Harsh home truths for returned asylum seekers


'Go back' signAsylum seekers face untold privations in travelling to Australia to escape persecution. Our country responds by sending as many as it can back to the horrors they desperately tried to escape. They have no rights, according to the Government.

Investigations have shown that some refugees who were returned to their country of origin were not only brutalised and tortured on their return but several were killed. All evidence from international human rights organisations points to deadly consequences for the forcible return of asylum seekers to their homelands. Australia is cruelly failing asylum seekers who seek our protection.

The deliberately punitive nature of immigration detention is well known. Yet, last year ABC TV reported that some asylum seekers prefer detention to returning home. They literally fear for their lives if they return to their homelands — which are often failed states, in which there is no stable rule of law. Every attempt to track the progress of returned asylum seekers shows that we are placing them in tremendous danger.

This is very apparent when we examine what is known of the fate of asylum seekers forced to return home. A detailed investigation by the Edmund Rice Centre followed 40 individuals who were deported from Australia. It found that '35 out of the 40 people interviewed were living in dangerous circumstances immediately on arrival'.

And yet Australia continues to forcibly return asylum seekers. We have signed a 'Memorandum of Understanding' with Afghanistan and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, permitting the involuntary repatriation of unsuccessful Afghan asylum-seekers. The arrangement even includes provision for sending back several unaccompanied minors who had become separated from their families.

This deal has already had fatal consequences for several returned asylum seekers. Many other returnees have suffered threats and attacks, and today live in well-founded fear of the very persecution they sought to escape.

Among Afghan asylum seekers, Hazaras face the greatest danger. Comprising at times up to half of Afghans coming irregularly to Australia, Hazara asylum seekers are persecuted due to their ethnicity and their adherence to the Shi'a sect. Unfortunately for them, they are instantly identifiable due to their distinctive Asiatic appearance. Other young Afghan returnees are forced to join the armed conflict.

Indeed, professionals on the spot suggest that the psychosocial impact of returning to a conflict-affected environment is just as damaging as the actual conflict. Afghan returnees can be 'petrified' just walking through the centre of their town.

Similarly, Congolese asylum seekers risk torture on their return home. In February the UK Guardian exposed an order to senior police and security chiefs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), instructing them to use torture against any known opponents of the regime among returnees.

'Above all,' the instruction stresses, 'be on the lookout for the return to the country by refoulement' (the rendering of a victim of persecution to their persecutor). 'The treatment reserved for these people is clear: torture and other things must be done with the greatest discretion. These orders must be carried out flawlessly.'

Returnees to the Congo have been harassed, imprisoned and tortured by state authorities. Some have disappeared altogether. Forced returnees to Sri Lanka are routinely detained and quite often suffer torture. The DRC, Eritrea and several other countries regard anyone who has claimed asylum in the West as a threat, or even as having committed an 'act of treason', say local experts.

All of these facts are well known to Australian authorities. Yet Australia has neither adequately respected nor safeguarded the fundamental human rights of those who sought our protection from oppressive regimes. Unconscionable refoulements violate not only asylum seekers' rights, but also Australia's commitments under international law. These forced returns place asylum seekers in tremendous personal danger and must cease.

In the meantime, deported asylum seekers need to be monitored. This was recommended by the Senate Legal and Constitutional References Committee in 2000, but was never adopted. Although difficult, it may help both minimise such abuses and positively influence asylum policies.

Paul White headshotDr Paul White lectured at Australian universities for some years, in the fields of political science and Middle Eastern studies, and delivered papers at scholarly conferences in several countries. He is widely published internationally, including both critically acclaimed books, as well as papers in refereed journals.

'Go back' image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Paul White, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

"This deal has already had fatal consequences for several returned asylum seekers" I don't think anyone has been forcibly returned to Afghanistan since the signing of the MOU.
question | 04 April 2014

Thank you Paul. I so wish articles like yours could be published in our mainstream press.
Kate Maclurcan | 07 April 2014

Dr White, thank you for reporting these further horrors. Australia's inhumanity must be exposed. But we are few. Please also give your reports to, for example, Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie, the frequent Walkely Award winners at The Age. Not only will thousands more become aware, our leaders will, rightfully, be further shamed.
Caroline Storm | 07 April 2014

Why do we label boat people as illegals? Are not the refugees leaving Syria and crossing to Turkey or Jordan without papers illegal. Should not they be stopped on the same basis. Where is our compassion?
Alan Stuart | 07 April 2014

our PM went to the ICC to challenge Japan's right to hunt whales. why does he not uphold Australian law in respect of refugees?
mac | 07 April 2014

As a follow on from mac's comment about Australia's action against Japan in the World Court over whaling, a little discussed possibility is that any nation that is a signatory to the Refugee Convention could take similar action in the World Court against Australia for not acting accord with the Refugee Convention. It's possible that one of the reasons for the secrecy about "on water operational matters" is that if the Australian Government provided reports on what it is doing to return asylum seekers to Indonesia, then it may provide the evidence to support a straight forward case in the World Court. It might be similar to someone providing a photo of themselves driving through a red light. It might only take one country to decide to take action against Australia under the Refugee Convention for things to get very difficult for Australian. Australia’s action on whaling might have set an interesting example for other countries.
Ray Polglaze | 07 April 2014

Thank you for bringing this to our attention.we are so blessed in this country, we can't knowingly send these refugees back to torture and death. Wake up Australia
Peg | 07 April 2014

Desperately sad. Thank you for this article.
Val | 08 April 2014

I'm reluctant to go the full Godwin ... ... but living in Switzerland, I'm aware of the Swiss treatment of those 'other' refugees more than 50 years ago. Small country, border protection, fear of being overrun, people destroying their papers, legitimate visas available at embassies etc. - "our little lifeboat is full". This led to people being returned into the hands of their persecutors. It took 50 years for the Swiss Government to officially apologise.
Exiled Aussie | 08 April 2014

I fully understand that people are being tortured and killed when they return home. But I don't understand our response to them when they come to Australia for help. I don't understand how my government will allow people to die just to win votes. So sadly I have to admit that it is the people of Australia who cause the suffering of these people. I think we need to work to change this attitude. I feel ashamed of our response to people who are in need.
Barry Farrin | 11 April 2014

Thank you Paul for spelling out Australia's despicable behaviour in these matters. If we are not willing or cannot afford to discreetly but actively monitor the safety of those who we return to their home countries, then we should stop doing so and make sure they have an alternative safe and respectful place to call home. As Palm Sunday approaches I pray for a rediscovery of Jesus the peacemaker and a renewed commitment to non violent civil action among his followers.
Ken Dev | 11 April 2014

My experience with Anglican multicultural congregations this past 3 years, and the anxieties they express, support everything Paul White writes about.
Alan Nichols | 11 April 2014

If someone is fleeing for their life from say Afghanistan and ends up in Australia claiming asylum then why did they not claim asylum in the first safe country. This is why people are becoming fatigued by this. It's both taking advantage of Australia as well as some Australians having the attitude of "the white mans burden". If someone is fleeing Sri Lanka and the only option was to travel to Australia then fine. If someone has traveled through dozens of countries and thousands of miles then it's not really asylum but economic migration. You can't have it both ways.
Alfred | 14 August 2014


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