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Gordon Campbell on the rejection of a Pakistani polio worker

Gordon Campbell on the rejection of a Pakistani polio worker’s claim to asylum

Too bad that the New Zealand Immigration and Protection (hah!) Tribunal don’t know how to use Google. If they did, their bizarre decision to send home a former polio vaccinator and her son back to Pakistan -on the grounds that they would be unsafe in their home district, but safe if they re-located to Karachi - would be exposed for the sham that it is. Google “Karachi” “polio vaccinators, “Taliban” and “killed” and you find cases of polio vaccinators (a) being killed or (b) being endangered in Karachi by the Taliban.

For example :

In January, three of Naseem [Munir’s] colleagues were killed as they gave out polio drops in Karachi. No security had been provided by the government.

Here’s al Jazeera on the danger faced by polio vaccinators in Karachi, in a 2014 story that it headlined “Polio Vaccinators in Karachi In The Crosshairs”.

The threats from Karachi-based groups allied with the Pakistani Taliban is based on a perception that the polio vaccination drops administered to children are meant to harm them as part of "a foreign conspiracy"…..

"We take our lives in our hands when we work in these areas, the danger is very high," says Mashook Ali, 20, a polio vaccinator who works in the Quaid-e-Azam Colony area of Karachi. "But we do this for the children, so that they are saved from the virus."

Vaccination teams in Karachi are often deployed with security cover from the police…... But vaccinators said that the police protection was often more superficial than meaningful..In certain areas of Karachi, like Sohrab Goth, you can't even talk about it. Militants are like kings there."

Here’s the summary of the security situation in Karachi and its constituent towns by the Pakistani Dawn newspaper :

Polio campaigns had been abruptly ended in Karachi more than once after attacks on a World health Organisation doctor and several polio vaccinators over the years. Polio workers have repeatedly come under attacks in Gadap Town in recent years, compelling the authorities to suspend the immunisation campaigns.

On Jan 21, 2014, three polio workers, two of them female, were killed in Qayyumabad. More than a quarter of total 40-plus attacks against polio workers in the country have taken place in Gadap and Baldia Towns.

As the woman stated in her case for asylum, her name would now be on a death list – and this would expose her to risk of retribution even if she did not engage directly in polio work while back in Karachi. Just what work she would do to support herself and her son is unclear – and since her husband is on the run after threats to his life by the Taliban-leaning members of their family, she cannot rely on the family’s former wealth. As the head of a female-centred household, she deserved more compassionate treatment on that ground alone. As she also stated, her flight to New Zealand and residence here will now expose her to further risk. Polio vaccinator. Vaccinators routinely murdered. Family linked to Taliban. Son already kidnapped by Taliban previously. Does that sound’ safe” to you ?

So why has the Refugee and Protection Tribunal chosen to gamble with her life, in contravention of this country’s international commitments to the care of genuine refugees? Perhaps the Tribunal is letting itself be driven by the fear of setting a theoretical precedent. If we let in one polio vaccinator, the Tribunal may be afraid that we will have to let in more – assuming that any others ever do come knocking on our door, which seems unlikely. In any case, applications are supposed to be judged on their merits, not on the theoretical precedent they may pose.

New Zealand is shirking its responsibility to this particular family. At a wider level, if any country should be taking in the Pakistani polio vaccinators, it should be the United States. It was their bogus polio programme – through which they collected samples of family DNA in the hope this would lead them to the family hideout of Osama Bin Laden - that put the genuine polio programme workers in harm’s way.

The threats from Karachi-based groups allied with the Pakistani Taliban is based on a perception that the polio vaccination drops administered to children are meant to harm them as part of "a foreign conspiracy".

This perception was only strengthened by the CIA's use of Dr Shakil Afridi during a similar immunisation drive in Abbottabad to ascertain the location of Osama bin Laden, polio workers say, citing arguments made by those who refuse to take the vaccine.

"No one used to care about the conspiracy theories before Dr Shakil Afridi, but now people have started caring. And they have started creating fear by killing vaccinators," says [Aziz] Memon [chairman of Pakistan’s Polio Plus programme.] Since July 2012, 58 people have been killed in attacks on polio vaccination teams in Pakistan, including at least 24 health workers, according to data compiled by UNICEF.

Maybe Prime Minister John Key can raise the US obligations to the brave Pakistani polio vaccinators – who include this family – when he’s playing golf with Barack Obama in Hawaii, over the Christmas break. Fat chance. Right now, New Zealand is in violation of its duty (under the UN Refugee Convention) not to send asylum seekers back to situations where they face political persecution and a reasonable fear of physical harm. The decision to reject this family’s case – on both substantive and humanitarian grounds – is a disgrace.

Doc Pomus, revisited

Talking of polio… over the weekend, I re-read Lonely Avenue, the biography of songwriter Doc Pomus, who was severely crippled in the same polio epidemic of the early 1950s that harmed Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. The lyrics for “ Save The Last Dance For Me” by the Drifters always had that extra dimension of poignancy – given that the wheelchair-bound Pomus wrote those lyrics for his wife, as he watched her dance with other people at their wedding reception.

In the late 1970s, Pomus – by then divorced, and fallen on hard times – began to work with Willy De Ville, who was a youngish throwback to the era that had fostered Ben E. King and the Drifters. Capitol Records had mistakenly thought that Mink De Ville was one of those hot, punk-inspired New Wave bands, and didn’t realise until it was too late that they’d actually signed a bizarre hybrid of French chanson and Spanish Harlem high life, circa 1961. Bemused, they left Mink de Ville’s Le Chat Bleu album on the shelf for a year, without a clue about how to market it. It was a great album, and it ended with this song, which begins with one of the best lines that Doc Pomus ever wrote : “ Its closing time/in this nowhere café…” Cue accordions.


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