The governments of Australia and Afghanistan have struck a deal to send back rejected Afghan asylum seekers against their will.
Australia promised $5.8 million to the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai to “improve the passport system” and fund resettlement, but has been condemned for neglecting the interests of refugees themselves.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen signed the deal with a minister of the corrupt Karzai regime on January 17. Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation Dr Jamaher Anwary was in Sydney to take part in talks on “people smuggling”.
The Oceania representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Richard Towle, also signed the deal.
Refugee advocates have condemned the agreement, saying the Karzai government was illegitimate and Afghanistan was still a war zone.
The next day, more than 300 Afghan refugees in Curtin detention centre launched a hunger strike.
The refugees said poor treatment, processing delays and lack of a fair legal process triggered the hunger strike. The rising rate of failed asylum requests of refugees in Curtin has also caused distress.
A message from inside Curtin, sent to refugee rights activists, said every detainee was “boycotting the mess”.
The message said: “Last week only three people got a decision [on their case for asylum], all of them ‘No’… Now the Australian government is sending us back to that country. It is like signing an agreement with our enemy. Is that humanity?
“We want freedom or death, protection not detention.”
Refugee support group RISE (Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees) said that by January 19, 350 men in Curtin sat outside overnight, refusing to eat. They held placards that read: “Where are our human rights” and “Stop playing games with our lives”.
Reports of suicide attempts have also emerged.
Despite UN-authored reports showing a rise in violence in Afghanistan over the past 12 months, in December Towle said Australia needed to deport rejected asylum seekers and not leave them “sitting in detention centres”, AAP said on December 19.
But Edmund Rice Centre president Phil Glendenning, writing in the January 19 Age online, said Afghans returned from Australia would be in “grave jeopardy”.
“Last year was the most violent in Afghanistan since 2001, and most victims of the increased violence were civilians, especially women and children,” he said.
The new deal includes guidelines for sending back separated and unaccompanied children. In December, the number of children in detention in Australia rose above 1000.
Bowen said the agreement was part of Australia’s “tough” stance on so-called people smuggling, and part of a strategy to stop asylum seeker boats arriving.
But Sydney’s Refugee Action Collective (RAC) said the agreement was hypocritical.
RAC spokesperson Ian Rintoul said: “The government has already reneged on one commitment of the agreement. Section 3(c) of the [agreement] refers to an ‘independent merits review’ for Afghan asylum seekers but the recent announcement of the government has removed merits review appeals from the determination process.
“There is no adequate monitoring process in the [agreement] to ensure the safety of anyone returning to Afghanistan. Too many mistakes have been made in the past with the Australian government returning asylum seekers to danger and death.”
Australian and Western media grossly underreport the extent of atrocities in Afghanistan.
In June, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said violence in Afghanistan was near its worst level in the nine-year war, with an “alarming” rise in bomb and suicide attacks, reported Reuters.
By December he said: “Afghanistan is less safe now than 10 years ago, less safe now for civilians than in any year since 2001.”
Glendenning said: “A recent background briefing on Afghanistan from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees includes a report from aid agencies titled Afghanistan: humanitarian situation likely to worsen in 2011.”
The UNHCR reviewed its international protection “guidelines” for Afghanistan in March, but did not change or downgrade its assessment. Towle himself said in October that many parts of Afghanistan remained “extremely dangerous”.
Australia’s own travel advice website, Smartraveller.gov.au, lists Afghanistan as one of only 11 countries under the status “do not travel”.
It said: “We strongly advise you not to travel to Afghanistan because of the extremely dangerous security situation and the very high threat of terrorist attack.”
“If you are in Afghanistan, you should consider leaving.”