Immigration amendments rejection a win for human rights

Deported to DangerThe decision by the Government to withdraw its amendments to the Immigration Act marks an important stage in the rehabilitation of Australia’s record, and international reputation, on human rights. This has been a remarkable battle that has crossed the partisan lines of politics. Members of both major parties have lobbied from within, working with a significant people’s movement that has mobilised to change broader public opinion. Given the political climate in the 2001 federal election, the turnaround is truly remarkable.

However, it is important to realise that this latest victory simply maintains the status quo. Asylum seekers remain on Nauru, indeed eight more people have been sent to the island nation for processing in the past week. The withdrawal of the latest Bill ensures the gains won by dissident backbenchers last year remain in place. The Pacific Solution (or Pacific Strategy as the Government calls it), the system of processing asylum seekers who do not reach the mainland on other countries, remains in place.

This system is not sustainable, nor defensible. Findings released last week by the Edmund Rice Centre demonstrate the very grave problems associated with the Pacific Solution, and the need for Australia to take a more proactive role in monitoring the fate of those asylum seekers we turn away.

The Centre’s research has identified nine asylum seekers and three children of asylum seekers who have been killed on their return to Afghanistan. While visiting Afghanistan we were able to speak directly to two of the families of asylum seekers who have since been killed, and to two other asylum seekers whose children had been killed in attacks on their homes.

One afternoon in Kabul we met with the fathers who had been returned from Nauru whose children were killed. Abdul spent 16 months on Nauru and was the son of a Minister in the Najibullah Government. He was initially accepted as a refugee on Christmas Island only to have that offer rescinded after the arrival of the Tampa. He told authorities on Nauru that he was regarded as a communist in Afghanistan and that he had made a love marriage across religious lines. He said if he went back he and his family would be targeted. He was nevertheless returned and three months later a bomb was placed under his house. His nine year old daughter Yolanda was killed and his mother permanently brain damaged. Six weeks later his other child Rona, aged 6, also died as a result of the bombing. Newspaper reports verify the bombing.

Deported to DangerIn addition to interviewing asylum seekers and their families about their experiences, our team also did background document research. We identified newspaper reports of attacks on those killed. We also did other background checks to verify that the stories we were being told were credible. We met with NGOs, international agencies and church and health professionals with over 30 years experience on the ground. Moreover, the lead researcher on this project for the ERC was awarded an Order of Australia by the Government in 2004 for her service to the nation in the field of research.

Sadly, we continue to be shocked by what our findings reveal. They demonstrate a profound failure of our systems for assessing asylum claims. The people who were killed on their return to Afghanistan were sent back from Nauru. They returned after spending months or years in detention on that island. The Government claims these people went back voluntarily, with a cash payment of $2,000. The stories detailed by asylum seekers in Afghanistan, and those from Nauru who were later found to be refugees and allowed to stay in Australia, are very different.

Deported to DangerEven more disturbing, for those that did not give in to the pressure to return, and did stay in the camps, most were eventually found to be refugees, after having been rejected two or three times. We now also know that many of those sent back, went back to the very persecution they had feared. What this demonstrates is that the process for determining asylum claims on Nauru does not work. It runs the risk of sending genuine refugees back to the very situations they fled and for which they claimed asylum.

Nauru does not work because it is outside the system of checks and balances that ordinarily make the system work. While the Government claims that asylum seekers abuse the right to legal appeals, the evidence suggests that the high rate of appeals is a direct result of initial determinations being systematically flawed. Time after time, cases coming before the Refugee Review Tribunal and the courts turn up instances of injustice. One might even speculate that there is a culture of initially refusing virtually all claims, and a lack of understanding of the complexity of the political contexts people are fleeing from.

Now that the parliament has shown that it is no longer willing to play politics with these people’s lives there is an opportunity for a genuine and mature debate. The policy of off shore processing, where Australia places people outside its legal system, beyond the reach of our courts, cannot continue. Those who fled from the Taliban are not, and were not, the Taliban. The absurdity of the Government’s position was to deliberately suggest that those fleeing from terror were suspected terrorists. This has been proven to be untrue. It has led to people with genuine fears being sent back, and it has seen those very fears realized. This is a life or death issue. A debate that treats the issue with the maturity and gravity it deserves is long overdue.

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