the government forthcoming, visa or not. Given the circumstances of Mr Qasim and the more than 1,000 individuals like him, I cannot in all conscience support this bill, for it is clear that it will further impact upon his few remaining rights and will leave him to perhaps rot forever in our immigration detention centres.

For more information:

Jack H Smit
Project SafeCom Inc.
mobile 0417 090 130

Anne Simpson
Rural Australians for Refugees
Phone (02) 6655-5502 or (02) 6655-3561

Greg Egan
Refugee advocate
phone (08) 9344-8609

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