'A nation hostile to its foundations'

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BY SARAH STEPHEN

Borderline: Australia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers
By Peter Mares
UNSW Press
240 pages, $32.95 pb

"There is a contradiction at the heart of Australian society", writes Peter Mares in Borderline. "Like the United States and Canada, Australia is one of the world's true immigrant countries. If we are not Aborigines, then we are migrants, or their recent descendants. Yet this is a nation hostile to its foundations."

Mares tackles the Australian government's misinformation about "people-smugglers". He notes that during the second world war, Danish fishermen charged Jewish refugees a fee for carrying them in their boats. "Jews trying to survive the Nazis could hardly afford to be choosy about their associates. The same is true of the boat people. Brokers who move people for money may be cynical, exploitative and cruel, yet they are meeting a real need."

Prime Minister John Howard and immigration minister Philip Ruddock declare that tougher laws will stamp out people-smuggling. Mares argues that people-smuggling will continue to thrive as long as there is a demand for their services: "It is the restrictions imposed on legal migration by developed nations that forge the demand for alternative, illicit routes."

Mares tells the story of Afghan refugee Khalil, a member of the minority Hazara people. He fled to Australia at the age of 18, leaving behind his parents and five younger brothers and sisters. His family scraped together US$5000 to send him out of Afghanistan because, as a young man of fighting age, he was at risk from the ruling Taliban militia.

"The fact that a person has money, or has access to money, does not invalidate their claim to refugee status, nor reduce their need for protection... for many Jews, being well-off did not save them from the concentration camps", Mares explains.

Mares explores the enormous restrictions built in to Australia's offshore selection of refugees for resettlement. Almost half the 1999-2000 intake were Europeans. This is because if a refugee has no family connections in Australia, has health problems, few skills and cannot speak English, their chances of being resettled are much lower.

There are enormous backlogs in processing claims. It takes, on average, 18 months for an applicant's paperwork to make it to the top of the pile. At that point, a refugee has, at best, a 20% chance of being accepted. If an applicant is not registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the resettlement request will usually be rejected.

"I asked Khalil why he did not try the 'legitimate' route, via the UNHCR and the Australian High Commission in Islamabad. He looks at me, somewhat incredulous at the naivety of my question. 'You know Pakistan supports the Taliban', he says. 'Afghan refugees are killed by Pakistani authorities in Pakistan'. Khalil says he is afraid of the guards who control the entrance to the UNHCR compound... 'How could I get inside the embassy or the UNHCR?', asks Khalil. The only way, he says, is by paying lots of money, 'thousands of dollars'."

Dr Nouria Salehi, an Afghan Australian who assists newly arrived refugees, estimates that 80% of Afghan refugees who arrived in Australia through "legitimate channels" have paid money to do so.

"Is greasing the palm of a gate-keeper to move your file along a bureaucratic chain more legitimate or less legitimate than paying a people-smuggler?", Mares asks.

Mares traces the toughening of Australia's policy towards the unauthorised arrival of asylum seekers since the late 1970s. He is critical of the discrimination built into the three-year temporary protection visas, introduced in 1999 and granted to refugees who arrive in Australia unlawfully. He is also scathingly critical of the way many bridging visas deny about 40% of asylum seekers the right to work, receive income support or access Medicare.

Anton, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, is an example. "For his first three years in Australia, Anton was able to work", Mares explains. "But DIMA [the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs] rejected Anton's application for asylum and when his appeal was also rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT), Anton's work rights lapsed. Eighteen months later, his money ran out. While he waits for the Federal Court to hear his case, Anton survives on the goodwill of others [and charity organisations]."

Many asylum seekers feel that their true story does not get heard, and that DIMA's focus is on destroying their credibility. Genuine refugees are rejected on the basis of minor inconsistencies in their testimony. One example cited by Mares: "An applicant from Pakistan ... claimed to be an Ahmadi facing religious persecution. The DIMA case-officer did not interview the applicant, made no inquiries about his faith, and yet rejected the application on the basis of credibility. The officer wrote simply: 'I have very great difficulty accepting the applicant's claim that he is an Ahmadi'."

Asylum seekers who have a poor understanding of the refugee determination process and who present limited information to DIMA at the first stage of assessment are often regarded with suspicion by the RRT when they provide more detailed information at their appeal hearings. The implication is that the extra detail has been fabricated.

There is enormous room for omission of important details in a refugee's initial application, Mares points out. "In order to prove a claim for refugee status, asylum seekers must pour out their life story to a complete stranger; this includes, above all, examples of any abuse or torture they have suffered. Women must recount their stories of rape; men must describe the humiliation of their floggings. A detail missed at this initial stage can prove disastrous, but there is pressure on migration agents to get the job done quickly because applications made from detention must be completed within three working days... migration agents and lawyers ... are expected to complete two or three visa applications every day."

In a chapter devoted to the intake of Kosovar and East Timorese refugees on temporary "safe-haven" visas, Mares quotes an article by Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan: "The ... Kosovars were flooded with offers of help and gestures of friendship. Business provided free clothes, free food, free meals, free tours. Cinemas offered free weekly tickets ... The Hobart newspaper, the Mercury, ran articles in Albanian. Far from being outcast, the Kosovars were taken in."

This example is a powerful example of the effect on public opinion when a government welcomes those in need, instead of vilifying and demonising them.

However, the Howard government was eager to return the Kosovars and Timorese as soon as possible. Mares recounts: "Officials pressured the [East Timorese] to leave, by alleging that revered resistance leader Xanana Gusmao was calling the centre every day and asking, 'When are my people coming home?'. In fact, Xanana Gusmao had asked the federal government to allow the refugees to remain in Australia until the situation in the territory had stabilised."

Mares is highly critical of the safe-haven visa, which requires an applicant to sign away the right to claim permanent protection as a condition of being approved.

Mares finishes with a chapter on alternatives and strategy. He explains the flaws of the 1951 UN refugee convention: it gives people facing persecution the right to claim asylum, but it does not oblige any nation to admit them so they can make that claim. The consequences of this contradiction is that refugees are forced to break the law to escape the threat of persecution.

Mares agrees that "it is possible to mount a defensible argument for scrapping border controls altogether... Removing those barriers would be a revolutionary step towards social justice." But he concludes: "Few of us are willing to such radicalism and there is not much point in advocating measures that have no chance of being implemented."

Mares proposes a strategy to undercut people smugglers. "In addition to targeted resettlement programs in crisis areas", Mares continues, "Australia and other developed nations need to consider the option of increased migration generally." Sweden's treatment of refugees is elaborated in detail as a model worth studying.

Mares fails to explore the causes of huge movements of people. It's true that people movement has, and always will, be a feature of a global society. But the accelerated movement of people overwhelmingly from the Third to First World is due to the obscene and deepening gulf between rich and poor. This gulf must be breached in order to find a lasting solution to the refugee crisis. As one of the wealthy few, Australia must be part of the process of wealth redistribution as well.

From Green Left Weekly, November 7, 2001.

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