The Guardian 27 July, 2005

Vanstone cornered

Andrew Jackson

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone is cornered. Her explanations and excuses for human rights abuses committed by her department are thin, repetitive and increasingly unbelievable. In what must have been a horror seven days for her, the following distressing facts came to light:

Case 1: The Hwang children

Minister Vanstone has been forced to admit that two children forcibly removed from school in front of their terrified schoolmates and imprisoned for four months in an immigration detention centre were, in fact, in Australia legally.

At first the Minister tried to claim that the children were not "technically detained" because they were being held in the centre at the request of their mother, who had been arrested for arriving in Australia under a false passport.

The Minister was later forced to capitulate and admit the children were detained because "it was believed that they were unlawful non-citizens" — as is the standard procedure under what has been labelled the government’s "presumption of guilt" detention policy.

Minister Vanstone highlighted that a review of their case was conducted, their "legal" status identified and their release made possible due to Prime Minister Howard’s much-vaunted "all children will be released from detention" policy. Even so, from the date of the announcement of the policy — which had been forced on Mr Howard by outraged MPs from within his own ranks — it still took four more weeks for the children to be released.

This means that the children languished in detention — where they witnessed numerous people attempt suicide — for three months without a proper review of their case being conducted.

Since her admission, Vanstone has refused to refer the children’s case to the Comrie Inquiry, which is currently investigating the wrongful deportation of Australian citizen Vivian Solon Alvarez and a further 200 cases of wrongful detention.

It was on June 17 that Mr Howard stated that all children currently in detention would be released within "four to six weeks".

"Six weeks" is up on July 29, and unless there is a mass release this week it will be yet another straw on Vanstone’s back.

Case 2:The Mandaean woman

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has released a finding that the Immigration Department breached the human rights of a woman who was sexually assaulted whilst in mandatory detention.

The woman, along with her daughter, was from Iran and was claiming asylum in Australia because she was a Sabean Mandaean — a member of a non-Islamic religious minority that suffers persecution in that country.

During part of their time in detention they were held in the Curtin Detention Centre in WA as the only two women in an otherwise men-only compound.

The woman suffered violent sexual assaults in the compound on two occasions, on one of the occasions her daughter was also physically assaulted as she attempted to help her mother.

When the case was brought before HREOC for investigation the Immigration Department responded with what has been labelled as "character assassination" by the Sabean Mandaean Association.

During the investigation an official from the department, Ken Anderson told the Commission that the woman was known to have "a boyfriend or boyfriends" in the compound. It was also stated that her room had been searched after reports were made that the woman had been watching "porno tapes" with a group of men. No evidence of this was found in the woman’s room.

The Immigration Department also stated that the woman did not report one of the incidents for 10 days after it was alleged to have occurred. It also stated it had offered to move the woman but she had declined.

A spokesperson from the Sabean Mandaean Association has countered what it claims are "vile smears" from the Department. Both the Association and Amnesty International claim they reported the assault to the Department within 48 hours of it occurring.

HREOC’s preliminary findings were sent to the Immigration Department on May 13, but the Department has not yet responded.

The woman was released last year and granted a permanent visa.

And from the gallery…

Throughout the last few weeks no fewer than eight ALP frontbenchers have expressed outrage over the government’s handling of Cornelia Rau, Vivian Alvarez Solon, the Hwang children and other human rights abuses that have been committed under the Howard government’s mandatory detention policy.

However, none of the eight have called for the abolition of the mandatory detention policy which inexorably led to those abuses — a policy first instituted by the former Labor government, which included three of the protestors.

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