Ruddock's dirty tricks exposed

July 31, 2002



On July 19, immigration minister Philip Ruddock announced that in April his department had informed Ali Baktiyari, father of two boys who sought asylum on July 18 from a British consulate, that it intended to cancel his visa.

According to the July 23 Australian, "the department issued the notice on the grounds that 'it had been alleged' that Baktiyari was from Quetta in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and a linguistic analysis of his case officer interview suggested he was from Pakistan".

Ruddock also announced that 330 of the 3500 Afghans that are either in Australian detention centres or have been released on temporary protection visas (TPVs), were under investigation for identity or other types of fraud. Newspaper headlines immediately promoted his unsubstantiated slander. The July 22 Sydney Morning Herald ran a front page story headlined "Fake Afghans caught in migration net". Picture

"[The government] will do its best to return [asylum seekers] whatever way they can, whether to Pakistan or Afghanistan", Riz Wakil told Green Left Weekly. Wakil is an Afghan Hazara refugee living in Sydney on a TPV. "The government wants to prove to the 80% of people who supported their actions during the Tampa crisis that they were right then", he continued, "that they didn't lie to the people about asylum seekers being criminals and illegals, that in fact it is worse — they are also frauds.

"Some of my friends have got letters from the immigration department saying it is not satisfied that they are Afghan, and asking for a letter to convince the government why they should be considered for a renewed protection visa."

Ruddock has come under pressure from some sections of the press, however. On the ABC's July 22 Lateline, he was told by a reporter to publicly produce evidence that people were lying.

Ruddock has now started to backtrack from his attack on the Baktiyari family, referring to them as Afghans who were "resident" in Pakistan. But he has already fuelled the prejudice of those hostile to asylum seekers.

The timing of Ruddock's announcement — the day after images of tearful children being locked up were beamed across the world — indicates that it was intended to prevent Australians from sympathising with the Baktiyaris, and other refugees.

The government can send Afghan refugees on TPVs back without arguing they are "fakes". Because these visas are only granted for three years, the immigration department can refuse to renew them as they expire, because it claims Afghanistan is now "safe". The only reason to accuse them of being cheats is to weaken public sympathy for them.

The Baktiyaris did spend some time in Pakistan — after Ali left for Australia in 1998, his family spent a year there. According to the United Nations, two million Afghan refugees have lived in Pakistan, many living in the cities to try and find work. This doesn't make their claims fraudulent.

Nor does it mean they should have stayed in Pakistan. The Pakistani government supported the Taliban, and many Afghan refugees, particularly those from the oppressed Hazara group, feared being forcibly returned.

The Australian government does not normally reject refugees just because they have lived in other countries for a time. According to Wakil, asylum seekers he knows have been granted visas despite living for several years in countries such as Iran and Pakistan. The difference, Wakil argued, is that Hazaras are subject to discrimination, even in Australia.

The linguistic test that Ruddock is using to claim Ali Baktiyari lied was conducted by the Swedish firm Eqvator. The government has refused to explain whether the test was conducted by an expert linguist or just a translator.

The tests have been questioned by University of New South Wales associate professor of politics and Afghanistan expert Dr William Maley, who told ABC's Lateline on July 22: "[Without the name of the analyst] it's impossible to tell how long [the analyst] might have been away from a country like Afghanistan and therefore isolated from changes in daily language that could be occurring in that country."

Based on his experience, Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre coordinator David Manne said many clients undergo two voice analyses that yield different nationality conclusions.

Eqvator and another Swedish company, Sprakab, have analysed the language patterns of close to 2500 asylum seekers for the Australian government since December 1999. Eqvador's Swedish critics are gathering mounting evidence that its results are "dramatically flawed", according to the July 27 Sydney Morning Herald.

"In 1998 an internal Swedish government evaluation, obtained by the Herald ... found that of 50 asylum seekers deported from Sweden, nine were sent to the wrong country."

