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Issue #1552      20 June 2012

Asylum seekers

Mandatory detention a tragic failure

The controversy over the arrival of asylum seekers by boat has erupted again. A few weeks ago ABC TV’s Four Corners program showed that certain individuals identified with bringing asylum seekers to Australia by boat are actually living here.

The program revealed that a number of boats which left Indonesian waters bound for Australia were never heard of again, but that relatives of the passengers were still being told they were living in Australia.

A second development is an upsurge in the number of boats arriving from Sri Lanka and India, most of which carry members of Sri Lanka’s persecuted Tamil minority.

Inheriting the wind

The Four Corners program revealed that in 2010 a group of people-smugglers came to Australia posing as asylum seekers to establish a nucleus of agents who would wheedle money out of refugees, in exchange for organising boat voyages for relatives or friends stranded in other countries.

However, the story of one organiser (seen in the program discussing arrangements with prospective “boat people” clients), is particularly disturbing because of the actions of the former Howard government regarding his case.

According to the Refugee Action Coalition this individual, Abdul Khadem (also known as Abu Ali al Kuwaiti) first arrived by boat as a genuine asylum seeker in 1999, but then acted as spokesman for detainees protesting over their treatment at the harsh, remote Curtin detention centre.

For his pains Khadem was treated as a trouble-maker, and spent two weeks in Derby prison. He was never charged with an offence. He was then sent to the Juliet Block punishment compound at the Port Hedland detention centre, and afterwards with his family to the Maribyrnong centre outside Melbourne.

It appears he was not involved in people smuggling at that stage. That’s what he had told immigration authorities on his arrival, and they accepted his story. Nevertheless, a year later they suddenly reversed their position and charged him with people smuggling.

The Refugee Action Coalition says he was coerced into pleading guilty. The Howard government always sought opportunities to increase its people smuggler conviction rate, and it is entirely possible that at this point Khadem was offered a better chance of gaining refugee asylum if he pleaded guilty.

If so, it did him no good. He was transferred to Perth while his wife and children remained in Melbourne. They were finally granted bridging visas, but he himself was detained in Perth until 2003 – effectively a three year sentence.

During this time the department threatened to arrest and deport one of his sons. It subsequently tried to deport the entire family, at first to Iran, and then to Vietnam.

Khadem’s application for refugee status was finally rejected. He had no opportunity to appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal. If he had done so the outcome might have been very different, because the Tribunal frequently reverses negative decisions by the Immigration Department regarding asylum applications.

Khadem was forced to return to Indonesia. His treatment, particularly the enforced three-year separation from his family, left a reservoir of unspeakable bitterness. The available evidence indicates that it was only at this point that he became an organiser for the people smugglers.

A flurry of opportunism

The Four Corners program clearly demonstrated that the people smuggler trade is greedy, vicious, deceptive and manipulative, and that Khadem is now a participant. But part of the responsibility for his involvement lies with the former Howard government.

In order to gain the electoral support of conservative voters the Howard regime, and the Labor governments that followed it, have participated in a cynical, opportunistic political game that demonises asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Both parties adopted mandatory detention and off-shore processing of applications for asylum. These policies in effect punish the asylum seekers themselves rather than the people smugglers.

Moreover, in order to improve their claimed rate for people smuggler convictions, successive Australian governments have treated crew members of asylum seeker boats as people smugglers, which they clearly are not. This unscrupulous tactic has resulted in lengthy jail sentences for “offenders”, including many under-age youths, who have been detained in adult prisons.

The Refugee Action Coalition has also pointed out that many of those involved in the people smuggler trade were formerly asylum seekers themselves. This probably includes many whose treatment was as vindictive as that meted out to Abdul Khadem.

The desperation of those seeking asylum has been recently demonstrated by the Tamils travelling from Sri Lanka or India to the Cocos Islands, an even more dangerous voyage than the notorious trip from Indonesia to Christmas Island.

There are ways of ensuring that asylum seekers don’t undertake such journeys. The Australian government could, for example, invite applications from asylum seekers in Indonesia and elsewhere, and fly those in financial distress to Australia for processing of applications, under a “pay later” arrangement. This would also be far cheaper than the present arrangement, providing extra funds for processing applications with minimum delays. It would also put the people smugglers out of business.

Implementation of mandatory detention and off-shore processing has been a tragic failure.

Last week was International Refugee Week. The Greens, asylum seeker support groups and many other organisations around Australia have called for the major parties to abandon mandatory detention and off-shore processing.

The indications are that neither will do so. After the Four Corners program was shown both major parties simply renewed their battle over their equally-repulsive versions of the off-shore detention policy.

The only way for the nation to live up to the high ideals of the UN Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, is for other more humane parties and alliances to gain office. And the sooner the better.  

Next article – Editorial – Unions and corporations law

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