Mohammad T, one of Australia’s longest serving immigration detainees, was released from detention late last year. He spent five days shy of six years in detention, from the age of 31 to the age of 37.
While I am not free to discuss details, the Department of Immigration has finally granted Mohammad a three-year Temporary Protection Visa, recognising that he really did flee his home country fearing imprisonment, torture and death. All parties now officially agree that the Department was wrong when it rejected his claims back in 2001, and that the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) was incorrect when it blithely stated later that year that his story was ‘not credible.’
The Department has belatedly admitted those six stolen years were a mistake they released Mohammad with $200 and a plane ticket to Melbourne but twice, in January 2004 and in August 2005, they tried to deport him. The second time, they got him as far as Dubai before an intervention from the highest levels of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva convinced the Australian Government to bring him back.
My involvement in Mohammad’s case stared in January 2004 when I learnt from another Port Hedland detainee that he had been put on a plane to Perth for deportation the following day. In six hours at my computer I completed a 16 page ‘UN Communication’ a document addressed to the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva requesting its intervention to stop Mohammad’s deportation. It was easy enough to build a case. Evidence freely available from well known human rights organisations demonstrated that both the Department and the RRT had misunderstood the situation in Mohammad’s country of birth, and his claims were well supported by publicly available information from the most obvious of sources.
The UN Human Rights Committee intervened, requesting a stay of deportation while it investigated the case. I contacted a group of lawyers who prepared a lengthy submission supplying yet more evidence supporting Mohammad’s claims. I also sent his details to another body, the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), in Canberra. But UN Human Rights determinations take years, and Mohammad’s detention continued. There are few avenues of appeal once a detainee has been rejected by the RRT, no matter what the strength of evidence. Mohammad had little choice but to sit it out and wait.
When I visited him I was struck by Mohammad’s stoicism in the face of years of his life slipping by, along with a quiet determination to survive. He had no choice, he explained however bad his situation in Australia, to be deported would mean death.
In August 2005, I received a call after work from another detainee telling me that Mohammad had been removed. I was soon able to learn that, on advice from the Minister, Senator Vanstone, the Department had decided to defy the UN Human Rights Committee and deport him.
Thanks to Scratch
Mohammad’s journey in the following days was an odyssey of mistreatment and despair a string of finely timed events, any one of which could easily have gone the other way. If another detainee had not immediately phoned me; if I had not turned my phone on after work; if Alex Richards QC from Mohammad’s legal team had not immediately applied for and obtained an injunction from the Supreme Court of Victoria putting a one day stay on the completion of his deportation; if the UNHCR office in Canberra, which I contacted some 15 minutes before they closed, had not worked through the weekend with their colleagues in Geneva to persuade the Australian Government to return him
Even after the belated recognition that Mohammad had been telling the truth all along, it was more than another year more before hiss health and security checks were completed and he was finally released.
Mohammad’s story highlights the endemic failure of Australia’s refugee processing system all the more because his second attempted deportation took place after the findings of the Palmer Report into the Department of Immigration had been handed down.
Mohammad’s case is very far from singular. In the refugee activist community we are almost used to such stories, as again and again so-called ‘failed’ asylum seekers are eventually proved to have genuine claims many after enduring years of soul destroying detention. Our elation when a refugee is eventually released is tempered by the knowledge of the despair we know of those still inside.
There is nothing inevitable about any of this. Department staff who make initial assessments clearly need a far greater degree of training. The RRT, which consists of one legally unqualified person on a short-term contract who is beholden to the Minister, should be replaced by a truly independent body consisting of several legally qualified members. When mistakes are made, a merit-based appeal process should be introduced as an alternative to the cumbersome judicial appeals process which can pursue only actual mistakes in law.
Above all, long-term detention itself must end. Whatever argument there may be for protection against false claims, it simply cannot justify destroying lives in this manner.
A society is defined by its treatment of its weakest, most vulnerable members, and there can be few more vulnerable than the asylum seekers who continue to languish in our immigration detention centres. We simply cannot treat people this way without fundamentally affecting the very nature of the society in which we live.
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