Cruel policy splits families

Issue 

The Coalition government presents itself as the champion of families. Its election manifesto stated: "Strong families are the bedrock of society. A supportive family is the greatest source of emotional stability and social development anyone can have."

How hypocritical and hollow those words rang when I met Carissa Hulands, Mohamed Selhab and their three beautiful daughters Halima, Amina and Jasmine. As I sat in their Sefton home in Sydney's western suburbs, I was moved by the bond between the children and their father, who played with them while I spoke to Carissa. The tragedy is that the government is intent on breaking up this young family and deporting Mohamed within a matter of months.

Carissa told me of the agony they had been through since she married Mohamed two-and-a-half years ago. Mohamed fled from Algeria in 1994 to avoid being forced to serve in the army. He sought asylum in Australia in 1998.

He came from South Africa on a false passport. A lot of Algerians came to Australia the same way and most were granted refugee status. Mohamed was very unlucky. His application for refugee status was rejected. His appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) was also rejected — the member hearing his appeal did not believe his story.

Mohamed was tried in absentia by an Algerian court in November 1996, and found guilty of being a "runaway". Carissa showed me a copy of the court document, which states that Mohamed was sentenced to death. Mohamed's brother obtained the court document and sent it to them at the end of 1999, which meant that it wasn't available as evidence for Mohamed's initial asylum application or his RRT hearing.

Mohamed spent 22 months in Villawood detention centre. During that time he participated in a hunger strike and became so sick that he had to be hospitalised. He was granted a "Type E" bridging visa, which prohibits work, study, social security and Medicare. Mohamed has spent the past four years on bridging visas, which he has had to renew every three to six months (and sometimes as often as every few weeks).

Mohamed appealed to the immigration minister Amanda Vanstone on November 12, 2003, to consider his right to stay on compassionate public interest grounds. A reply on June 29 stated that the minister "has decided not to consider the exercise of her power in this case". Carissa doesn't know whether this means the minister even looked at Mohamed's case, or whether it was screened out by an immigration department officer. "One person should not have the power to decide people's lives", Carissa said angrily. "To her, we're just a piece of paper."

There is no question that the family meets the guidelines necessary to have an appeal heard. According to the immigration department these include: "Circumstances that may bring Australia's obligations as a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights into consideration, e.g. Article 23, which says the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, and is entitled to protection by society and state" and "Strong compassionate circumstances such that failure to recognise them would result in irreparable harm and continuing hardship to an Australian family unit ... or an Australian citizen."

"The law has to change", said Carissa. "You can meet all the guidelines, but there is nothing in the law which says your case has to be considered ... I thought I had all these rights as an Australian citizen, but I have no rights. No-one will help me! What's the point of being a citizen of a country when that country won't protect you?

"I spoke to a friend last night, and she told me she'd spoken to people she worked with who couldn't believe that Mohamed didn't automatically get his papers because we were married. At the beginning, that's what I'd thought as well — that I could marry whoever I wanted to and he could live with me."

In January, Mohamed received a bill for $29,596.36 — the cost of his detention. The letter stated that he was liable to pay the fee in full within 30 days. During the same month he received a bill for $5500, the cost of his Federal Court appeal. The stress of receiving the two letters sent Carissa into premature labour. She wasn't able to see Halima for 12 hours after her birth, and when Halima was three weeks old Carissa had to stop breastfeeding so she could take medication for depression. She has not been able to bond properly with her baby yet, something that causes her enormous distress.

Carissa phoned the immigration department and asked if she could make arrangements to pay the debt off gradually. She was told they would have to pay $2000 upfront, after which they could discuss repayment options. Their lawyer told them they could apply for the debts to be waived given their financial situation. They have heard nothing since sending off the application.

On August 17, some men from the immigration department knocked on Carissa's door. She panicked, assuming they had come to deport Mohamed. They didn't tell her until the end of the visit that they had just come to drop off a letter. When she told them they should have told her what their visit was for, they simply laughed. Carissa had very strong abdominal pain that night, and when she went to see a doctor it was confirmed that she was around 7-10 weeks pregnant.

On October 5, Carissa's doctor discovered that the foetus she was carrying had been dead for around 10 weeks. Carissa told me of the deep distress she suffered at the thought of carrying a dead baby for so long, without even realising it. "Usually your body gets rid of a dead baby straight away, but my body didn't pick up on it for ages, probably because of the stress I was under."

The family has had numerous letters of support written by politicians, including former Liberal member for Parramatta Ross Cameron, who told the October 4 Australian: "I am going to write [to the immigration minister] seeking a reconsideration of the case in the light of changed circumstances — namely the wife's pregnancy." The timing could not have been worse. Cameron lost his seat five days later.

On October 13, Mohamed's bridging visa expired. He was asked to go into the immigration department's compliance office by himself the next day. Carissa refused to let him, terrified that they would deport him. Carissa phoned Vanstone's office, and was reassured by the man she spoke to that Mohamed's deportation didn't affect her or her children, because they were all Australian citizens and could remain here. Carissa couldn't believe her ears, and told him exactly how the stress of potentially losing her husband had affected her, explaining that she had a miscarriage. To her horror, the man told her he didn't care.

A journalist from the Australian made repeated enquiries to the immigration minister's office about Mohamed's status. Carissa is convinced that it was this probing that ensured that he was eventually granted another bridging visa until November 12. It was issued on the understanding that Mohamed will make every effort to get an Algerian passport, something that will be almost impossible for him to do by the required deadline. The nearest Algerian embassy is in Indonesia, and among the documents required for the issue of a passport are a birth certificate, a passport, a certificate of nationality and a national identity card, none of which Mohamed has.

Carissa and Mohamed have exhausted all legal avenues they know of. Carissa is angry and depressed, shocked at the way the country she was born in and calls home could treat her marriage with such indifference. She doesn't know what the future holds. She told me that Mohamed still has nightmares about what happened in Algeria. He is very distressed about what will happen to him. Carissa wonders if he will be killed or jailed if he is forced to return.

"Yasmine asks questions all the time. Whenever we're driving in Parramatta she asks if we're going to immigration. She refers to them as 'stupid people'. She gets upset at night, before she goes to sleep. She's started to wet the bed, which is a sign of stress. She doesn't understand why they want to take her dad away. How do you explain to a five-year-old what's happened if they do take Mohamed away?"

Sarah Stephen

From Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2004.
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