Professor Kenneth Hyltenstarm, a linguist at Stockholm University, told the SMH that Eqvator "generally claim[s] that [its] success rate is about 90 per cent or even lower. [It] claim[s] that represents a successful result. But I maintain that's a very bad, unsuccessful result when you're dealing with people's lives. Imagine if a doctor claimed such a success rate in the diagnosis of disease."

Many of the linguists are former asylum seekers, whose ability to keep up to date with language is compromised by their inability to return to the country they fled from.

The SMH also spoke to Michael Williams from the Swedish Network of Asylum and Refugee Support Groups, who has challenged a number of cases in which Eqvator helped to determine asylum status. Most memorable was the case of a Rwandan man. "They used six analysts, six experts, and reached six [different] conclusions", he said.

Baktiyari's lawyers commissioned linguists at the University of Arizona to test his interview. Professor Jan Mohammad concluded on June 8 that: "... Baktiyari's speech provided us with ample evidence to conclude that he has resided in Afghanistan and his speech is the same as other Hazaras living in Afghanistan."

"In Australia, the majority of people fleeing Afghanistan are from a Hazara background", Wakil explained to GLW. "Many right-wing, anti-communist Afghans left their country after the revolution, and came to Australia between 1977 and 1981.

"Some have been convinced by the immigration department's false claims that it's because asylum seekers are arriving without authorisation that existing migrants are finding it harder to sponsor their families [to migrate]. Out of resentment and political hostility, these Afghans want to prove that Hazaras are not from Afghanistan. It is they who accuse Afghans of being Pakistani."

"Some asylum seekers have been questioned because they do not speak Dari", Wakil also explained. "That's because the Hazaras' language is Hazaragi, not Dari. You can say it's a dialect of Dari, but it's very different. It has lots of Mongolian words in it. Some Hazara people living in the cities, who are educated, speak Dari as well.

"Afghans with a Tajik background speak Dari, the Pashtun language is Pashtu, and the Uzbeks in the north speak Uzbek. I can understand Pashtu, I can speak Dari but can't understand Uzbek, which is very different.

"Many people also speak with a Pakistani or Indian accent. We don't have our own cinemas, radio stations or songs. Because most people don't have access to university or college, we have to rely on whatever we have access to in order to learn. People are used to hearing Indian and Pakistani films.

"A linguistic test is not the only way to prove nationality. If you send my interview tape to an analyst who is not from Hazara background, they will say, 'He's not speaking Dari'. That's because it's not our language, but you need to know a lot about the country to understand that."

The government doesn't allow Hazara interpreters to help Hazara refugees in interviews because they think they will be biased. The consequences are that Hazaras are immediately disadvantaged.

Wakil recounted his own experience: "In my first interview, where an immigration department official asked where I was from, why I came to Australia, I got an interpreter from a Pashtun background. When I told him about my political background, I think he was sympathetic. I was lucky that time.

"In my second interview, this time with my solicitor, the interpreter was Tajik. She tried her best to put her words in my mouth. She tried to show a picture of Afghanistan which was not true. She told me I should not use such harsh words about the situation in Afghanistan. I argued with her. Eventually the solicitor told her to shut up and let me speak."

Wakil also recounted: "A friend of mine, Ahmed Reza, was provided with an Iranian interpreter because the immigration department decided he was Iranian because he could speak Persian well. Reza was educated in Kabul, where he studied the Persian language."

"The immigration department makes the excuse that we didn't enter with proper documents", Riz also argued. "But I know two guys in detention centres who came to Australia with genuine Afghan passports and exit permits. The immigration department said that because they didn't have any problem with government officials in Afghanistan, they would not consider them for refugee status... What can we do? How can we prove we are refugees?

"We have a very good reason for not having documents. Our country has been at war for 30 years. It especially affects my generation, which grew up in the middle of that war. Who would provide us with documents? There was no proper government. Even if I go back to Afghanistan, I cannot prove I'm Afghan."

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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