Tearing hearts to pieces


‘When I remember Australia, my heart is torn to pieces’
– stateless Bedoon, deported without valid papers

Most Australians are unaware that their government is knowingly deporting innocent people to situations of extreme danger and possibly torture and death. No, not our boys in Iraq, but unsuccessful asylum seekers who are deported either back to the countries they fled or to third countries.

In 2000 a Senate enquiry, A Sanctuary Under Review, accepted a submission by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commissioner that ‘a system of informal monitoring of the results of deportation should be set up.’ The government has refused to act on this recommendation; indeed it has explicitly stated that it is not concerned about what happens to people deported from Australia. (Where it is assessed as part of the protection determination process that there is no real chance of persecution of the applicant on return, Australia is not responsible for the future well being of that person in their homeland. Senate Hansard 8 February 2001 “ Government Response to the Senate Committee 2000 in relation to Recommendation 11.1)

How can this be? Implicit in rejecting a claim for asylum is the assumption that the claimant is actually not in danger in their country of origin. If a tribunal or court can confidently make that finding, why is the government so reluctant to confirm it with evidence? How can it not be Australia’s responsibility to ensure that, in denying asylum, it is not exposing individuals to the dangers they claim?

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

In the face of official inaction, the Edmund Rice Research Centre has produced a report (Deported to Danger link here) detailing the fate of forty people who unsuccessfully sought asylum here and were either returned to their countries of origin or sent to other countries with assurances of safety. There is ‘a growing volume of claims which speak of people spending fear-filled lives in hiding or, even worse, disappearance, imprisonment, torture or death after being deported from Australia’.

Of the forty cases followed in detail, thirty five were found to encounter dangerous circumstances on arrival. Some are now back in their countries of origin, others in another country to which they fled or were sent, yet others have escaped to find permanent sanctuary in First World countries.

Eight of the forty cases are detailed in the Deported to Danger report, with names and some other identifiers changed to protect the asylum seekers. To say that these cases represent the tip of an iceberg is both a cliché and an understatement. The Department of Migration and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), of course, does not publish statistics on returned person, but the 2000 Senate Committee recognized that ‘it is certainly in the thousands.’

Rajab left Afghanistan because of a deadly (literally) feud in his family and neighbourhood. Rescued by the Tampa, he was sent to Nauru where the heat, uneatable food and lack of comprehensible legal advice combined with constant depression, isolation and uncertainty about his future caused him and some friends to agree to return. The International Office for Migration (IOM) promised them safety in a special refugee centre in Kabul. There was no such centre. They could not return to their homes as their families had fled. IOM abandoned them in the snow of Kabul with little money, wearing clothes suitable for Nauru. Rajab spent a year in hiding, trying to find his family whom he thought might now be in Pakistan or Iran. Almost assassinated on a return visit to his home town, he now lives illegally in a third country.

The report goes on to describe the assessment procedure for asylum seekers. It reviews the performance of the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT), and covers some of the many criticisms which have been made by reputable legal bodies, human rights advocates and even retired RRT members themselves. These include questions about the Tribunal’s operations, selection and training of its members, possibilities of bias and the provision of essential resources.

It is impossible to overestimate the power of the RRT. Many asylum seekers do not take their decisions to a higher court for a number of reasons: financial, ignorance of their legal rights, extreme stress caused by the process. For a genuine assessment of risk to be reached, it is essential that the Tribunal has access to expert opinion on regional languages and dialects, and on the very complex politics of the countries concerned. Deported to Danger remarks, dryly, that ‘Australian authorities seem to have taken a sanguine view of the prospects of Iraqi, Palestinian and Bedoon deportees in Syria; of Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Colombo; of African asylum seekers anywhere on the African Continent; of Afghan deportees in Kabul and Iraqis in Baghdad.’ Asylum seekers themselves are grimly aware that applications to the RRT bear more resemblance to a lottery than anything close to due process.

Marian is a 75-year-old grandmother from Sri Lanka. She has four married children in Australia; two permanent residents and two citizens. She and her husband and an unmarried daughter lived with her family here for five years, until the RRT rejected their appeals for asylum.

Marian, a Burgher, had crossed ethnic boundaries in marrying a Tamil. Consequently the family was persecuted in Sri Lanka; their house was torched and they were constantly harassed and threatened. In Australia Marian and her husband and daughter were entirely supported by her family. They produced a quantity of evidence to show their claims were justified. It was disregarded. The family couldn’t afford to take their case further, so accepted deportation. Back in Colombo, the harassment redoubled due to their failed attempt to live in Australia. Marian’s 80-year-old husband soon became ill and died, leaving her alone with her daughter. They are terrified to leave the house, and even within it, they hear threats shouted at them from the street. Marian feels she has lost her four married children and all her grandchildren. She cannot understand why Australia rejected her.

