Between sky and earth

The Age
Thursday 13 December 2001

A frayed visa document, a learner's driving licence, and an interim Medicare card are all that remain of Iraqi refugee Zainalabaden Aluomer's former presence in Australia. The visa was his longed for passport to a new life. Instead, it may have contributed to his death.

Aluomer's father was executed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1982. Aluomer escaped to Iran in 1991, and languished for eight years in refugee camps in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 1999, as the situation of Iraqi refugees in Iran deteriorated, Aluomer left behind his wife and mother, promising to reunite with them in Australia, a country in which he believed they would feel safe. Aluomer arrived in Australia by boat from Indonesia in September, 1999, and was transferred to the Curtin Detention Centre, in Western Australia. He was released in September, 2000, granted a three-year temporary protection visa and put on a bus to Melbourne.

With help from caseworkers at the Ecumenical Migration Centre and the Darebin City Council, Aluomer found transitional accommodation in a flat in West Heidelberg. Earlier this year, Aluomer learnt that his wife and mother had arrived in Jakarta and were looking for a boat that would enable them to make the final run to Australia. He pleaded with them by phone not to risk the voyage.

To understand what happened next, we need to look at the provisions of Aluomer's visa. Between 1994 and 1999, asylum seekers who were found to be genuine refugees, including those arriving by boat, were granted permanent protection visas, subject to health and character checks. This entitled them to eventually sponsor family members they had left behind. In October, 1999, the Howard Government introduced a new visa regime. Asylum seekers arriving by boat, and judged to be genuine refugees, were to get three-year temporary protection visas. They then had to wait 30 months before being eligible to apply for permanent protection. Until then they could not hope to be reunited with their families. If they left the country to merely visit their loved ones, they could not return. In effect, this meant they could not hope to see their loved ones for up to five years or more. They could also be required to return to their countries of origin at the end of this three-year period, if it was deemed safe to do so.

Aluomer's wife and mother could not wait any longer. They decided to risk their lives in flimsy fishing boats rather than remain separated from him indefinitely. Aluomer told Haider Al Juboory, then a temporary protection visa (TPV) caseworker for the City of Darebin and the Ecumenical Migration Centre, that he was considering joining his wife and mother in Jakarta, even though it meant losing his visa.

He was advised not to leave Australia, but Aluomer could not bear the thought of his loved ones making the boat journey unprotected and alone. On July 13 he flew to Indonesia.

On Friday, October 19, Aluomer, his wife and mother boarded a leaking fishing boat in Sumatra. All three were among the more than 350 asylum seekers who drowned when the boat sank later that day in the Java Sea, en route to Christmas Island. The victims included other women, as well as children, desperate to join fathers and husbands living in Australia on temporary protection visas.

Aluomer's tale was recounted in early November at a memorial service in Preston for the victims of the boat tragedy. Among those present were asylum seekers who had lost family on the boat. I have never seen a group of more devastated people. Their distress has been compounded because, as holders of temporary protection visas, they could not even visit survivors of the tragedy.

Many at the memorial service had another reason for feeling bereft. On September 27, the Howard Government's latest visa regime became effective. Under the new provisions, asylum seekers who, en route to Australia, have spent a continuous period of seven days or more in a country in which they could have sought and obtained protection, can now never gain permanent residency here. Instead, they must apply, every three years, to renew their temporary visas. In effect this means they can remain in Australia indefinitely, but can never see their families again. The predicament of the TPV holders was highlighted by the case of Sydney-based refugee Ahmed Alzalimi, who lost three daughters in the boat tragedy. Alzalimi is still waiting as the Howard Government considers his plea to visit his grieving wife, Sondos Ismail, in Indonesia. He needs special permission from Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock unless he is prepared to forfeit his right to return to Australia.

TEN days after the service I met a group of eight asylum seekers, now released from detention, who are caught in the new regime. Their countries of origin include Syria, Iran, Iraq and Yemen. All have wives, children or other family members who remain in the country they fled, or in refugee camps in third countries. They live in Melbourne's northern suburbs, where an estimated 600 TPV holders are concentrated.

All eight have been found to be genuine refugees. Some had been tortured or threatened with death in their countries of origin. They had all lived, for varying periods, in third countries en route, and had arrived in Australia by boat. Several had lived in a series of refugee camps for up to a decade.

