After fleeing and risking everything to seek asylum under Australia's laws, Iranian refugees now face being singled out and persecuted once again. This time, by the Australian Labor government.
New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd labelled “a whole bunch of people” as “economic migrants” who “comport as refugees”. Foreign affairs minister Bob Carr said boat arrivals are “increasingly not people fleeing persecution” because they are from “majority religious and ethnic groups”.
He targeted people from the “Iranian middle class” and made it clear that tougher refugee assessments could deny many Iranians protection.
He said there had "been some boats where 100 per cent of them have been people who are fleeing countries where ... their motivation is altogether economic".
About one-third of refugees that have arrived in Australia by boat this year say they are from Iran, a conservative and religious nation subject to harsh sanctions imposed by the United States and many Western countries.
Their stories vary, because Iranian society is home to people of many ethnicities and backgrounds, but most have suffered under a combination of the restrictions of sanctions, brutal authorities and social prejudice and poverty.
A young Iranian now held in the Manus Island detention centre feared kidnapping and torture in Iran for playing heavy metal music. His passion for music meant he had to flee to save his life.
An Iranian Shiite Muslim, from the country's ethnic majority, told a Fairfax journalist in Indonesia that he was also passionate about rock music and the Iranian authorities had him “jailed repeatedly for subversion and branded an Israeli and American spy”.
A big group of men now held in the Nauru detention camp are Kurdish Iranians, which make up about 15% of Iranian citizens. Kurdish people face discrimination, entrenched poverty and widespread violence.
From inside Nauru’s detention centre, an Iranian man told Green Left Weekly that his family was driven into poverty by the effects of the sanctions. When his brother spoke out against the government he was abducted and killed. Authorities began visiting his house every day. “That is when I knew I had to go,” he said.
These individuals and many like them all have a well-founded fear of persecution or violence in their home country, based on who they were no matter whether they are from the majority ethnic group, a minority group, or “middle class”.
Their fear and suffering are genuine. This is the internationally agreed definition of what it means to be a refugee entitled to protection which the Australian government has agreed to under multiple conventions.
Indeed, before their refugee claims were stopped being accepted in August last year, most Iranian refugees were among the 90% of asylum seekers arriving by boat that have been found to be genuine refugees under Australia's assessment process.
Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Trigg told Lateline on July 1 this showed Carr was “making an assumption for which there’s no evidence”.
Richard Towle from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Carr’s claims should be tested. He said: “You can’t talk about patterns since August of last year because they haven’t processed any of the Iranian cases”.
Yet Carr’s and Rudd’s comments have implied Australia’s system is currently too lenient and more people arriving by boat should be refused protection.
Australia’s refugee determination system is now under “independent” review. Carr’s assertion that people from religious or ethnic “majorities” couldn’t claim to be persecuted and that Australia should be “more hard-edged” indicates a dangerous narrowing of Australia’s definitions and could begin rejecting more refugees.
While newly appointed immigration minister Tony Burke refused to agree with Carr’s claims that “middle-class” Iranians can’t be persecuted, Fairfax said Australia was already talking to Iran and the UN refugee agency about being able to return failed refugees.
Carr targeted Iranians because the reality of the sanctions on Iran and the prospects of the newly elected, ostensibly more “moderate” government are little understood.
The sanctions are considered by many Iranians to be a “silent war” on Iran, the costs of which are drastically under-reported in Western media.
The term “economic migrant” is a heavily twisted and racist label used to turn the public against asylum seekers, most of whom do have a genuine fear of persecution but will now find it more difficult to prove their case.
Many Tamils from Sri Lanka have also been branded “economic migrants”. This was started by Liberal politicians such as opposition deputy leader Julie Bishop and Liberal immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison, whose “fact-finding” visits to Sri Lanka were used at platform to malign Tamil refugees.
The persecution of Tamils in Sri Lanka has widely been called a genocidal, and Bishop and Morrison could arguably be accused of covering up war crimes.
Labor’s use of this rhetoric is essentially mimicking the Liberal’s fear-mongering that it has used for more than two years.
Rudd’s pledge to reject and deport people Labor deems to be “economic migrants” has to be viewed as an attack on all refugees and an indication of how far to the right he is prepared to go.