Cruel policy splits families

Wednesday, November 3, 2004 - 11:00

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.

Visit the Green
Left Weekly home page.

From GLW issue 605