The Guardian 30 March, 2005

Refugee “releases” —
Government keeps batons on hand

The Howard government has announced a new policy, entitled “Removal Pending Bridging Visa”, which involves releasing certain asylum seekers who have been imprisoned in detention centres for three years or more. The move comes as a result of considerable unrest on government back benches over the treatment of asylum seekers. Some MPs are genuinely concerned about the harshness of their government’s policies, many are feeling the pressure from their constituents.

Yet at the same time as appearing to show a little humanity, the government has announced new procedures aimed at further curbing asylum seekers’ access to the Australian legal system, and endorsed the actions of South Australian Police who used baton charges to break up a peaceful demonstration outside the Baxter Detention Centre. Nothing has really changed.

Even the government’s new “softer” policy comes, as usual, with strings attached. For a start, the new policy will only be applicable to asylum seekers who have failed to satisfy the government that they are genuine refugees, but whose country of origin refuses to take them back.

The majority of detainees, including 81 children of whom many have been detained for three years or more, do not fall into this category. None of the “Pacific Solution” detainees are entitled to even be considered. The government concedes that less than a dozen people may benefit from the new policy, and some refugee advocates claim that not a single detainee will qualify.

Secondly, the government will only release such detainees provided they sign an agreement to return “home”, if their country of origin agrees to accept them in the future.

Signing such an agreement would deprive signatories of a secure future in Australia. The day after release, or maybe long after they’ve found jobs and settled down to raise a family, they could be forcibly uprooted and returned to the country from which they fled.

Moreover, almost all the refugees in this category have a genuine fear of returning home. The government claims that its review process ensures that asylum seekers will only be forcibly returned if there is no current threat to their safety from the government of their country of origin.

However, this is far from certain, as was proved recently by the tragic case of one detainee, a convert to Christianity, who was returned Iran and was promptly arrested and “interrogated” for two days for allegedly leaving the country illegally. It appears that the government’s new conditional “three years and you’re out” policy was prompted largely by complaints about this case from the ultra-conservative Christian Family First Party, as well as by the Cornelia Rau tragedy.

The government wants to keep Family First happy because that party will have one representative in the Australian Senate, on whom the government would like to keep as an ally in order to pass its raft of viciously reactionary legislation, when the new Senators enter parliament in July.

The impression generated by this situation, i.e. of a cold, cynical, opportunistic and manipulative federal government, is reinforced by news concerning 30 other doubly-rejected Iranian asylum seekers who have also recently converted to Christianity. It appears the government may approve their applications for asylum favourably after all, ostensibly on the grounds that their new religious beliefs would jeopardise their safety if they returned to Iran.

This will surely win the approval of some fundamentalist Christians. Mind you, it will also inevitably arouse the hostility of the Islamic world, but then the government has presumably done its sums and is prepared to write off any loss of support from local Muslims.

Silencing critics

Meanwhile the Federal government has stepped-up efforts to silence critics and opposition to its refugee policies.

South Australian police donned full riot gear and baton-charged demonstrators at Baxter Detention Centre last weekend. The ferocity of the attacks left dozens injured and 16 protestors were arrested. Police also confiscated kites and burst balloons that were tied to a sign reading “Freedom”.

Amid an outcry of “overkill” the South Australian Assistant Police Commissioner said protestors had been warned not to fly kites as the area was “restricted airspace”, and said police “acted with a lot of restraint”.

In another development, Attorney General (and former Immigration Minister) Phillip Ruddock announced new legislation which will fine lawyers who bring refugee cases before the courts that the government deems to have “no merit”.

There will also be a series of checks of asylum seekers’ cases allowing the government to weed out cases before they reach court.

Mr Ruddock told Channel 9’s Sunday program: “One of the reasons that some people remain in detention for very long periods of time is the considerable backlog in our courts of migration matters”. He said many cases were “being brought merely to gain time for people who otherwise would be required to leave Australia”.

On the proposed fines for lawyers fighting the cases Mr Ruddock said, “It means than advocates bringing cases that they know are non-meritorious will be exposed to some potential penalty by the court”.

The legislation allows open slather for the government to use the legislation to terrorise lawyers from appearing in court as it does not define “non-meritorious” and proposes no cap on the amount of the fines imposed on the lawyer.

Reprieve for seized children

In this grim picture there is one small bit of light. Two of the six children recently removed by force from Sydney schools (see last week’s Guardian) have been given a reprieve. The children’s mother was deemed to have violated visa requirements when she returned from South Korea recently. The Immigration Department therefore incarcerated her and took the children to join her at Villawood Detention Centre pending their enforced return to Seoul.

However, the Federal Court subsequently granted a temporary injunction against their deportation. The girl, six-year-old Janie Whang, was born here and her 11-year-old brother Ian came here as a baby. In a welcome example of both humanity and sanity, the court decreed that both were in effect Australian.

However, their future is by no means clear. They are still held at Villawood, and the Department rigidly maintains that “a person who has no right to stay in Australia is expected to depart as soon as practical.”

The Howard government is claiming to have softened its asylum seeker position, as demonstrated by its new policy concerning three-year detainees. But is it really a change of heart? Judging by the extra legal traps it is setting for asylum seekers and their lawyers and the heavy handed treatment it endorses against protestors, the answer is a resounding “NO”.

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