The Guardian April 30, 2003


Court rejects callous government refugee policies

by Peter Mac

The Federal Court last week decided that people deemed not to be refugees, 
but unable to return home, could not legally be held in detention 
centres.

The unanimous decision means that up to 100 detainees should now be 
released, barring further government appeals. The decision may also provide 
grounds for the original subject of the case, 25-year old Palestinian Akram 
al Masri, to charge the government with unlawful imprisonment.

The issue is highly relevant for eight people recently detained in solitary 
confinement at Baxter Detention Centre. They'd committed no offence, but 
were imprisoned simply because the centre's management considered they 
might become involved in a disturbance over Easter.

In another significant event, Afghan asylum seeker Nohib Sarwari has 
finally been reunited with his family at Launceston after months of 
separation. The family was imprisoned at Baxter last year, although they'd 
lived and worked in Launceston for a year.

Mrs Sarwari and the four children were later released, but the government 
detained Mr Sarwari, alleging he was actually from Pakistan, not 
Afghanistan.

The people of Launceston, with whom the family was very popular, raised 
enough money to send an investigator to Afghanistan to prove Sarwari's 
nationality. The Refugee Review Tribunal subsequently agreed to release 
him, albeit with a $30,000 surety, which the Launceston community 
immediately raised.

The issue of human rights has also been highlighted by the possible arrival 
of more asylum seekers.

A boatload of 30 to 40 Vietnamese asylum seekers, including ten small 
children, went without food for three days before reaching Indonesia, which 
they've now been forced to pass.

They have no navigation or communications equipment, and insufficient fuel 
to reach Australia. Their old and rickety boat is likely to sink and if 
they're not rescued by the Australian Navy or another ship, they'll die at 
sea.

Even if they are located by the Navy, they're likely to be taken to a 
remote detention centre in Nauru. There they'll languish indefinitely (in 
effect as prisoners), at the behest of the Howard Government.

The plight of these people, whom Immigration Minister Ruddock 
contemptuously dismissed as on an "opportunistic venture", has once again 
brought into focus the callousness and racism of the government's human 
rights policy.

Federal Attorney-General Darryl Williams recently stormed out of a meeting 
with his state and territory counterparts after they raised the human 
rights aspects of three proposed pieces of Commonwealth legislation.

The first involves the government's intention to override UN stipulations 
concerning the banning of deemed terrorist organisations. The second 
concerns a requirement for legal aid lawyers to obtain security clearances 
before acting in cases involving national security.

The third, which finally caused Williams to lose his cool, involved a 
proposed requirement for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 
to obtain the Attorney-General's permission to intervene in cases such as 
the Tampa affair.

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