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    Professor Lowitja O'Donoghue

The Indigenous Voice: Lowitja O'Donoghue

Return to Afghanistan: resettlement or refoulment?

So while the opening-night fireworks at the Olympics drowned out the clamour for Reconciliation, recompense and 'sorry' the bridge marchers were shown a 'detour' sign. There were floundering refugees emerging from shameful detention centres.

Professor Lowitja O'Donoghue AC CBE

This is the text of a speech given on Thursday 27 February in Adelaide by Professor Lowitja O'Donoghue at the public forum entitled "Afghanistan: resettlement or refoulment?".

I am pleased to be able to contribute to this forum as an Aboriginal Woman.

In doing so, I recognise this land as Kaurna land. And I pay respects to the tradition and the elders of this place.

I have been fortunate to walk closely alongside refugees with Temporary Protection Visas for more than a year. I have heard their stories. I have felt their pain. So it's also as an adopted 'mother' that I speak.

The pain of some of my friends - some families and 'my boys' - is not unlike the pain of my own people. How is it that this nation's First Peoples, and it last peoples, should suffer similar indignity? Is it why they share the same Minister in Federal Government?

Sorry Minister! Sorry Prime Minister! But I smell something rather more sinister in the air.

Not so long ago I walked proudly across the Sydney Harbour Bridge with a multitude of people. It was a wonderful day. Every man and his family it seemed were caught in a groundswell of support for Aboriginal reconciliation.

Aboriginal Reconciliation!

That's right! It seems so long ago since we talked about it. It seems so long ago since we did anything about it.

On that day, when I walked across the Bridge, I looked up into the sky over Kirribilli, the home of the PM. And there, blazed in the sky, was one word: 'Sorry'!

I'm sorry to say the enthusiasm was short-lived. No sooner had the vapour faded away with the late afternoon breeze than something happened that we couldn't fully see.

Let me put it bluntly. Our beloved Country was at war.

Those of us who were marching had not recognised it. But soon it became clear. We were engaged in a war against a few battered villagers arriving in tiny boats on our shores, asking for help.

And it was a war the Government knew it could win. And with it, win votes and sideline the 'sorry' issue.

So while the opening-night fireworks at the Olympics drowned out the clamour for Reconciliation, recompense and 'sorry' the bridge marchers were shown a 'detour' sign. There were floundering refugees emerging from shameful detention centres.

It was a clever piece of work. I imagine John Howard calling Philip Ruddock into his office, Ruddock's Amnesty International badge still gleaming on his lapel. And I hear him saying, "Well done Philip! Now that you've got the 'war-we-can-win' underway, how about I give you the additional portfolio of Indigenous Affairs. It would make such a nice - afterthought.'

What John Howard has done by giving Ruddock the additional 'Indigenous' portfolio is recognise the racial agenda in his own mind. Aboriginal people and the Stolen Generation have demanded an apology on the basis of racial injustice. And its very hard to see injustices to refugees to be anything other than race motivated.

One significant part of that injustice to refugees is the Temporary Protection Visa. And here I would like to talk about just one of many young people whose stories I know.

One of the first refugees I met came to Australia in 1999. He was in Port Hedland when the Temporary Protection Visa was introduced on the 20th October of that year.

As you know, before 20th October, people arriving in Australia by boat and granted protection were automatically entitled to permanent protection or citizenship.

And, while my young friend awaited the outcome of his refugee application, he enviously watched others in detention get visas that would lead to them fully becoming Australians, and leave the camp.

But then, new legislation fell out of the sky: the Temporary Protection Visa.

As we know, it would not allow the holder to leave the country for three years, or they would never be allowed to return. They would not be allowed to apply for their families to join them.

And they would not be entitled to a number of services available to those who my friend had just seen walk free.

My friend obtained a Temporary Protection Visa in November 1999. And it would entitle him to apply for Permanent Protection. His case would be reviewed in 30 months.

Well before his 30 months was due, my young friend from Afghanistan was a cot-case. He was paranoid about the possibility of his return to Afghanistan.

Like most Afghani refugees here, my friend is Hazara. So his language, religion, his looks and his heritage set him apart from the majority Pashtoon.

