Would You Trust Them With Your Life?


It’s been nine years since John Howard sailed to an election victory on the back of a new lexicon of "boat people", "queue jumpers", and "terrorists".

Back then, I was volunteering for a refugee advocacy organisation in Western Australia that was formed in response to the government’s introduction of the Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) in 1999.

Remember? Asylum seekers who had been legally recognised by the Australian government as refugees were only granted three years asylum. If these TPV holders wanted to stay in Australia after this period — as almost all did — they were made to re-apply for temporary refugee status, and to prove that they had a "well founded fear of persecution" in their homeland.

Less well known is that TPV holders had to undergo tests which proved that they were who they said they were — even though their identities had been accepted as "legitimate" in their first application for refugee status.

By late 2002, many refugees were reaching the end of their TPVs and were being interviewed by officials from the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), as it was called then, for visa renewal. These interviews were used as evidence to demonstrate that refugees still had a well founded fear of persecution in their country of origin. The Department recorded these interviews but interviewees were not allowed to access the recordings. This meant that when applications for renewal were rejected — as the majority of them, it turned out, were — the sole piece of evidence that could be used to appeal the decision was unavailable.

I was asked, along with a number of other volunteers, to sit in on the interviews and take notes so as to provide refugees and their advocates with some documentation of what had actually taken place.

Most of the accounts that I heard given by refugees of persecution, political violence, fear, family, and factionalism were highly complicated. They were also, at times, imprecise — not surprising given that the events being described had taken place years ago and had caused unimaginable trauma. The black and white world of Howard’s bureaucracy was unable and unwilling to accommodate any uncertainty. The stories of refugees were met with either hesitation or incredulity — and almost always with an air of formal indifference.

This is an excerpt of an exchange between one refugee, who I’ll call "K" and his interlocutor. I hate to get all Orwellian on you but the man from DIMIA identified himself only by his number, which I’ll change, in this article, to "8155".

8155: The situation in Afghanistan has changed since you initially got your TPV. In October 2001, the USA attacked Taliban infrastructure. In December 2001, the Taliban withdrew or surrendered, and an agreement was made to institute a new government. There is now an interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai. DIMIA has advised you of these changes in writing.

In light of these changes, can you provide reasons why you still can’t go back to Afghanistan? Why can’t you go back to Afghanistan?

K: The Pashtuns are still there, even if the Taliban has terminated. The Talib has removed his turban and shaved his beard, but he is still there.

8155: But Pashtuns, Tajeks and Hazaras have been living in Afghanistan for centuries.

K: Yes, but Hazaras have been persecuted for a very long time.

8155: But the only "power", if I can put it that way, that persecuted Hazaras were the Taliban — and they’ve gone.

K: As I said before, they’re still there.

8155: When you first came as a refugee, you didn’t mention any persecution that occurred before the Taliban.

K: The persecution existed, but the Taliban made it more intense, increased the pressure.

8155: Then why didn’t you mention this pressure from other ethnic groups before at previous interviews?

K: The Taliban committed atrocities so much that we forgot about what had happened in the past.

8155: Any other reason why you can’t go back?

[K describes how two of his brothers have disappeared, and how he is a direct target of Taliban sympathisers.]

8155: But the Taliban are gone.

K: Where?

8155: As a power.

K: Yes, they are not in power, but the Pashtuns are still there.

The majority of Temporary Protection Visa holders who applied for extensions during this period were rejected.

Of course, we know now that Agent 8155 was wrong and K was right. The Taliban resurgence has been widely documented, and is part of the reason why Western armed forces, eight years after their initial intervention in Afghanistan, remain stuck in an intractable and impossible conflict.

And there is also chilling evidence that a significant number of refugees who were denied permanent protection in Australia returned to Afghanistan to meet exactly the sort of persecution — and in some cases, death — that they had told us they would.

Rudd has abolished the Temporary Protection Visa policy, but has in many respects continued the legacy and the rhetoric of the Howard years.

During the first six months of the Rudd Government, the renamed Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIC) rejected applications for asylum at a significantly higher rate than under the Howard government.

Australia is still the only country to have mandatory, privatised, user-pays detention for all undocumented arrivals to the country. The Government has also failed to reverse Howard’s policies on the excision of territory from Australian "migration zones", so that the procedural guarantees of Australian immigration law do not apply to asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Julian Burnside reminds us that this "warehousing" of refugees in offshore detention centres actually costs more than simply resettling them within Australia.

The aim of the Government, evidently, is to keep asylum seekers at a distance. Rudd’s politicking on "border control" and people smugglers has done little to discourage the link between boat people, their "illegality", and terrorism.

The vast majority of refugees who have been resettled in Australia come under the category of "offshore" refugees — they have fled persecution and applied for refugee status via the UNHCR before arriving in Australia. The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that refugees should not be discriminated against based on their method of entry to a country: all people in fear of persecution have an internationally sanctioned right to seek protection.

There are many legitimate reasons why some asylum seekers fail to properly apply for resettlement before they come to Australia.

There can be long delays involved in applying for refugee status with the UNHCR, often putting people’s lives and safety at risk. Many refugees are also simply unable to access UNHCR offices — they can be located a long way from refugee camps, or local authorities may try to prevent refugees from approaching the UNHCR. In Sri Lanka, for example, hundreds of thousands of Tamils interned in camps continue to be prevented from meeting with international aid agencies or making the dangerous trip to the capital, Colombo.

In any case, the UNHCR is severely under-resourced and it only has the capacity to resettle around one in 200 of the refugees it legally "recognises". And yet, refugees who have access to offshore UNHCR registration and application processes — and who are then lucky enough to be resettled — continue to be perceived as somehow more "deserving" than onshore applicants.

Australia’s policies towards boat arrivals are vastly different from the policies governing offshore refugees. In 1992, mandatory detention for onshore asylum seekers was introduced by the Labor government with bipartisan support. This policy is still in place, despite the fact that over 90 per cent of people who arrive here by boat are eventually classed as genuine refugees.

Rudd has maintained Australia’s overall refugee "quota" — including both on-shore and off-shore applicants — at about 13,500 per year. This comprises a small proportion — about 7.5 per cent — of all migrants to Australia, about the same as Howard’s final intake of refugees in 2007. This compares with 15.3 per cent (about 20,000 people a year) of all migrants who were accepted as refugees in 1995–96 under Paul Keating. 

Rudd’s recent tightening of the skilled migration program in favour of migrants deemed to be more economically strategic make plain where his policy priorities lie. It also reminds us that "queues" and "quotas" are moveable and inherently political figures.

Rudd and other policymakers have been unwilling to admit that fluctuations in the number of boat people in Australia are not caused by governments being hard or soft on border security. Rather, recent increases in the numbers of asylum seekers reflect global trends.

The Howard government’s policies were premised on a wilful disregard for the circumstances from which refugees came, serviced by a bureaucracy that cared little either way, and propagated by a rhetoric that took advantage of the voting public’s ignorance.

The challenge for Rudd was to overhaul this legal framework, and to shift the terms on which such policies are debated and decided. It has done neither, and, with a federal election now looming, such politically risky action looks even less likely.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.