Please, Mr Howard, let these admirable people stay
1 September 2003
Is it too much to ask our Government to grant residence to refugees on protection visas, asks Arnold Zable?
A man walks the streets of Melbourne's northern suburbs night after night. He walks because he cannot sleep. He cannot sleep because he awakes from dreams of the three children he last saw when he fled Iraq five years ago. They come to him almost every night, put their arms around him and beg to see him. He has come to dread the night.
This is one of many tales I have heard from asylum seekers on temporary protection visas (TPVs). Last week, an Afghan refugee began to weep as we talked. We first met in 2000 after his release from Woomera. He had fled for his life from the Taliban, leaving behind his wife and three children. In mid-2002, he received news that two of his children had died.
His three-year protection period has expired and he has been reclassified on an XC visa, which is, in effect, an indefinite extension of his temporary status, while his case is being reviewed. Once again he is subject to questioning by immigration officers.
He knows that outside Kabul, the country is in the hands of warlords. "Instead of one Taliban, we now face six Talibans," he says. He had just heard reports that an Afghan refugee deported from Nauru had been killed by the Taliban.
I have seen this young man gradually fall apart, both physically and psychologically, in the three years I have known him. Echoing remarks I have heard from other TPV holders, he now says: "I am nothing, a complete nobody."
Australia introduced its TPV regime in October 1999. We are not the only country to issue temporary visas, but we are unique in the harshness of our system. European countries that receive tens of thousands of refugees have temporary protection visas that are in accord with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Unlike ours, their visas do not require a refugee to undergo further status determination. They also have access to the same services as permanent refugees and retain family reunion rights.
Many Australian asylum seekers on temporary protection have not seen their immediate family for years. On Nauru there are nine women and 14 children who have husbands and fathers in Australia on temporary protection, but they cannot be reunited with them, and their claims for asylum have been rejected.
Their menfolk are distraught, and the women and children continue to live, as do an estimated 380 asylum seekers, in the harsh and isolated detention camps of Nauru.
These are the forgotten casualties of the Howard Government's Pacific solution. They live under the threat of deportation, in shocking conditions.
On present indications, the Government seems determined to deport Afghan asylum seekers even though the country remains very dangerous. Iraqi asylum seekers whose TPVs have expired have also been put on hold on XC visas. In effect, the Government appears to be stalling for time, while the situation in Iraq continues to remain unstable. Meanwhile, their agony of living in limbo continues indefinitely.
On October 19, 2001, 353 asylum seekers drowned when their boat sank in international waters en route from Indonesia to Australia. Of the 45 survivors, seven were sent to Australia to join relatives. Those survivors who were taken in by countries such as Norway, Finland, Sweden and Canada have been granted permanent residency.
Sondos Ismael, who lost three daughters in the tragedy and who now lives in Sydney, gave birth in January this year to a daughter. The child is stateless, her father's TPV is about to expire and the family is without a future.
Broadmeadows resident Amal Hassan Basry, who says she survived the tragedy by clinging to a corpse for more than 20 hours, is distraught over her fate. Her nightmares continue unabated. Why are we the only country not to show mercy even in this extreme situation?
Meanwhile, the 1500 or so men, women, and children who remain imprisoned both in Australian detention centres and on Nauru are being driven to despair, self-harm and extreme depression. Iranian detainees in the Baxter Detention Centre are now being forcibly returned to Iran in accordance with a secret government memorandum of agreement with the leaders of that repressive regime. They have not been charged with any criminal offence.
We are killing people's spirits. And we are sending people back to countries where their lives are in extreme danger.
Those of us who know asylum seekers are now faced with seeing people we have come to love and admire being taken away in front of our eyes.
We appeal to our politicians' consciences. We say that if our Government, in our name, has been willing to participate in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to condemn repressive regimes such as Iran, surely it should be willing to grant permanent residency to those who have had the courage to flee these despotic regimes.
Recognising the rights of refugees to seek asylum, and recognising the fact that asylum seekers have suffered enough, isn't it time that the Australian Government, as an act of humanity, granted permanent residence to the 8500 or so refugees on temporary protection visas - and granted humanitarian visa status, with permanent residence, to asylum seekers in detention, or on bridging visas?
As a samurai maxim puts it, "Even a hunter does not kill a bird that comes to him for protection."
Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer and a member of the Coalition to End the Suffering.