A day of reflection


As I write this, Australia is sharing a day
of organised reflection, at the command of the Prime Minister. He has
declared 16 January 2005 a National Day of Mourning and Reflection, in
the wake of the tsunami disaster in which 160,000 people lost their
lives. Rather than the officially prescribed one minute, I spent most
of the day reflecting. It did not make me feel better.

response to the disaster has been creditable in many ways. The
government initially offered a modest amount of financial aid. The
public responded quickly and generously, in part no doubt because many
Australians have holidayed in that part of Asia; in part because of the
horrifying images which quickly began to saturate the media; in part
because a number of Australians were dead or missing. The government
quickly increased its aid package in several steps, to a total of $1
billion. Then Howard declared a day of national reflection.

this would be to his, and our, credit if it did not stand in such
marked contrast to other aspects of our record of compassion.

tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004. A couple of days later, while media
coverage of the event was overwhelming every other news story, the
Australian government deported two adults and six children under cover
of darkness. The Bakhtiyari family had become a cause celebre, having failed in their attempt to gain asylum here.

the family had been an ordinary family of failed asylum seekers, their
removal from Australia could properly be seen as the orthodox operation
of the Migration Act. However the case was not ordinary because it was
notorious that the children had suffered terribly as a consequence of
their incarceration by Australia and that, on any view of the facts,
the children could not be blamed for their plight.

are sharply divided about the conduct of the parents: one camp says the
parents were reckless opportunists, seeking to exploit Australia’s
generosity; the other camp says the parents did what any parent would
do in order to save their children. There is substantial evidence that
the family are genuine refugees; unfortunately, the debate was derailed
by journalists onto the largely irrelevant question of whether the
family came from Pakistan or Afghanistan. It is not in doubt that the
Bakhtiyaris are Hazaras, an ethnic group whose territory runs
diagonally across Afghanistan and into Pakistan, near Quetta. The
Hazaras have been persecuted in both countries for centuries. Debating
which side of the border they come from is as pointless as debating in
1939 whether a Jew came from Poland or Germany.

But whatever
view might be taken of the parents’ conduct in bringing the children
here, it is clear that the children were vulnerable and innocent.

After three years in detention, Muntazar Bakhtiyari said:

don’t want to be in detention any more. Just bring me a gun and shoot
me. You Australians you kill us already, you kill us every day. It’s
better to be dead. I tried to cut myself. … I don’t want to be in
detention anymore. Without any crime we are in detention. We’ve been
here three years. They’ve made us go crazy. Then we have to go back,
crazy. Come and kill me. I don’t want my life anymore. I’m sick of my
life. It’s a bad life. Nobody wants life like this.’

At around the same time his brother Alamdar said:

are dead person now. We are dead from our inside. We are eating,
sleeping, eating, sleeping. … We are dead. Our life is gone now.
No-one can help us. Nothing is there. … There is no justice. … My
soul has gone from my inside. I feel dead. … Poor people in this
world like rubbish on side of road. If they send us back we’ll be like
rubbish …

It is chilling to consider that children can be
driven to such sentiments as these. It is a matter of record that both
boys tried several times to kill themselves.

The mistreatment of
the Bakhtiyari family must be viewed on two levels: firstly, the
institutional aspects of mandatory detention set against international
human rights norms; secondly, the details of the gratuitous cruelty with
which the system was applied in their case.

Like many other
countries, Australia is a signatory to various international human
rights instruments, in particular the International Covenant on Civil
and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the
Child. In our treatment of the Bakhtiyari family (and many others like
them) we have breached the most important of the obligations we
undertook in the Convention on the Rights of the Child*.

addition to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the
Child, Australia is in breach of several key provisions of the ICCPR,
in particular Article 9 which forbids arbitrary detention and Article
10(1) which provides that ‘All persons deprived of their liberty shall
be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of
the human person.’ Test that against the arbitrary and unregulated use
of solitary confinement in immigration detention centres; and remember
the terrified, crying face of Alamdar Bakhtiyari as he pressed against
the silver palisade fence at Woomera: an image which should haunt all

Unfortunately, Australia does not regard its
Convention obligations as having any effect on domestic law, so it is
legally irrelevant that the treatment of children in immigration
detention breaches so many of our Convention obligations.

