The Guardian April 17, 2002

Government flounders over cruel refugee policies

by Peter Mac

The Howard Government appears to be tying itself in knots in its attempts 
to introduce harsh and discriminatory new laws against asylum seekers.

Last week the High Court of Australia accepted an argument by a young 
mother, Naima Khawar, that she would face persecution and probably murder 
by her husband if forced to return to Pakistan. Before fleeing Pakistan she 
was savagely beaten by her husband who also doused her with petrol before 
neighbours rescued her.

The case has significant implications for all future applications for 
asylum in Australia, since it would widen the definition of a refugee.

By contrast, the Howard Government is determined to narrow that definition 
and last year it passed new laws blocking access to Australian courts for 
new migration cases.

Unswayed by any humane considerations, the Government opposed Mrs Khawar's 
case, arguing that to accept her appeal would only "encourage" new 

The Government is now considering introducing laws to tie the hands of the 
judiciary in determining the refugee status of applicants for asylum. After 
the court's decision in favour of Mrs Kahwar, the Minister for Immigration 
Philip Ruddock blustered, "If the courts have broadened the definition it's 
something the Parliament might have to look at!".

The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is a signatory) states that 
"States are not permitted to discriminate against refugees on the basis of 
their mode of arrival". Despite this, last year's amendments to the law on 
temporary protection visas may be interpreted to mean that no asylum seeker 
arriving by boat is eligible to receive permanent refugee status.

This in turn could mean that if the government so decided, none of the 
"boat people" would ever receive permanent residency or the right to family 
reunion and full citizenship.

The bill is also suspect on at least two other legal grounds, and is likely 
to be subject to court challenges in the near future.

The Howard Government has therefore moved to introduce legislation that 
would remove the right of refugees to natural justice, even though this has 
been assessed by at least one expert as unconstitutional.

In another case of government callousness, a young Afghani asylum seeker, 
Quader Fedayee, has been discharged from an Adelaide psychiatric hospital 
into the community in the care of a fellow refugee, but accompanied by a 

The move follows court action by the South Australian Public Advocate to 
have the man released rather than be forcibly returned to Woomera, where he 
developed acute depression.

The court's decision was opposed by the Department of Immigration, which 
did everything possible to stop the release. At one stage they claimed that 
proper forms had not been filled in and that Mr Fedayee would therefore 
have to remain in the hospital for another fortnight while his case was 
reconsidered by the Department.

After the court's decision, a lawyer representing Mr. Ruddock demanded that 
Mr Fedayee "must be in the company of a guard" at all times while in the 

The Government's rigid determination to demonise asylum seekers as would-be 
violators of our national sovereignty received another blow last week.

Under a work placement program some 90 Afghan men were employed in an 
abattoir in the NSW town of Young. The firm's business is booming, to the 
extent that prior to the arrival of the refugees they could not find enough 
local labour to meet the demand for their products. The refugees were 
greeted by the abattoir's manager as a "godsend".

However, their temporary protection visas are due to expire soon, and the 
firm virtually besieged the Department of Immigration demanding that the 
men be allowed to stay. Not wanting to make an exception from the rule, but 
not wanting to offend the world of big biz, the Government finally hit upon 
a solution truly worthy of the bizarre world of Gilbert and Sullivan.

The men are now to be sent (at the firm's expense) to a "third country" 
where they will apply to migrate back to Australia under the Regional 
Sponsorship Migration Program. The Government will "look favourably" on 
their applications, and they should be returned to their new homes  and 
their jobs  at lightning speed!

However, the detention centre issue remains a huge headache for the 
Government  not to mention the refugees. Faced with appalling publicity 
over the catastrophic effects of the detention centres on their inmates, 
the Government has moved to scale down (but not abolish) the Woomera 
Detention Centre and to close (but still maintain) the Curtin Centre.

The current inmates of Curtin, and some from Woomera, are to be rehoused at 
the new Baxter centre at Port Augusta. This new centre has been described 
as "purpose built" even though it has utilised portable housing from a 
former mining town, and as "more friendly" than its predecessors, even 
though, like them, it comprises cheerless regimented buildings in a barren, 
treeless location miles from human contact.

It has now been disclosed that the new centre has electrified fences, the 
first time such an installation has been used in an Australian detention 

Despite the immediate comparisons with Nazi concentration camps, the Howard 
Government has hastened to describe the move as a humane innovation.

However, the reality is simply that the Government hopes that desperate 
detainees will be less likely to fling themselves at such fences than at 
the infamous Woomera razor wire, and will be less likely to suffer 
immediate ser ious injury if they do. This aspect of the new centres will 
therefore lessen the risk of official embarrassment, and that's what the 
Government is really concerned about.

Despite the Government's shuffling of the detention centre locations, its 
policy of imposing mandatory detention for asylum seekers remains 

Meanwhile, the Government's asylum seeker policy has received further 
setbacks arising from the Australian Senate's enquiry into the "children 
overboard" affair.

Last week Admiral Peter Barrie admitted under questioning that a full month 
before last year's federal election he had informed Peter Reith that there 
were major "doubts" about the stories of asylum seekers throwing their 
children into the sea.

A senior navy officer also testified last week that one asylum seeker 
appeared to have been trying to protect his child, not to strangle him as 
had been previously reported.

There have also been disclosures that the Government has been sending tapes 
of interviews with refugees to Sweden for language assessment, in order to 
determine their place of origin.

A top Swedish linguist has described the method used in the analysis as 
"inconsistent, unscientific and unreliable". The Government has 
nevertheless stubbornly defended the use of the tests, which one member of 
the Refugee Review Tribunal described innocently as "a legitimate and very 
useful tool for determining claims".

And finally, in what can only be described as a national embarrassment, Mr 
Ruddock is currently overseas trying to persuade other countries to take 
responsibility for desperate asylum seekers who have tried to reach 
Australia's sunny shores without the right paperwork and are now being 
punished for their temerity by incarceration in camps on remote Pacific 

O brave new world, that hath such ministers in it!

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