Blinkered approach rips families apart
Mike Steketee
15 August 2002

Is there any length to which the Howard Government is prepared not to go to persecute asylum-seekers? Apparently not. No prime minister in recent times has so lauded the family and supported it with bucketloads of government money. But what is good enough for our citizens is not good enough for people fleeing from death, torture and imprisonment.

When the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees deals with members of the immediate families of people recognised as refugees - as it has been doing recently on Nauru - it grants them so-called derivative status. That is, it gives spouses and children the same rights as the refugees, so that the families can be reunited as soon as practicable.

That is only logical - or so you would think. A UNHCR submission to a Senate committee last week said: "The unity of family members is a fundamental human right." It felt it necessary to make the point because the Australian Government, alone among industrialised countries, does not acknowledge it. Australian policy is to assess separately the families of refugees arriving by boat. In other words, they have to make out their own claim for why they have fled from their country of origin and cannot return. The result is that thousands of families have been split unnecessarily.

To repeat, these are the immediate families of people already accepted as refugees - not cousins, aunts and grandparents but spouses and children. The best known case is the Bakhtiyari family. Ali Bakhtiyari was accepted as a refugee after he arrived in Australia in 1999 but his wife and five children, who came in January last year, remain in Woomera detention centre while their case is reviewed. The Australian this week was unable to find anyone who knows him in the area of Afghanistan from which he claims to come. If it is established he lied to obtain his temporary protection visa, the Government could revoke it and deport or detain him and his family - assuming they do not have a separate claim.

But this is no justification for the Government's brutal policy on families. Mistakes and misrepresentations, if that's what they were, happen on both sides.

The Badraie family, featured in an ABC Four Corners program, have just been assessed by the Refugee Tribunal as refugees from Iran after initially being rejected and spending most of the past three years locked up in Villawood detention centre in Sydney.

At least seven families on Nauru have raised with the UNHCR the rejection of their claims by the Immigration Department even though they have immediate family in Australia accepted as refugees. There are likely to be more on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, where the UNHCR does not have a presence. There were 363 children in Pacific camps in May this year, according to an Oxfam Community Aid Abroad report released today.

Then there are the many more remaining in their home countries who, before the policy changed in 1999, would have been automatically accepted after a family member had been recognised as a refugee in Australia. Now they face the option of waiting to be processed in Philip Ruddock's nonexistent queue or taking their own, increasingly slim, chances of making it to Australia. The result has been to force some people into the hands of the people-smugglers whom the Government so vociferously condemns, including those who organised the fateful voyage that led to the drownings of 353 men, women and children off Indonesia last year.

Presumably, the Government uses the same justification for its harsh policy on families as for the whole of its approach to asylum-seekers - deterrence. Since it claims to have been so spectacularly successful, it should give priority to relaxing this particularly harsh aspect of it.

IN the meantime, it should drop the hypocrisy of insisting that it is abiding by UN standards. The UNHCR submission to last week's Senate inquiry said Australia's treatment of immediate families could breach various human rights instruments, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, "as well as ignoring standards that Australia has helped to create and promote".

People who were assessed as refugees as far back as April are still being detained on Nauru and Manus Island while the Government continues its desperate search for other countries to assume Australia's responsibilities. UNHCR regional representative Michel Gabaudan pointed out at the hearings that this was a breach of the refugee convention's provision for freedom of movement for recognised refugees. So were the temporary protection visas, which restrict travel. And the operation of Australia's detention centres, which contravene UNHCR guidelines.

Australia played a pioneering role in the adoption of the refugee convention after World War II and was one of the first countries to sign it. It now leads the way among signatory countries in abrogating provisions aimed at establishing international standards of decency. Instead of claiming, against all the evidence, that it continues to be a good international citizen, it should have the guts to revoke its membership of the convention. Then at least other countries and refugees would know exactly where we stand.

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