the fate of the returned asylum seekers


In the small hours of 30 December 2004, the Bakhtiyari family was woken and whisked to the Port Augusta airport where a charter plane was waiting for them. Accompanied by twelve officials, including guards and a nurse, the family flew out of Australia. The Immigration Minister announced that the family would be billed for their detention, their legal costs and their removal from Australia; a figure of more than two million, and possibly three million, dollars.

Four days after their removal, the family, having been delayed en route by the Asian tsunami, arrived in Islamabad. According to an anonymous Pakistani immigration official cited by the news agency AFP, the family’s nationality could not be verified because it had no passports or identification papers. ‘We allowed them go after someone furnished a personal guarantee that they would return for investigations,’ the official said. Another anonymous source who has spoken to the family said that the guarantor was an Australian consular official. The family was also initially turned away from their hotel because they had no papers or identity documents. They were only allowed to stay because of another assurance given by an Australian consular official.

Within days, the Bakhtiyaris left the country Australian officials had insisted they were from and entered Afghanistan. They went to the country they said was both home and the place from which they had been forced to flee. It was hardly, as some have suggested, an attempt to make a political point. Had it been, the family would not have fought so hard to keep out of the media spotlight.

They travelled to Roqia’s mother’s village in Ghazni province and then to Kabul. Ali was unable to work because of a back injury he had sustained in Australia. The family was, therefore, relying on the support of local friends and supporters in Australia.

In the beginning, all the family members took ill because of the cold and their inadequate clothing. It was mid-winter in Afghanistan and freezing. It was too cold to venture outside. They had no heating and kept warm with blankets. The boys were bored. ‘I am not settled,’ Monty said. ‘At the moment I am a passenger. I am not doing anything. It is like being in detention.’

Nor was the cold the only thing that kept the family indoors. The security situation was uncertain. But more than anything, Alamdar told me by telephone, he was ‘scared that the Australian media might find me’.

Our telephone conversation was the closest I could get to following the Bakhtiyaris home. It had taken me weeks of work to arrange to speak with one of them. I had travelled to Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne to chase the story down. The few people who maintained contact with the family were under strict instructions from them not to disclose their whereabouts. Members of the media were on the trail.

Finally, Alamdar agreed to speak with me. When I was in Quetta, I had spent time with a friend of his from detention. His friend had vouched for me. When he saw a photograph of us together, Alamdar said that I looked like a Muslim.

While he had agreed to speak to me “ saying that he would not disclose anything ‘personal’ “ I did not have Alamdar’s trust. My work fails without trust. When it is reduced to its essence, research of the sort I do is all about relationships. I had no rapport with Alamdar and the hardest way to build such a thing is over the telephone. And he was suspicious. ‘You are only talking to me because of your book,’ he said. ‘You are not talking to me because you are sorry for me.’

In the midst of this telephone conversation between Australia and Afghanistan “ I had seen the country code being dialled into the phone and later paid the bill with that code listed “ I could feel myself breaking into a sweat. I was speaking to a feisty, intelligent and angry 16-year-old who could barely contain his contempt for people like me: the professionals “ journalists, psychologists, social workers, immigration case officers, Refugee Review Tribunal members, lawyers, judges, teachers, ‘friends’ “ who spent hours of their time asking questions, eliciting information in order to pass judgement on Alamdar and his family. This phone call was the closest anyone except for three or four close friends had got to speaking with the family since they had returned and I was about to blow it. I asked about what had happened in Pakistan and Alamdar obfuscated. He did not want the conversation to go there. He was concerned about the implications of being too critical, particularly of Australian authorities. He held a deep fear of the Australian government which, from his own experience, seemed all-powerful.

Nor would Alamdar tell me anything about his uncle Mahzar, his sisters or his parents. He let it slip that Monty was ‘not OK’, but when pressed about what this meant, asked rhetorically, ‘How would I know?’

When I asked about his own health, Alamdar told me that he did not have time to think about it. I asked if he was sleeping and he asked me if I was being a psychologist now. Scrambling to distance myself from the psychologists he so disliked, I told him that many of the returnees I had spoken to continued to suffer from their experiences in detention in Australia, including not being able to sleep properly. ‘It always feels like you are in detention,’ Alamdar said. ‘The only difference is the country.’

He had learnt a great deal in Australia, including, he said, that ‘nothing in life is fair.’ His family was the victim of ‘hundreds of lies’. He continued to hope that in time the truth would emerge. He also hoped that one day he might be able to continue the studies he had begun in Australia.

Alamdar said that there were many kind people in Australia, but there were many who did him and his family harm. Alamdar said that his family had become pawns in a broader political battle in Australia. He told me that his family had been caught between self-interested lawyers, journalists and the government.

His younger brother was also clear about what happened in Australia. ‘People used me to embarrass the government,’ Monty told a source close to the family. ‘People used us in a bad way. We were punished. Why weren’t they punished? We were in the middle.’

I had begun my conversation with Alamdar hoping that I could talk my way into coming over to Afghanistan to spend a couple of weeks with the family. By the end of it, this possibility seemed more remote than ever. Despite the fact that we had spoken for more than an hour, I was no closer to building a relationship with Alamdar than I was when we started talking.

An edited extract from Following Them Home: The Fate of the Returned Asylum Seekers, by David Corlett ($24.95, Black Inc

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