Australia's respect for human rights a huge draw for illegal immigrants

7.30 Report

KERRY O'BRIEN: Despite the introduction of tough new penalties for so-called people-smuggling, 1999 has been a boom year for the lucrative underground trade.

So far this month, more than 700 illegal migrants have been apprehended, pretty much in the last week.

That's almost the tally for the whole of the previous year.

Unlike most of the earlier arrivals who were from southern China, this new wave is mainly from Middle East countries, like Iraq, Afghanistan and Algeria.

For the final leg, they're being helped by Indonesian smugglers.

Already, Australian immigration authorities have been forced to erect a tent city to cope with the influx, but it may only be the start.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock revealed today that as many as 10,000 people in the Middle East are preparing to head here.

I'll speak with Mr Ruddock shortly, but first, Philippa McDonald looks at why so many are prepared to risk the hazardous voyage, detention and a forced return home.

CHRIS GALLUS, JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON MIGRATION: It is big business for criminal organisations to run these boatloads of people.

And they come through Iraq, through the Middle East, right down, and they end up in Indonesia, where boats are chartered to take them into Australian waters.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: When the patrol boat HMAS 'Dubbo' intercepted this ferry 400 kilometres north of Broome, crew uncovered our biggest-ever known people-smuggling operation.

All 35[5] illegal immigrants on board were from the Middle East. Most were from Iraq.

DES HOGAN, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL: Any form of political dissent can be met with summary execution, with incommunicado detention and torture for prolonged periods of time.

It's no surprise that Iraqi refugees continue to flee the country.

DR MOHAMMED ALSALAMI, HUMAN RIGHTS IN IRAQ INC: They have no hope to go back to Iraq, because either they are going to be singled out, or imprisoned, or certain measures, you know, which they have definite fear for their life.

CHRIS GALLUS: If we don't stop this trade in illegal migrants, we are going to be responsible for ships sinking with 300 people on board because that will be the outcome.

We have got to stop these people putting their own lives at risk and queue-jumping in Australia.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: Ali Alysasiri knows first-hand what is driving people to put their lives on the line to come to Australia.

He was one of the first wave of Iraqi boat people arriving near Darwin almost two years ago.

ALI ALYSASIRI, TRANSLATION: From the beginning, I thought about Australia because it's a country that respects human rights and is preferred by the Iraqis.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: Like many Iraqis fearing persecution, Ali left his homeland a decade ago, after taking part in an uprising against the Iraqi Government.

ALI ALYSASIRI: When the army arrived, all who participated in the uprising had to flee for their lives.

The ones who were arrested, nothing has been heard of them since 10 years.

If I stayed, I would have had the same fate.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: After spending several years in Iran, Ali left his wife and child and travelled to Indonesia.

In Jakarta, he teamed up with five other Iraqis, bought a boat and made six abortive attempts to sail to Australia.

ALI ALYSASIRI: After two days, sails were drawn because of the strong wind and water started leaking into the boat because of a crack.

We sighted a big ship, which we thought was an Australian one.

We asked for help but they didn't stop. We started to run out of food and fresh water.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: Suffering malaria, extreme sunburn and dehydration, Ali says he was convinced he would die at sea.

ALI ALYSASIRI: We got on to this island not knowing if it's Australia or not.

We met someone on the island and asked him, "One of us speaks English, where are we?"

And he told us that we are in Australia. It was an overwhelming joy.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: After a period in detention, Ali has been allowed to stay and is now applying for his family to join him.

But the more recent Iraqi arrivals face a more uncertain future.

Under the Government's proposed new visa system, they will have to meet even tougher conditions.

CHRIS GALLUS: They can work in that 30 months but they can't bring their family here and at the 30 months, their situation is reassessed and if things have gone back to normal in their own country, they're no longer at risk, they will be returned to their own country.

DES HOGAN: With this, they would be further penalised by having their status revoked after three years and having to reapply for the whole thing through again.

Also the trauma that that would bring with it, as well.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: For however long it takes for their status to be assessed, the latest Iraqi arrivals are in detention, and the Federal Government is barely able to cope with the now unprecedented number of boat people.

CHRIS GALLUS: Last year, I went to Port Headland Detention Centre.

There were 26 people in there, 26.

There are now 726, and Curtin, I think, is pretty well full at 1,000.

Curtin is not a detention centre.

It is a RAAF base.

We have people living there in 40 degrees in tents.

Of course we're concerned, as we should be.

DES HOGAN: Because of the fact that Australia has mandatory detention, which is a huge cost to the nation, the cost of course is going to go up.

If other models were looked at, such as the European models of alternatives to detention, where you can report once a week after you're initially screened, we might not be seeing this huge need to accommodate and house these people in this way.

PHILIPPA McDONALD: While the Federal Government has introduced severe penalties for those convicted of people smuggling, it's still bracing itself for thousands more boat people.

Just back from visiting those already detained, Liberal MP Chris Gallus has this warning.

CHRIS GALLUS: I think everybody's got to work against it.

You have to look practically what can be done.

Certainly the United Nations responsible for refugees is doing the work that they can do, but stopping the illegal refugees I think needs messages coming from Australia that this is not the thing to do.

ALI ALYSASIRI: The Australian Government should take into consideration the situation of many oppressed Iraqis who are looking for a safe place to live in.

DES HOGAN: It's very important that people see this as a human rights issue, as much as an immigration issue, and that refugees, genuine refugees, are allowed to come to this country and get the protection which Australia is committed to under international law.


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