Australian Broadcasting Corporation


Late night news & current affairs



Broadcast: 07/11/2001

The human face of Australia's refugee crisis

Well, in the heat of the debate over asylum seekers, it's easy to forget about the human face of Australia's refugee problem. Tonight we'll meet a man who lost his entire family in the sinking of a crowded Indonesian fishing boat three weeks ago. We have the story of Ali Mahdi, whose wife and three daughters vanished in the ocean that day, along with his hopes of a new life in Australia.
Compere: Tony Jones
Reporter: Nick Grimm

NICK GRIMM, REPORTER: Ali Mahdi used to think the sea would bring his family a new and happy life.

He left behind torture and repression in his home of Iraq and came to Australia to find his dream of peace, security and freedom.

Mr Mahdi, who speaks no English, thought he'd now be a contented man.

But ask him through an interpreter why he is so often in tears and he'll tell you it's because he has lost his children to the ocean.

ALI MAHDI, REFUGEE, (TRANSLATION): I ask any person to support me and to pick up their bodies from the ocean.

I would like to see them in front of my eyes and then bury them.

NICK GRIMM: These are some of the human faces of Australia's refugee problem -- Mr Mahdi's three daughters, along with their mother, all drowned in the sinking of a crowded Indonesian fishing boat three weeks ago.

ALI MAHDI (TRANSLATION): This is Donia, 14 years old, Marwa, 12 years old, 10 years old, Harja --

NICK GRIMM: The tragedy has thrust Mr Mahdi into the centre of the nation's debate about how to deal with asylum seekers.

When PM John Howard launched his election campaign last week, Mr Mahdi was outside.

He wants people to understand that he and his family were desperate people.

So if you could speak to the people of Australia, what would you say to them?

ALI MAHDI: I would like to say that I would like to see my children playing with Australian children in this country.

NICK GRIMM: Mr Mahdi arrived on a refugee boat himself two years ago.

He was granted a temporary protection visa after telling immigration authorities he'd been tortured at home in Iraq for criticising Saddam Hussein.

He was hung from a rotating fan?

TRANSLATOR: Yes, and one of his legs has been, like, dislocated.

NICK GRIMM: After fleeing the country nine years ago, Mr Mahdi and his family were classified as refugees by the UNHCR and were resettled in Iran.

But he says he still feared Iraq's secret police and wanted to get further away.

Yet migration to Australia through official channels seemed impossible.

ALI MAHDI (TRANSLATION): I tried the official way, but I couldn't.

I had to take this way to come to Australia.

NICK GRIMM: But the Australian Government is firm that asylum seekers are queue jumpers.

PHILIP RUDDOCK, IMMIGRATION MINISTER (AUGUST 8): If people don't apply to come on a boat and believe they've got an effective outcome more quickly, then I don't know how you would describe that, other than having 'jumped a queue', and I don't know how that could be said to be racist.

NICK GRIMM: So how does it make you feel when the Australian Government calls you a queue jumper?

ALI MAHDI (TRANSLATION): I didn't jump the queue.

I'll give you an idea about people who are living here in Australia for three years and they have got their permanent visa, they still are unable to bring their families to Australia.

NICK GRIMM: In recent weeks, there's been a growing chorus of concern from some prominent Australians who share Mr Mahdi's opinion.

JOHN MENADUE, FORMER SENIOR PUBLIC SERVANT: And there is no such thing, in my view, as a queue.

It is in the minds of bureaucrats in Canberra, who want tidy formula and rules to try and force other people to fit into it.

NICK GRIMM: Do you blame anyone now for what happened to your wife and children?

ALI MAHDI (TRANSLATION): I blame the Australian Government.

According to my expectation, I expect more disaster will happen to the people when they take the risk in the future.

NICK GRIMM: Meanwhile, it appears there's little in the way of help for a man like Mr Mahdi.

He's been offered no support or counselling since the disaster And he can't understand why neither side of politics is prepared to allow him to go to Indonesia to be with the survivors, some of whom are friends and family.

In a similar case, another father who also lost three daughters has been told that if he goes to comfort his surviving wife in Jakarta he won't be allowed back into Australia.

This week on television the Opposition Leader blamed people-smuggler for the tough stand.

KIM BEAZLEY, OPPOSITION LEADER: What these criminals do is sell Australian compassion and generosity for their own personal profit.

That has to be deterred.

It has to be prevented NICK GRIMM: But this grieving father believes a journey to Indonesia could help him come to terms with a loss that he's still struggling to comprehend.

TRANSLATOR: "It's very important for me because," he says, "put yourself in my situation and share my feelings, if you lose a loved one from your family then you have to go to that place at least to look on that place.

At least to go there and wash my face by the water from the ocean.

And I would say, 'This is the water that has taken my family.'" He said, "I feel very tired."

NICK GRIMM: Nick Grimm, Lateline.

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