Involuntarily repatriation of Iranian asylum seekers
By Catherine McMahon
May 16, 2003
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
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
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
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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