The Pashtoon, influenced by religion and ideals from Pakistan in the East, have forced the Hazaras into the central rugged mountain country of Afghanistan, and even there, shepherd their herds on summer crops and grasses in the valleys.

Like Aboriginal people here, the Hazaras have been deprived and marginalised. They have not had a fair go in government. They have not had education or medicine.

But Iran in the West has also used the Hazaras. It has trained its Mullahs, who have indoctrinated the people. So the Hazaras, and the Sayed amongst them, have been sandwiched into submission from all sides.

And the British Government had its part in humiliating the Hazaras too. It was the British who drew up the boundaries of Afghanistan without consulting the Hazaras. It was the British who allowed Hazaras to be slaves in the 19th Century.

So my young friend from the mountains is Hazara. Life had always been difficult, especially as his father worked for the US before the Communists took over. Now the young man was due to be married and the Taliban was approaching, heralded by stories of massacre and atrocities too horrible to mention.

He was asked to lead a defence group to protect his village from the invaders. But the force was too great and he fled. He fled into the mountains and lived for months in caves, supplied by his family. Then he made his long escape to Australia, to seek asylum in a country of security and safety.

Yes, my young friend was in fear of the Taliban, but he was in fear of so much more. The enemy is behind every hidden corner for him.

As I watched my friend go through the process of the 30 months revision he was subject to with the TPV, I also saw him become more and more fragile.

"When do I get the interview?" he would ask. "My mates in Perth have had their interview."

"You'll get your interview in the New Year", said the voice from DIMIA in Melbourne. "We do it differently here."

My friend never got his interview. What was happening in parliament would put that on hold. But what was happening there was not generally well known.

In September last year, the Federal Government, having decided it was not going to make a decision about the TPVs by the end of the 3 years, introduced a Migration Amendment Regulations 2002 (No. 5). It was passed to come into effect from 1st November - just on three years from the issue of the first TPV's.

Not knowing anything about the new amendment and his 36 months getting ever closer, my friend started to go home from work feeling sick. He was not the only one. Fear led to nausea amongst a few of the boys also waiting the outcome of their Permanent Visas. Terror led to sleepless nights. Uncertainty led to mood swings.

Then, one day before the 3rd anniversary of his TPV, my friend received a letter from the Department.

It referred to the regulation changes on 1st November 2002. It read (with no translation offered):

"These changes bring TPV holders granted a visa before 19 September 2002 into line with other TPV holders granted visas on or after 19 September 2001 regulation changes, whose TPVs continue beyond the normal 30 month mark where they have a protection visa application outstanding.

"The changes apply to TPV holders granted a TPV prior to 19 September 2001 who:

  • Made a valid application for a further protection visa prior to 1 November 2002 which is not finally determined before 1 November 2002:
  • Make a valid application for a further protection visa on or after 1 November 2002.

The new visa is only an interim visa that ensures that TPV holders maintain their status and associated TPV benefits while their application for further protection is being processed."

The anniversary night we sat around the table with the document. "What does it mean?" he asked. It was quite some time before I had the slightest idea myself.

Only a week or two earlier he had received the letter from the Department of Immigration which offered TPV holders the $2000 repatriation money. They would have to withdraw their application for Permanent Protection in writing and pay their own fares to the place of international departure - perhaps Sydney or Melbourne.

"It's bull-shit", he said. He was right!

Now my friend finds himself with a Temporary Visa with no end in sight. It is purely at the behest of the Department and its own timetable.

Until now, I have asked my young friend to just get on with his life and stay positive. For how much longer am I expected to be able to do that?

No sooner had the news arrived about Voluntary Repatriation and then the Visa, than I found myself arriving with my young friend at a memorial service for another Afghani man who had suicided under the weight of uncertainty and suspicion.

I looked for my young friend after I descended from the woman's area at the mosque. He wasn't to be found. The pain was too great and he'd left early. "I played table tennis with him in Port Hedland", he said. "I can't take any more."

Ruddock was on the airwaves, claiming he can't be expected to "hold their hands."

I can tell you any number of stories. And I'm sure you have heard many stories too.

