SIEV 36 inquest: refugees to face more pain

March 21, 2010

The inquest into the fatal boat explosion involving Afghan asylum seekers and the Australian navy in April 2009 has ended with appalling conclusions. Despite evidence suggesting the five deaths and extensive injuries could have been avoided if defence personnel had operated differently, the refugees received sole blame and may face criminal charges.

Saying he believed crimes had been committed onboard SIEV 36, Northern Territory coroner Greg Cavanagh referred the findings to a criminal investigation. Three Afghan men, who now have protection visas, were named by Cavanagh as responsible for the fire that led to the explosion.

"The explosion was caused when a passenger or passengers deliberately ignited petrol", he said in the inquest report. "Most of them knew of a plan to disable the boat and to start a fire."

Riz Wakil, an Afghan refugee who travelled to Australia by boat in 1999, told Green Left Weekly after the explosion it was likely the asylum seekers were very confused and worried about where the navy was taking them.

"Because of our experience, people do not trust the authorities", he said. "They're fleeing a situation where they have been persecuted by authorities.

"So they don't know what's going to happen. They probably asked: 'Will we be sent back?' And no one told them anything — so, tragically, they must have desperately tried to get attention."

The 42 Afghan survivors were granted protection visas in October.

Federal opposition leader Tony Abbott was quick to demand the government cancel the visas of the three men named because they failed the "character test". Liberal "legal affairs" spokesperson George Brandis went further on March 18. He said the government should cancel the visas of all the refugees that were aboard the boat.

The government wouldn't say what it may do. But no matter what the Department of Public Prosecutions finds, refugee advocates say the refugees still deserve protection visas.

A refugee is defined by their well-founded fear of persecution or harm and need for protection in a safe country. It has nothing to do with politically motivated "character tests".

To cancel the visas of these Afghans is to deport them to very real danger. Recent reports from show conflict and violence is common in Afghanistan, and civilian deaths are on the rise.

It is illegal under international law to deny protection to refugees who legitimately seek it. It would be criminal for Australia to punish them after they risked and suffered so much to find refuge.

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