The Senate Committee made eight recommendations, the most important being that two or three members should normally sit on the review panel, as is the case with many other tribunals in Australia. It pointed out that the decisions of the RRT may put applicants’ lives at risk, and that a disturbing number of RRT decisions have been overturned on appeal to the Courts. The Government, however, defended its system and virtually side-stepped all the Committee’s recommendations for improvement.

Fourteen of the high-risk countries to which Australia has returned asylum seekers are profiled. These include Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Rwanda, Sudan, Syria and Zimbabwe. Their human rights records will surprise no-one; all that is surprising is that Australia considers these places to which asylum seekers may be safely returned.

Sharif is a Bedoon from Kuwait. Bedoons are not recognized as citizens in Kuwait and some others in their situation have been allowed to stay in Australia but, apparently arbitrarily, Sharif was rejected. After three years in an Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) Sharif was told he had been offered safety in Damascus. He was issued with an Australian Certificate of Identity, valid for one-way travel from Australia. This enabled him to obtain a visa for Syria, which was retained by the IDC authorities and only given to Sharif when he was already on the plane to Damascus. He then saw, with a shock, that it was only valid for a few months in Syria, so he would soon be illegal there also. There was an instruction to report to the Public Security Department within fifteen days. He presented the document to Syrian Immigration, together with the US$200 which Australian officials had given him for that purpose. He saw police take other detainees to jail on arrival.

Sharif lived underground for three years, knowing that the manner of his arrival made him particularly vulnerable. He paid bribes to landlord and neighbours not to report his presence. He was fortunate in having a brother in a First World country who sent money and helped him with an eventually successful application to live in that country. While this was in process, Sharif was arrested and taken to jail where he was beaten and tortured. A senior official from the First World country intervened and negotiated Sharif’s release. Within a week he was reunited with his brother in that country, where he now lives.

Five major questions emerged from the research. Firstly the report found that the Australian Government or its agencies have sent, or attempted to send, asylum seekers to unsafe places. This finding is backed up by documented evidence from more than a dozen of the forty interviewees. They reported threats of injections or prison terms from guards in Australia: inappropriate travel documents supplied by DIMIA, who occasionally ‘lost’ detainees’ own original ID: imprisonment and/or maltreatment on arrival in country of deportation: complete absence of protection promised by security firms employed by DIMIA. Deportees are frequently forced into hiding, into living on the streets or attempting, once more, to reach another country. Sometimes it appears that Australian authorities are, in fact, aware of but unconcerned by the dangers faced by deportees.

Perhaps even more worryingly, it found that the Australian Government or its agencies had actually increased the dangers for rejected people by sending detrimental reports about them to overseas authorities. In three major areas of deportation “ Sri Lanka, Syria and the African continent “ ‘DIMIA or ACM officials had actually sent on material that endangered the lives of deportees’. Deportees had no chance to check or refute the information sent, which included unsubstantiated charges of links to terrorist groups and of speaking to journalists (a crime in many countries).

Thirdly, a significant number of interviewees reported they had been encouraged to obtain false passports. This practice has been denied by DIMIA, but this must be set against both the independent testimonies of the detainees themselves and documentary evidence cited, indeed photographed, in the report. Some deportees have been given money in order to bribe officials in the country of destination.

As signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia is not permitted to return refugees to a country where they have ‘a well founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion.’ Because it is internationally recognized that some groups of people fall outside the Convention terms “ stateless persons, those whose country is in a state of war, who would face torture, or in whose country the rule of law has collapsed “ there are two further conventions designed to offer them protection and prevent them from being forcibly repatriated. Australia has never incorporated the non-refoulement provisions of these conventions into domestic law. Furthermore, it has narrowed the definition of ‘persecution’ and excised a number of offshore islands from Australia’s migration zone, making it far more difficult for asylum seekers there to gain access to Australian law.

By these means Australia attempts to manipulate its way out of legal obligation. It has been criticised by UNHCR for being in breach of international human rights law (Australian Human Rights News, 18 September 2003). There are also troubling issues of responsibility and accountability raised by the ‘outsourcing’ of deportation management.

Finally, the Federal government itself has recently produced a list of ten values to be taught in Australian schools, which include tolerance, respect, social justice, honesty, freedom and being ethical. All of these values have been flouted in the case of asylum seekers. Accounts of their treatment may break your heart or make you angry, but should at least be a call to action.

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