The Guardian 12 October, 2005

Bakhtiaris: victimisation continues

New evidence of gross injustice in the deportation of the refugee Bakhtiari family last year has emerged. The family had asked for protection visas as refugees from Afghanistan, where their lives were under threat. However, the Howard Government insisted that they were Pakistanis, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Last December, after a four-year nightmare battle to prove their nationality, they were forcibly deported to Islamabad.

Afghan government officials have now confirmed that Mrs Bakhtiari had been an Afghani citizen, as was verified by residents and officials from her native village. The officials also accept that the children are Afghani.

Last week, a gift for the beleaguered Howard Government fell seemingly unsolicited from the sky. In an interview for ABC TV recorded in Pakistan, teenage Bakhtiari brothers Almadar and Montazar apologised for lying to the Federal Government about their nationality and blamed their lawyers and refugee advocates for advising them to claim to have come from Afghanistan. The boys are reportedly still hoping to obtain visas to return to their studies in Australia.

Director of the Centacare charity, Dale West — who looked after the family in Adelaide — says the Bakhtiari brothers may now be trying to appease the Federal Government by criticising those who had supported them.

"I guess what I’m concerned about is that it seems like someone has advised them to say the things they’ve said because it is different to what our conversation content has been in the last nine or 10 months", Mr West said.

"I’m just concerned that somebody has raised their hopes that if they were to apologise to the Government, distance themselves from other people, that that may see them come back, but we just know that it’s not possible."

The facts of the case, however, remain unchanged. Mr Ali Bakhtiari was initially accepted as Afghani by immigration officials, but after the arrival of his family the government questioned their nationality. Neither Mr Bakhtiari nor Afghan officials have been able to verify his nationality, but unlike the Australian Government, the Afghan officials are said to "have an open mind" on the matter.

Senator Vanstone insists that members of the family "... were unable to convince the Department they were Afghani and they were unable to provide appropriate documents."

However, one of the villagers who attested to Mrs Bakhtiari’s nationality has now confirmed that her husband is also Afghani, from the district of Sharistan, and that he had spent long periods working in Pakistan, Dubai and Iran.

The media reports that at the time of their deportation Australian officials had already received initial advice from the Identity Checking Unit (ICU), an Afghan government organisation funded by the Australian Government, that Mrs Bakhtiari was Afghani.

Moreover, immediately after Mrs Bakhtiari’s brother was deported in 2003, he sent statements verified by local officials that she was Afghani, and the Bakhtiari’s lawyers sent written evidence to Senator Vanstone on January 21, 2004 confirming this.

Although the entire case in support of deportation rested on the claim that the family was Pakistani, Ruddock has now admitted reluctantly that "… Mrs Bakhtiari may have been born in Afghanistan".

Nevertheless, the Howard Government still insists that the Bakhtiari family cannot have their case reconsidered, because the Pakistani Government has accepted that the Bakhtiaris are Pakistani. It is not clear whether this is correct.

In a particularly nasty sneer, the Minister said she was surprised that the family was living in Afghanistan when the basis for their application for refugee status was that they could not return to Afghanistan.

This conveniently ignores the fact that because of the government’s actions the family was forced to travel from Pakistan where they have no family or support, back to Afghanistan where their lives may still be under threat.

One of the Bakhtiari boys, Almadar, commented: "We were kicked out of the (Islamabad) hotel within days. We came to Afghanistan because we were afraid of what the Pakistani authorities would do to us; they were throwing Afghans in jail…" He noted bitterly that if the Bakhtiari family applied to immigrate to Australia they would have to pay one million Australian dollars in compensation for their detention and deportation.

David Bitel, President of the Refugee Council of Australia, has called for a judicial inquiry into the Bakhtiari case. Greens Senator Kerrie Nettle stated that the government’s immigration system "… has been making victims of people just like the Bakhtiaris for years now."

The government’s arrogant and discriminatory treatment of asylum seekers has caused deep misgivings among immigrants, including some who have been here for very long periods.

Last week the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils (FECC) stated that many overseas-born Australians feel they must carry their passports with them at all times, because they persistently fear being unable to prove their identity and being sent to an immigration detention centre, as happened with Vivian Alvarez and Cornelia Rau.

FECCA told a Senate inquiry that there seem to be no checks on the power of departmental officers to detain and deport people. They claimed that there is now a stronger case than ever for a Royal Inquiry into the 200 cases of possible wrongful detention, because of the High Court’s ruling that Parliament has the power to legislate for indefinite detention.

FECCA told the Senate Inquiry that "…the present Australian Constitution is being interpreted in such a way that it allows the enactment of laws that are unjust and contrary to human rights." Surely there could be no clearer example of this than the terrible experience of the Bakhtiari family.

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