Cricket Makes For A Refugee Good News Story


Australian cricket’s six-year search for the next Shane Warne has seen a conga line of promising prospects disappear as quickly as they emerge.

Fawad Ahmed, 31, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, is the latest leg-spinner to have this crushing burden thrust upon him. He’s no Warne but he’s a talented bowler who may well be playing for the Australian team by the end of the 2013 Ashes series, which starts in Nottingham tomorrow night.

At first glance, Ahmed's story is a feel-good classic: big-hearted Australia welcomes a desperate, frightened human being with open arms, who is about to repay his adopted country by taking precious English wickets in the battle for our most coveted sporting trophy.

As usual, the reality is more complicated. Without being lucky enough to have Cricket Australia to plead his case, Ahmed would now be back in Pakistan, fearing for his life.

Ahmed fled his homeland in 2010 after receiving constant death threats from religious fanatics because he was coaching women cricketers and promoting women’s education and health. “They terrorised me, they made death threats to me,” he told the Melbourne Herald Sun last week.

He spoke of the death of his friend, Nauman Habib: “We played together. He was a good friend of mine. They kidnapped him. After a few days somebody found him in a bag in pieces.".

Ahmed also told his story to the Immigration Department several times but, after being initially rejected and then failing through two stages of appeal, he was told to prepare for deportation last September.

As the Herald Sun story makes clear, the only reason he managed to avoid deportation was through the actions of officials at his district cricket club, Melbourne University. They called on James Sutherland, a former bowler at the club and current CEO of Cricket Australia who no doubt used his access to the halls of power in Canberra to lobby for Ahmed.

It was a successful campaign. The then Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen, used his ministerial discretion to grant Ahmed a protection visa late last year. Bowen’s successor, Brendan O’Connor, fast-tracked his citizenship application in time for Ahmed to play in the Ashes series — if he gets the call to England, as has been forecast.

Ahmed's form aside, his case has done much to highlight the ability of the Federal Government to do one thing and say another on refugee policy.

As O’Connor was welcoming Ahmed as a new citizen in a ceremony at the MCG last week, and personally validating his claim that he was a victim of persecution, Foreign Minister Bob Carr was on a media blitz to signal a tougher policy on refugee claims, claiming, among other things, that all recent asylum seekers to Australia were economic migrants.

Ahmed’s Government-endorsed story is clearly at odds with Carr’s assessment, which has not been supported by any hard facts. The most recent Immigration Department figures (pdf) show that 91 per cent of asylum seekers arriving by boat are granted refugee status. The figure is 92 per cent for Pakistanis.

Carr says that more asylum seekers these days are motivated by economic reasons, but the killings and bombings in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan still go on, suggesting that they have the same reasons to flee as did Ahmed three years ago.

“When it comes to these threats on your life you don’t have options,” Ahmed told the Herald Sun, emphasising that economic reasons, including cricket, had nothing to do with his flight to Australia. “I just came here to live as a normal human being, as a safe human being.”

Carr’s public stance is that the people following the same path as Ahmed are getting a soft ride. He said the system is too lenient and will be toughened up; the same system that, but for the high-powered intervention of the elite cricket establishment, would have seen Ahmed sent back to the terror from which he fled.

Had a tougher approach on refugee assessments been in place a few months ago our “next Shane Warne” could have very easily ended up in pieces in a bag, not a baggy green cap.

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.