The Guardian 26 January, 2005
"Deportations to danger" continue
On January 16, Australia observed a day of reflection on the enormity of the suffering caused throughout the world by the tsunami in southern Asia. John Howard made the most of the day to pedal his own brand of jingoism by twisting it into a day of self-congratulation for Australians on their own generosity to the victims of the calamity. The generosity of the Australian people — and other peoples — is real. The humanitarian credentials of Howard and his government are not.
Proofs of this abound. During the Christmas/New Year break — the very same period in which we got that massive reminder of human vulnerability — the Federal Government chose to act swiftly in the cases of a number of well-known asylum seekers, including the Bakhtiari family. In a piece written for New Matilda, Melbourne barrister Julian Burnside QC highlighted the spitefulness of the government in the five years the family had struggled to live in peace in Australia. He explained how, aside from the other humanitarian considerations and international legal obligations, the case's culmination grossly violates the rights of the six Bakhtiari children as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
During their stay in Australia, the Bakhtiaris' case had featured regularly in the news. TV cameras caught Muntazar and Alamdar, the boys who had escaped detention in Woomera in 2002, when they went to the British High Commission to apply for asylum. The Australian government responded to the wave of public sympathy for the boys by withdrawing the Temporary Protection Visa granted to their father Ali, who was living in Sydney at the time. The Department of Immigration chartered a plane to take the boys from Melbourne to South Australia a few hours before Ali arrived for a visit that would have given him his first contact with the boys in three years.
Back in detention, the boys' mental state deteriorated. Alamdar said: "… We are eating, sleeping, eating, sleeping … We are dead. Our life is gone now. No-one can help us. Nothing is there … There is no justice. … My soul has gone from inside. I feel dead. … Poor people in this world like rubbish on side of road. If they send us back we'll be like rubbish …"
The children were eventually released from detention into the community but only after an order from the Family Court.
When Roqia was due to have her sixth child, she was held under guard in hospital in Adelaide. She was not allowed visitors or even flowers and she was not allowed to have a photograph of the baby when he was born.
For their final deportation, the family was grabbed by officers of the Department in the early hours of the morning of December 29. Roqia was not permitted to change the baby's dirty nappy. One of the girls had wet her pants with the shock of the raid but was not allowed to change before the five-hour drive that would eventually link up with the charter flight that would see them taken via Bangkok and Dubai to Islamabad in Pakistan.
The Government had insisted that the Bakhtiaris were from Pakistan and not from strife-torn Afghanistan as the Bakhtiaris had always claimed. In last minute appeals, Lawyers for the family were not able to present evidence to establish the Bakhtiaris' Afghan origins — the Federal Government had changed the legislation to prevent the courts looking at anything except errors of law in rejecting asylum applications and not the facts of the case.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone could have intervened on humanitarian grounds under section 417 of the Immigration Act to allow the family to stay in Australia. However, the Minister was not so inclined. In fact, the latest in the case is that the Commonwealth has sent a bill for $1 million to the Bakhtiaris for part of the costs of the family's detention. This will prevent the family from returning to Australia and even the possibility of the children returning with scholarships to continue their studies at the Catholic schools in Adelaide where they had been outstanding students.
With the Bakhtiaris seemingly condemned to an uncertain and unsafe future, the Department is moving on to other cases. Iranian writer and artist Ardeshir Gholipour is now scheduled to be deported after five years of cruel detention. The detainee had spent 21 months in Tehran's Evin prison — the infamous "prison for journalists" — prior to his arrival in Australia for his role in producing leaflets for the Left Union for Democracy.
He is recognised by PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee as an imprisoned writer and in need of protection from persecution in his homeland. He was central to work carried out with distressed children in Port Hedland detention centre with mural painting and writing projects. The pressures of his situation led Ardeshir to take an overdose of sleeping pills on January 14 and his mental state remains fragile.
Reza Marhamati is another detainee currently awaiting deportation to his native Iran where he believes he will face incarceration, torture and even death at the hands of the religious and state authorities as a consequence of his Christian beliefs.
Others are living in this kind of terror while the Federal Government continues to ignore the findings of reports like last year's Deported to Danger from the Edmund Rice Centre, which show the callousness of Australia's immigration authorities in forcibly removing asylum seekers to unsafe conditions in their homelands or in third countries.