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Down Under's shadow
Involuntarily repatriation of Iranian asylum seekers

By Catherine McMahon
May 16, 2003
The Iranian

For most of my life, I have been delighted to be Australian and wonderfully glad arriving home from my overseas travels. Our landscapes are incredibly old and incredibly beautiful. Our people have a warm and generous spirit but like all nations and people we have a "shadow" side and our conservative Government has tapped those ugly energies in our national psyche to demonise a small group of asylum seekers who sought refuge in Australia via leaky boats from Indonesia.

This is the story of how a young Iranian couple have not received a "fair go" (supposedly a national virtue in Australia) and how the Australian Government has an agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran to involuntarily repatriate Iranian asylum seekers.

The original inhabitants of Australia now constitute less than 2% of the Australian population, so we are overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants. Over half a million refugees have been resettled in Australia since 1945. In the 1990s it was a source of pride that Australia was a multicultural and generally harmonious nation.

However acceptance has not come readily for migrants to Australia, from earlier generations of migrants. The descendants of early migrants did not always welcome the Greeks, the Italians, the German Jews who came to Australia after the Second World War. A community that was very unsure of its connection to the Asia Pacific region viewed with suspicion the Vietnamese boat people who fled South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War. Progressively though each new wave of migrants has succeeded and been accepted into Australia. But we have never let go of some underlying suspicion and fear of the "other".

Commencing in mid 1999 there were an unprecedented number of boats, operated by people smugglers that made their way to Australia's shores from Indonesia. Internationally, a well publicised story concerned a Norwegian ship, the Tampa, which in August 2001 rescued 438 people from a boat in distress in the Indian Ocean and was then denied access to Australian waters to land its passengers.

Our Government trumpeted: "Australia will decide who comes to Australia" and they spoke of terrorists coming into our midst and our nation potentially facing an unrelenting flood of people unless we took some strong preventive measures. Asylum seekers were labelled "queue jumpers", people who threw their children overboard (later revealed as a scandalous lie), people who would not come through the appropriate channels and who denied much more worthy people of a home in Australia.

Our Government greatly exaggerated the availability of "queues" and Australia's contribution to assisting refugees worldwide. In 2000/01 Australia had 13,105 asylum applicants, compared to say Germany's 117,648 and the USA's 48,054. Our population was encouraged to be indifferent to the plight of asylum seekers and punitive in our response. The Government, with the support of the major Opposition party, undertakes mandatory detention of asylum seekers while they are being assessed as refugees.

In December 2000, Peter and Mary (obviously not their real names) arrived in Australia after a terrifying 25-day journey in a small unsuitable boat from Indonesia. Peter and Mary are professional people with skills in high demand in Australia and they could have sought to come to Australia as professionals or for further study. Instead, out of necessity, they came as asylum seekers.

In October 2000, Peter and Mary had returned to Iran after studying overseas for some years, and when searched at the airport in Tehran, were found to have spiritual material in their luggage. They were detained. Peter was beaten and both were charged with apostasy. They fled Iran without their passports, which had been confiscated.

Locked up in a detention centre, in a remote part of the north west of Australia, without access to the internet and with no independent legal advice, the Department of Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) case officer heard their story, accused them of being liars and decided that they did not qualify for refugee status. It was assumed that they had left Iran for economic reasons.

The Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) decided it was implausible that Peter and Mary would have travelled into Iran with spiritual material that would be considered anti-Islamic and therefore ruled that they had not been charged and would not be at risk if they returned to Iran. An appeal was made to the Minister of Immigration who relied on the case officer's and the RRT's assessment.

Our own experience is that Peter and Mary are very honest and forthright, highly intelligent and personally aware but bewildered and angry and hurt that the Australian authorities do not believe them. If they had left Iran for economic reasons they have had ample opportunity in the 2.5 years they have been in detention to reconsider and return home. Evidence is available to support their story, and some of it could have been sought by DIMIA.

