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 refugees! 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 guard. 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 community. 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 institution. 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 unaltered. 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 islands. O brave new world, that hath such ministers in it!