As a 65-year-old Afghan Hazara man fights to avoid deportation, refugee rights advocates grow increasingly alarmed by reported “round ups” of hundreds of asylum seekers who are being threatened with imminent deportation.
Immigration minister Scott Morrison confirmed last month that the government was re-detaining people who had been denied refugee status and have apparently exhausted their appeals. Refugees reported from detention centres across Australia that those who have been “screened out” were being told to pack up and prepare to be removed.
At the Curtin detention centre in northern Western Australia, 20 Tamils were called to a meeting at 7pm and were reportedly locked there overnight, the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) reported on February 5. RAC spokesperson Ian Rintoul said immigration was “deliberately rounding up asylum seekers after hours to avoid any legal action that could scrutinise the screening-out process”.
Advocates feared for up to 80 Tamils across four detention centres who were receiving warnings about being deported to Sri Lanka.
On February 6, the immigration department reported that 46 Tamils had been removed to Sri Lanka, including 37 “involuntary removals”. The department said the men had “arrived illegally by boat” and “they had no matters ongoing with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection”.
It also said the detainees had been “screened out of a protection assessment process”.
This means that those who had been forcibly returned never made an actual legal claim for protection. Previous reports of screening out indicate that asylum seekers are given one interview — undertaken with no idea of their rights — and based on that interview they are denied the opportunity to make their case for protection officially. This also means that legal counsel, resources, and the right to appeal are all also denied.
This ignores the rule of law and is likely to have sent many refugees back to torture and persecution. Refugees who have been returned to Sri Lanka have reportedly been jailed and pursued by the Sri Lankan government, the human rights abuses and war crimes of which is well-documented.
The eight Tamils who “chose to return voluntarily” with the group would be given financial help under a new scheme instituted by Morrison last year. A $6 million contract was signed with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on December 31, which will now help the Coalition government deport “failed” asylum seekers under a so-called voluntary scheme between January 1 and June 30.
Morrison said Australia was obligated to deport asylum seekers who “have had [their] claims assessed and rejected not just by the Department but also on appeal” — though the fact that those who were recently deported had access to neither assessment nor appeal was ignored.
However, despite the fast pace of the immigration department and its concerted effort to obstruct legal action, several deportation attempts have been thwarted by last-minute court appeals.
The 65-year-old Hazara man who was scheduled to be deported to Kabul on February 4 was saved by a last-minute injunction by the High Court. He had been living in the community and was redetained in Villawood detention centre in Sydney and given less than a week’s notice before his removal.
The Refugee Review Tribunal rejected his claim for protection, and said that even though it was not safe for him to be returned to his original province of Khas Uruzgan, he could be returned to Kabul. This is despite the fact that he had not lived in Afghanistan for decades and his family is in Pakistan.
This “relocation argument” — returning a person to a different part of their home country — has been used in previous attempts to deport Afghan refugees. Refugee Council of Australia chairperson Sonia Caton, told ABC Online that the “reasoning around the relocation to Kabul doesn't accord with the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] eligibility guidelines for protection”.
"Furthermore, he has vulnerabilities such as his age, his illiteracy, the fact that he has no contacts or relatives at all in Kabul and hardly any in Afghanistan [which] would make him a very serious consideration for complementary protection, and no reasons were given for refusing complementary protection."
Hazaras are an ethnic minority in Afghanistan and openly targeted by the Taliban. Afghanistan expert Professor William Maley told ABC Online: “This is one of those rare cases where you can say with some confidence that the probability that those who orchestrate the return of someone like this to Kabul will end up having blood on their hands is pretty high.”
Morrison was also forced last month to back flip on a bid to deport eight Iranian asylum seekers from Darwin. The eight were subjected to the “screening out” process and moved to a detention centre near the airport. But RAC said the decision to screen them out was “hastily” reversed at the last minute.
However, the recent round-ups and transfers in detention centres are orchestrating a climate of fear and despair. Many refugees remain fearful of how quickly they could be marked for deportation.