September 2006



By David Corlett

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In 2001, at the height of the refugee debate, the Edmund Rice Centre (ERC), a Sydney-based social-justice organisation funded by the Catholic Church, produced a pamphlet called ‘Debunking the Myths About Asylum Seekers’. The pamphlet challenged some of the key claims that the federal government was making about recently arrived boat-people. The Immigration Department soon produced a response, a document entitled ‘Debunking “Debunking the Myths”’.

In 2004, the ERC published a report, Deported to Danger. Its researchers interviewed 40 rejected asylum seekers who had been removed from Australia, and found that all but a handful had been sent to situations of insecurity and danger. It also discovered that Australian officials had engaged in activities that were tantamount to people-smuggling, including encouraging failed asylum seekers to obtain false travel documents and supporting them to leave Australia and enter third countries on those documents.

The failed asylum seekers to whom the ERC spoke did not trust – possibly even feared – the Australian government. They did not want to give identifying details to the same authorities that had returned them to the circumstances in which they now found themselves. They felt that to identify themselves might increase the risk they faced.

So while the ERC did not routinely pass on the personal details of all its interviewees, it did do so when it could. The Immigration Department received, for example, the details of Matuse Calado. After being deported from Australia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Matuse, an Angolan political activist, was taken back to Angola, where he was jailed for nine months. A family member managed to bribe Matuse’s way out of jail, enabling him to escape and travel to London where, within months, he was granted asylum.

Then there was Mubarak Nayef who, after almost three years in Port Hedland, was put on a flight to Syria, where he had no right to live and where he was jailed. He is now a refugee in Canada. In neither of these cases, according to the men themselves, had the Australian government sought to interview or contact them to investigate their claims.

Which brings us to the most recent work of the ERC. Just before the House of Representatives voted on the government’s new migration bill, the ERC released preliminary findings from a recent trip to Afghanistan. This time, their researchers had found that “as many as 9 men returned from Nauru may have been killed, and 3 children of people sent back from Nauru can be confirmed as having been killed.”

The ERC went to Afghanistan in part because of private recommendations from Immigration Department officials. Nonetheless, the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, rejected the ERC’s findings in an aggressive and dismissive fashion. The organisation had made allegations such as these before, she said. These previous assertions were unsubstantiated and anonymous and, because of this, the Immigration Department was unable to investigate them.

The head of the ERC, Phil Glendenning, was perplexed when I asked him about this. “We haven’t discovered this stuff by accident,” he said. “There are good people within the Department of Immigration who have pointed to certain areas where they have grave concerns for the safety of people that the Department has sent back. We’ve gone there and confirmed what they said to us.”

One of those the ERC named was Mohammed Mussa Nazari. In December 2003, I spoke to Mussa’s brother via satellite phone from Malistan district, in Ghazni province, Afghanistan. Then, in the following month, I spoke about him with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canberra. The UNHCR confirmed Mussa’s death, but was inconclusive about the reasons behind it. Mussa’s brother, though, had told me that Afghanistan was again in the grip of ethnic violence and generalised lawlessness, and that Mussa had been murdered because he was a minority Hazara. Mussa’s brother also said that Mussa may have been targeted because he was ‘famous’ for having returned from a Western country.

Another of those listed in the ERC’s latest findings was Yolanda Azim, a nine-year-old girl. In 2001, her father, Abdul Azim Rahim, told Australian authorities that he was at risk if he returned to Afghanistan, because he was a member of a family that had been prominent in the communist Najibullah government. He was further worried because he was a Hazara and had married a Pashtoon. The authorities on Christmas Island accepted his claims. But around the time of the Tampa incident, Azim was taken from Christmas Island to NauruAfghanistan. where, it would seem, his case was reprocessed and his application rejected. He was eventually compelled to return to

In January this year, his house was blown up, killing Yolanda and injuring her younger sister Rona, and their mother and grandmother. Rona, who was six, later died. They were not killed in a random act of violence, the ERC says. Rather, the family was targeted for the precisely the reasons that Azim had given to the Australian officials, or because returnees from Western countries are commonly the victims of anti-government extremists in Afghanistan.