The men do not wish to reveal their names; they fear they could be in jeopardy for speaking out. One says: "We chose Australia because it was a democratic country. It was our dream to live in freedom. This is why we risked our lives."

Some of the men cry as they speak. Some have nightmares in which they see their families beyond reach, beyond touch. Others wake up screaming their children's names. Those who are able to speak to their children by phone sometimes break down during the conversations. One talks of having walked the streets all night rather than return to his terrifying dreams.

The men all tell of a sense of vulnerability and anguish. "September 27 was a black day," says one. "Since then we have not felt safe or protected. We feel that the government has set a trap. They want to break us. We are knocking on closed doors. We do not know when this will end. I feel like an animal, caught in a steel trap." Several of the men describe the most difficult aspect of their ordeal in Australia as not being able to use their hard-won skills and qualifications. The group includes a journalist, a metallurgical engineer, an artist, a surgical technician, and an economist. Although TPV holders are permitted to work in Australia, their temporary status means many are unable to get jobs in their professions.

Says one: "Australia is a beautiful place, but we cannot enjoy it. I am floating between sky and earth. We are in Australia, but we are not a part of Australia. I want to show Australians what I can do.

"But in this situation I cannot focus. I feel shattered. My mind goes blank when I think about my family. This legislation is a rope around my neck."

According to Al Jaboory, now a spokesman for the Australian-Iraqi Association, and other caseworkers, TPV holders exhibit physical and psychological symptoms of trauma. Some are suicidal, others severely depressed. All suffer a sense of guilt at being unable to help their families, especially those whose relatives are still being persecuted at home.

The men I speak to feel like outcasts. They believe many Australians, and the Howard Government, are against them. The new legislation is retrospective. It not only applies to people who have arrived after September 27, but to anyone who had been previously granted a TPV but had failed to apply for permanent protection by that date. The government gave no warning or amnesty period.

Asylum seekers under the previous visa regime say that, on release from detention, they received a statement from the Department of Immigration, indicating they had up to 30 months to apply for permanent protection.

Lawyers and community workers, acting upon this provision, also advised them to take their time and lodge a strong, professional application. These refugees, and those who advised them, feel they have been misled.

What is more, some asylum seekers who decide they have had enough cannot return to their families because they do not have the papers that would enable them to do so. Others cannot return because it could mean further persecution or even death. On January 11, The Age published a story I wrote about a TPV holder, Mohammed Arif Fayazi. An Afghan refugee, and member of the much persecuted Hazara minority, who now lives in a high-rise flat in Fitzroy, he had fled because his life was in immediate danger. He left behind a wife, teenage daughter and baby twins. Several days after the article was published, I received an irate message on my answering machine. "That Mohammed character is having you on. How could anyone leave behind his wife and children?" the anonymous caller complained.

He was ignorant of the history of migration. In all countries from which there has been significant emigration, for reasons that range from political persecution to extreme poverty, it has been a common pattern for fathers to leave first, to pave the way for their families.

Often the family has pooled resources to allow one person to make the journey. This has been the case for emigrants of all backgrounds, including some of the Scottish, Irish and English migrants who arrived here in the 19th century.

There is a sad sequel to the story of Mohammed Arif Fayazi. Just months ago he received news that his wife had escaped to Pakistan, but he had lost two of his children. His older daughter, and one of the twins, have died as a result of disease brought on by famine and lack of appropriate medicine. The news was devastating. In the ensuing days, according to a friend of his, he spent many hours in his Fitzroy flat "curled up like a shadow". He had often dreamt of the moment he would be reunited with his family. His depression has been intensified because, under the conditions of his temporary protection visa, he will not be allowed to see his wife and remaining child for at least two years. Possibly much longer.

Yet Mohammed may be one of the "fortunate" ones. He received his temporary protection visa under the old regime, and had applied for permanent protection before the September 27 cut-off. But he, and fellow Hazara refugees, now fear they will be forced to return to Afghanistan because of changed political circumstances. In many spiritual traditions the cruellest fate that can befall a human being is to live in limbo. It is described as a predicament worse than death. Many refugees now belong to a new underclass, and are condemned to live in an eternal twilight zone in which they cannot even begin to rebuild their lives, or hope to be reunited with their families. As one puts it: "We feel there is no end in sight to our agony."

Melbourne author Arnold Zable has worked with and written about refugees and newly arrived migrants for more than 20 years.

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