My partner and I, alerted by friends interstate, met Peter and Mary in January of this year after they were transferred to a high security detention centre in Port Augusta, 350 kms from our home in Adelaide, South Australia. Basically the centre is on the edge of the Australian desert.

The Baxter Immigration Detention Centre is managed by Australian Correctional Management, until recently a subsidiary of Wakenhut Corporation and now part of Group 4 Falck Global Solutions Pty Ltd (Group 4). The intention is to control every aspect of the asylum seekers lives. The asylum seekers live in rectangular compounds that provide no access to an outside view except for the sky above the building skyline.

Buses bring the asylum seekers to the visitors centre when they could readily walk the 100 or so metres. Cameras cover all areas used by the asylum seekers, except their own small rooms. There is a central locking system that is operated through a control centre and we are told staff spend 30% of their time waiting for doors and gates to be opened. Some asylum seekers, caught after seeking to escape from immigration detention centres, have found their time in our prison system preferable.

Visitors who attend the centre must on each occasion seek approval for the visit. We have left the centre at the end of the morning visit, only to return within the hour for the afternoon session and we go through the same procedure on each occasion provide three forms of identification, fill in an attendance book, have a wrist band attached, put all our belongings into a locker, have any snacks we are bringing scanned, go through an airport type scanning machine, be scanned with a hand monitor, altogether go through six locked doors, offer hand to be stamped for a fluorescent stamp, arrive at the visitors" centre where we wait for Peter and Mary who may come in 15 minutes or an hour.

While there are legal procedures we are seeking to pursue, for DIMIA Peter and Mary's case is closed. While there was some prospect of being released from the detention centre there was also it seemed no chance of being returned to Iran because the Iranian government would not accept people who did not return voluntarily.

All that changed on the 12th March when the Australia's Immigration Minister announced that he had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Islamic Republic of Iran that encouraged voluntary repatriation of Iranians currently in detention in Australia and made "arrangements" for involuntary returns. There are approx 275 Iranian asylum seekers in Australian immigration detention centres and apparently the names of 136 people have been provided to the Iranian Embassy by DIMIA.

The MOU has not been made public because it is not in the "public interest." Two leading Australian newspapers The Age and the Financial Review (Friday, 2nd May) have suggested the Iranian government may be going along with creating "a credible threat of involuntary removal" however there is no guarantee of this.

My partner and I have written in March to Government Ministers and Members of Parliament asking how it serves Australia's strategic interests to have this MOU and how we can possibly justify it given the appalling human rights record of the Iranian regime but we are yet to receive the Government's reasoning.

As part of the process of wearing people down, so they would return voluntarily, the Iranian asylum seekers at the Baxter Immigration Detention centre were first informed about the MOU on March 23rd when they were about to begin Iranian New Year celebrations. They received their letters on 30th April and 1st May offering money to return voluntarily to Iran with the threat of involuntary return if they do not accept within 28 days.

When asked about their safety on return the asylum seekers were told that since they had not been accepted as refugees it was safe for them to return to Iran. They have since been told that if they are persecuted they can come and inform the Australian Embassy in Tehran. From late May 2003 the threat is that those who refuse the offer can be repatriated.

The effect on our friends was dramatic and we could see marked changes in Peter the weekend after he received his letter from the Department. They have direct experience from their first detention centre of two Palestinians being forcibly removed and returned "home". We fear for Peter and Mary's future and we feel saddened, embarrassed and outraged that our Government could be so indifferent to them and other Iranian asylum seekers.

The Australian Government is basking in the afterglow of US Government approval as a member of George W Bush's "coalition of the willing" and working hard to secure a free trade agreement with the USA. Your opinion will count! Please express your disapproval of the forced repatriation of Iranian asylum seekers in Australia through the Australian Embassy in Washington or to the Prime Minister of Australia, Parliament House, Canberra.

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