Meeting hears harrowing tales of mistreatment of refugees



CANBERRA — "More 'babies overboard' and outright lies" was how refugee advocate Marion Le described immigration minister Amanda Vanstone's response to the recent arrival on Melville Island of a group of Kurdish refugees.

Le was addressing a Refugee Action Committee forum on November 13, which was attended by 150 people. She reported on her trip to Afghanistan late last year where she collected evidence to prove claims of Afghan refugees held in Australian detention centres.

Le gave countless examples of the ludicrous actions of immigration department representatives, including Afghan refugees being told that "you can't be from Afghanistan, you don't look Afghani", and refugees who presented their identity documents to prove their stories having their documents ignored by officials on the grounds that the documents could not be genuine because "refugees don't bring their documents here".

Le investigated one Hazara refugee's statement that he was listed on a register in Kabul, despite the immigration authorities' insistence the man was from Pakistan. All Hazara families entering Kabul are required to register, and Le found the man's name on the precise page in the exact book which he had told her about. Despite this conclusive evidence, the refugee in question remains in Baxter detention centre.

Le and her team used the Global Positioning System (GPS) to take readings of their various locations, countering rumours in the immigration department that she had not really gone to Afghanistan. She expressed grave concern for the people of Afghanistan after witnessing the lack of security and poor living conditions.

Le explained that all the women she met in Afghanistan were suffering from major kidney problems, due to their confinement to the inside of their homes under the Taliban regime, only permitted to go out to the toilet after dusk. "If any country needs massive Western aid, it's Afghanistan", she told the meeting.

During the discussion, Afghanistan expert Dr William Maley attacked the language tests asylum seekers are subjected to. He cited a recent example of a young Afghan refugee in Brisbane who was told his language test indicated he was from Pakistan, when in fact he had simply been working in a Pakistani restaurant for the past 12 months!

The meeting warmly welcomed a young man from Kuwait who met Le face to face for the first time, after receiving assistance from her during his several years in detention. The man is of the Bedoon people, who are denied basic rights in Kuwait including to work and access health care.

"I wanted to come to Australia because I heard they had human rights here", he said. But after a mere 15-minute interview with immigration officials, and despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Bedoon asylum seekers have been granted visas, his claim was rejected. He was then not informed of his rights, therefore missing the cut-off time for an appeal. Three years later he found himself still in detention, "totally depressed", when Le took up his case.

While the man has been released from Baxter, he has still not been granted a visa and so is unable to work, study or receive health care.

Le noted the positive public response to all appeals issued for assistance to refugees. She said voters should "walk away from the major parties" in next year's federal election. She asked: "Why are we being subjected to this regime, that all of us know is not right?"

From Green Left Weekly, November 26, 2003.
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