Australia nightmare for asylum seekers

January 26, 2000


Australia nightmare for asylum seekers

Australia: nightmare for asylum seekers

By Anthony Brown

BRISBANE - Kurdo is not his real name. Like the other asylum seekers at the Refugee Claimants Centre in West End, you don't reveal their identities lest they suffer the wrath of a department of immigration renowned for its vindictiveness.

Kurdo is at the end of his tether. He fled Turkey several years ago seeking sanctuary in Australia. Involved in the pro-democracy movement in his native Kurdistan, he ended up in a Turkish police barracks where idle policemen tortured him with deviant pleasure.

He fled Turkey for the first country he could get into. It happened to be Australia. He hoped Australia would understand his plight and offer him protection. He never thought for a moment that his nightmare would be extended here.

Kurdo's experience in Australia is a familiar one. You hear a similar story from all the men, women and children who come to the Refugee Claimants Centre.

Instead of seeking asylum as soon as he arrived in Australia, Kurdo hesitated, terrified of the authorities. His English was poor, compounding his fear. He could barely scrape two words together when he first arrived.

He didn't, couldn't mix with Australians. His fear made him want to hide away from the world, to be invisible.

But when his money ran out and he faced sleeping on the street, he went into a police station and, subduing his anxiety, pleaded for asylum.

He ended up at the South Brisbane Immigration and Community Legal Centre. Like all such services, its funding from the government is limited and its resources are stretched beyond reasonable capacity.

The centre's staff work grinding 60-hour weeks. Most of its lawyers are volunteers. It is the only legal service in Queensland providing a specific service to refugee claimants.

To gain asylum in Australia, you make an application to the department of immigration for a protection visa. The application is a lengthy document in which a refugee claimant has to justify why they are seeking asylum. They have to prove that they are escaping persecution in their homeland and that they are "genuine" refugees.

The department then assesses the case. Its decision in most cases is negative. Many asylum seekers say they were shocked to discover that the department's officers were ignorant of the basic history, geography and political situations of their home countries.

After being knocked back, you can apply to the Refugee Review Tribunal to review your case.

Solicitors acting on behalf of asylum seekers often criticise the department and the tribunal for being insensitive and arrogantly ignorant of the plight of their clients. Often, officials don't understand the fear refugees have of being returned to their own countries and treat them with contempt. Some even allege that there is the shadow of the white Australia policy behind decisions.

If the Refugee Review Tribunal makes a negative decision, which it does more often than not, you can appeal to immigration minister Philip Ruddock. Ruddock has more than once described refugee claimants in Australia as "queue jumpers", so you can imagine how sympathetic the good minister would be.

You can then appeal to the Federal Court, or even the High Court, if you can afford the hefty legal bill involved (which most refugee claimants can't).

All this can take years and the waiting takes its toll on many refugee claimants. Many suffer from clinical depression; some end up in hospital, their minds no longer able to cope with the constant waiting, the fear of rejection and the fear of returning to the horror they thought they had escaped. A common story heard at the Refugee Claimants Centre is that people can't sleep. They can't rest. They can't stop thinking about what might happen.

The South Brisbane Immigration and Community Legal Centre put Kurdo in contact with the Refugee Claimants Centre. The latter has become a sanctuary for refugee claimants in Brisbane. It provides free English lessons and work skills training. It helps people find much needed accommodation and jobs if they are allowed to work here.

But the centre does more than just provide material support to refugee claimants. It has also become a place where refugee claimants can meet other claimants, swap stories, make friends and support each other.

The centre has also begun lobbying politicians, the media and the general public about the plight of the people who come to it, many of whom have fled war and terror in their home countries, such as Sri Lanka, China, Russia, Ethiopia, and Lebanon.

The workers at the centre don't get paid much and depend on goodwill to keep going. The centre gets most of its funds from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd and staff often contribute their own money and time to keep the centre going and ensure that claimants don't go hungry.

Because of an absurd rule brought in by the federal Coalition government, many of the asylum seekers aren't allowed to work. Because they cannot work, they cannot receive Medicare assistance or social security benefits. They are not even allowed to do voluntary work. They survive on hand-outs.

Because Kurdo did not seek asylum within 45 days of coming to Australia, he is forbidden from working in Australia while his case is heard. Unable to work, he has been forced to live off the goodwill of church and community workers in West End.

Not being able to work has affected Kurdo's self-esteem. He feels inadequate and that he has too much time to think. He feels like a parasite. Sometimes he thinks he is going mad.

All this in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

[The Refugee Claimants Centre is always looking for help to raise much-needed funds. It gets nothing from the government. If you have the time and would like to help, please contact Miriam on (07) 3846 5322.]

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