There are people here who have fathers who worked for the Communist Party. There are people who are Christians, and even now are fearful of expressing it in case they could be returned. There are people whose enemies are not only the Pashtoon. There are local Hazaras, blackmailed to get rid of other Hazaras for crossing political or family lines.

And all the time, these men, women and children are being held in some kind of time warp - a state of limbo - which stops them from doing what every human being of dignity is entitled to.

They are entitled to belong. They are entitled to form relationships and families. They are entitled to find a career for themselves. They should be able to get out and plan their futures. The children should be able to go to school and believe it will count for something, not hang around the streets until the Government makes up its mind.

But the Government is hell-bent on spending our dollars, even now, to get overseas agencies to analyse my friend's interview tapes to assess his syllables, to clarify the nature of his consonants and to disembowel his dialect. It will go to any length to self justify. It will spend any amount of money to continue its 'war'.

The Prime Minister's tactics may have overshadowed the 'Sorry' word for now, but it will be back with a vengeance. Mark my words. We cannot move on in this country without it. Even if it is without him.

But for now we have this crucial issue of injustice to refugees to deal with.

And there's an important question related to it.

What does this Government want to sweep under the carpet in the name of its new war - the "war" on Iraq, if not the "war on terror"?

Is the Government holding out for a bigger and better war to make repatriation of Afghanis go unnoticed in the clamour for war coverage in our papers?

Certainly, any stories of atrocities committed against returnees would barely get a mention after the bombs start falling.

The Australian Government seems to have secured an agreement with the Interim Afghan Government for repatriation. There has been little said of that Government's sympathy for the Hazaras.

Philip Ruddock is also cautious about the word 'Hazara'. He boasts that three TPV holders have accepted his generous offer. Three! Those at Nauru and in other Detention Centres have had little choice and have returned in greater numbers.

Returned to what? There is little news. Yes, there's word of Australia funding the refurbishment of a Reception Centre in Kabul. It's apparently to accommodate and train Afghanis on their return. They'll apparently be met at the airport and put on a bus or donkey home. Whether they'll make it alive with the $2000 is questionable. In most cases, there are no banks.

The news coming out of Afghanistan is not good. As we've heard and we well know, Afghanistan is declared 'unsafe' for travel by every agency, including the UN, the US and the Australian Government.

Young men are being punished for wearing western clothes and women are still being punished for not covering. There is still killing and the tribal warlords have not been contained.

The thought of some of our boys submitting again to religious and tribal conditions after the freedom they've been given in Australia is unthinkable. They won't survive.

As you will know, the 1951 Convention on the Rights of the Refugee is clear. Refugees must not be returned to any situation where their lives are in danger.

If there's one positive out of all of this, we were reminded of it in Adelaide on Tuesday night by Philip Adams.

Adelaide has a heart. You don't have more than 100,000 people marching in a city of this size without a heart. Our lawyers have a heart so big that their pockets are shrinking to make room for it. People in Health and Welfare are going beyond the boundaries of their profession and genuinely caring.

Philip Adams was right to point out that the churches have forgotten their bigotry, in the main, and have understood again what going to the cross is all about. And the volunteers and migrant workers have been fabulous.

If this is Adelaide, then no amount of fear will stop the heart beating. If this is Australia, then even the negativity of the popular press and the spin-doctors of some sad Government bullies will not put out the fire of real humanity.

That's the positive. This is the reality. We're not winning this war. Not yet! For all the effort on the ground, we must do much more to change the Government's thinking. We have to do much more to give Australia its heart back. We will I'm sure do much more to win the war.

Let us come out in the same numbers as marched for peace. Let us rally the neighbours and families together.

This is the land of my forefathers and mothers. It is a land where refugees have come to find freedom. Look at the landscape and the shoreline of this land and tell me it's not a fragile yet generous and richly beautiful place. "It has boundless plains to share".

And I want to share it with my friends. I have welcomed them. They are here. They are part of us. They are grafted into my ancestry and my country.

Friends let us redeem what ill has been wrought against us in recent times by greed, deception or even misguided ideas.

I say to the Government of Australia and to its people:

Let them stay.

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