if we accept mandatory detention as a given, a baseline for our
standards, the treatment of the Bakhtiyari family has been marked by
conspicuous and pointless cruelty. When Muntazar and Alamdar escaped
from Woomera in early 2002 they went to the British High Commission to
seek protection from the cruelty Australia was inflicting on them.
Their father, Ali, was at that time in Sydney on a Temporary Protection
Visa (it was later revoked in retaliation for the public sympathy
provoked by the boys’ plight). The boys were taken from the British
High Commission to Maribyrnong detention centre in Melbourne. Ali, who
had not seen his sons for three years, said publicly that he was coming
down to Melbourne to see them. The Department of Immigration chartered
a plane to take them from Victoria to South Australia. They got the
boys out of Maribyrnong a few hours before Ali could visit them. The
whole affair was so public that it is clear the Department acted
deliberately to prevent the father seeing his sons.

When Roquia
Bakhtiyari was due to be confined with her sixth baby she was held
under guard in a hospital in Adelaide, she was not allowed visitors or
even flowers; she was not allowed to have a photograph of the baby when
it was born.

The final, calculated steps in the Bakhtiyari case
were taken at Christmas time: a poor advertisement, it might be
thought, for the Christian message of kindness and charity. When all
avenues of appeal for the family had been exhausted, the government
refused to grant them visas on humanitarian grounds — something it had
legal power to do. The family were grabbed in an early morning raid by
the department. When the children were woken, the baby had a dirty
nappy: Roquia was not allowed to change it. The younger girl wet her
pants in fright: she was not allowed to change before the five-hour
drive. Eventually the family was placed on a chartered flight in the
early hours of the morning. They were sent to Thailand just days after
the tsunami devastated the east coast of that country. Later they were
transferred to Pakistan. After that, their fate is unknown.

people smuggling trade has got the message: the boats stopped coming
several years ago. Tearing the Bakhtiyari family out of Australia was
pointless, heartless and vindictive. It has rid us of six children
whose lives we have blighted.

Within a few days, Howard had
announced that 16 January 2005 was to be a day of national reflection:
a time to remember the victims of the tsunami and our own generous and
compassionate response to that tragedy. As a country we fell for it.
The Labor opposition, which had been wilfully silent about the
Bakhtiyaris, supported the day of national self-congratulation. We saw
something similar in the aftermath of the Bali bombing.

technique is to assess the public mood, then exploit it to the full.
Instead of acting as a leader might (by leading, for example) Howard
follows the prevailing mood and thereby lends legitimacy to the
sentiment of the mob. Unfortunately, public opinion frequently turns on
a skewed or incomplete version of the facts. In any event, moral
questions are not decided by majority vote.

Howard’s approach is
good for his government because it guarantees majority support. It is
dangerous for human rights, because the groups whose human rights are
at risk are always unpopular minorities. Human rights discourse
makes no sense at all unless tested against the treatment of unpopular
groups. Howard’s approach sends an uncomfortable message to all those
who might one day be part of an unpopular group — members of ‘élites’,
for example; or people whose ideas are regarded as contrary to the
public good, or people who criticise the government.

It is
here that Howard’s fraudulent posturing on compassion becomes most
apparent. Howard’s government has successfully argued for the right to
imprison asylum seekers for life, notwithstanding that they are
innocent of any offence. His government has argued for the right to
throw asylum seekers into solitary confinement at will. His government
has disregarded every international criticism of our system of
mandatory detention. He watched without concern as an Australian
citizen, Mamdouh Habib, was tortured and imprisoned without charge by
our allies, the USA. Now that Mr Habib is to be released without
charge, Howard’s government says Habib will get no apology and no
compensation, but will be placed under surveillance.

mawkish displays of compassion ring false when set against his record
of institutionalised child abuse and his contemptuous unconcern for
Australian citizens held prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. His declaration of
a National Day of Mourning and Reflection seems rather like the man who
would kick a homeless person out of the way on entering a restaurant
but leave a generous tip for the waiter.

As 16 January 2005
dawned, I felt in no mood to celebrate Australia’s compassion even
though I applaud the help we are giving to the victims of the tsunami.
There is something uncomfortable, and deeply embarrassing, about this
celebration of our own generosity so soon after our final act of
vengeance against a family of innocent children.

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