According to Phil Glendenning, Azim’s story ‘checked out’ with both local non-government organisations and other returnees to whom the ERC researchers spoke. Furthermore, the ERC has reproduced on its website, along with a translation, a report of the bombing from the Sahar newspaper in Afghanistan. There seems little reason to doubt the veracity of the ERC’s account of the Azim tragedy. (I was once employed on a research project supported by the ERC, and have every reason to believe the legitimacy of their findings.)

However, instead of taking seriously these claims, Amanda Vanstone attempted to discredit them. “Pinch yourself,” she told Fran Kelly, who raised the findings on Radio National’s Breakfast, “Come into reality.” Vanstone seemed particularly annoyed at the release of these findings just before parliament’s debate about the legislation to extend the Pacific Solution – and for good reason, for they demonstrate deep problems with Australia’s offshore processing regime.

Of the 524 Afghans that Australia returned to their homeland by the end of June 2004, nearly 80 per cent had been detained as part of the Pacific Solution. Indeed, more than half of the Afghans caught in the Pacific Solution were bullied into returning. Had Mohammed Mussa Nazari, Abdul Azim Rahim, and the hundreds of other Afghans processed offshore had their refugee cases assessed in Australia, they would have had access to independent legal advice, to an independent review of their claims, to judicial oversight of the process by which their cases were assessed.

Furthermore, they would have had the opportunity, had their cases for protection been rejected through the refugee-determination process, to appeal to the Immigration Minister to grant them humanitarian visas. They would also have been able to draw on the support of members of the Australian community. Together, these things might have helped to ensure that Mussa, Abdul and the others did not return to danger and death.

The ERC’s research is the most recent contribution to a body of evidence which suggests that Australia’s response to asylum seekers over the past decade has had consequences that are truly terrible. The full perversion of rhetoric about preventing ‘queue jumpers’ and providing protection to the world’s ‘most vulnerable’ comes into focus when faced with the reality that Australia has returned human beings who have sought protection here to countries where they have been mistreated and, in some instances, killed. This is clearly contrary to Australia’s international obligations and something that a civilised nation ought not to do.

But there is further reason for concern – if further reason is required – for those who take seriously Australian political and cultural life: the behaviour of the Immigration Minister. Not only has she tried to shoot the messenger, but also her response to the findings of the ERC has been an attempt at moral obfuscation. This might have been surprising. Vanstone did not create the Pacific Solution; she inherited it. The real villains in this story ought to be John Howard and Philip Ruddock. Indeed, Vanstone has gone some way to cleaning up the mess left by her predecessor, instigating the Palmer inquiry into the wrongful detention of Cornelia Rau and the Comrie investigation into the deportation of Vivian Solon. Vanstone has begun an attempt to change the defensive and presumptive culture of the Immigration Department.

Yet her response to the ERC’s findings was entirely consistent with a sensibility that she had demonstrated almost three years earlier. In 2003, when confronted by the fact of Mohammed Mussa Nazari’s murder, Vanstone sought to defend her government’s refugee-protection credentials. Mussa’s “death in a robbery almost a year after [his return],” she told the Senate, “is tragic but casts no doubt on the reliability of his refugee determination” – as if returning a man to a situation of lawlessness and ethnic violence in which it was entirely possible that he would be murdered was acceptable.

In response to the most recent findings, Vanstone told the Senate, “It would not surprise me if, out of the millions and millions of displaced people from Afghanistan who have returned to Afghanistan with support from the United Nations since 2001 or 2002, not all of them at this point are alive.” The moral world from which this statement emanates ought to be deeply troubling. We, as a nation, have no control over the fate of the millions of people in post-Taliban Afghanistan. What we did have was an opportunity to rescue a few people who came to Australia and sought our protection. Instead, we brutalised them in our detention centres and then turned them away to insecurity and death

It is a neat irony that the question of asylum seekers – the issue which, in effect, won Howard the 2001 election – is the same one that has divided his government more publicly than any other. The scrapping of the latest migration bill is a positive development. But the government’s hardline asylum-seeker policy remains; the Pacific Solution, with its assumptions of territorial exclusion, continues. The mandatory-detention regime persists, albeit with some changes brought about by the Georgiou group in June 2005. The temporary-protection regime is ongoing, as is the denial of entitlements to asylum seekers who apply from within the Australian community.

And still, despite the troublesome Edmund Rice Centre, the federal government continues to deny, evade or ignore the questions raised by the fates of Mohammed Mussa Nazari, and Yoland and Rola Azim.

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