Petition letter: A Well Founded Fear
An e-letter petition to Immigration Minister Chris Evans
"The Howard government and its supporters in the media promoted a sense that the asylum seekers were somehow different from us.
They were labelled as 'illegals', 'queue jumpers' and in the terrible, bureaucratic jargon of the government, SUNCs: suspected unauthorised non-citizens.
They were said to be criminals, terrorists and threats to something called 'the Australian way of life'.
Worse, they were portrayed as being less human than we are, as though they were incapable of the same depth of experience and attachment to loved ones that we share." (Source)
What is this page about?
This page is an electronic letter writing campaign page: a letter to the Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans, following the screening on SBS television, on 19 November 2008, of the Edmund Rice Centre documentary "A Well Founded Fear".
Researcher David Corlett and author of the book Following Them Home, puts it like this:
The Edmund Rice Centre has documented the deaths of "as many as nine men returned from Nauru" and "three children of people sent back from Nauru". According to Phil Glendenning, as many as 20 returnees from the Pacific Solution could have been killed.
The Immigration Minister now has an obligation to open all deportation case files for the more than 400 people we deported from Nauru during the Howard years.
This is the contention of The Edmund Rice Centre, senior advocates who have kept in close touch with more than 250 Afghan Hazaras and others that were deported, and it's also the conclusion Project SafeCom supports.
Twenty children were amongst those we deported, and amongst them were seven 'unaccompanied minors', who had been scheduled to go to New Zealand - but a mistake was made, and they were instead deported back to Afghanistan.
Background reading and resources
If you missed the Edmund Rice Centre documentary screening on SBS TV, you may want to read the publicity around the film first. Several articles are below the petition letter on this page. Click the linked titles to jump to these articles:
1 November 2008: A Well Founded Fear: a disturbing documentary - An Edmund Rice Centre documentary, the result of five years work of Mr Phil Glendenning and others, reveals what we did to those fleeing their persecutors, locked op on Nauru, when we told them to go back... "Mr Glendenning says he has documented the deaths of nine of the rejected Afghans at the hands of the Taliban, but he believes the figure is actually 20."
This e-campaign has been closed, but please feel free to explore the page!
Letter to the Immigration Minister, Senator Chris Evans
Afghans sent home to die
Sydney Morning Herald
THE Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, has demanded answers to allegations up to 20 Afghan asylum seekers rejected by Australia under the Howard government's so-called Pacific solution were killed after returning to Afghanistan, and others remain in hiding from the Taliban.
The claims are contained in a documentary to be aired on SBS on November 19. The film, A Well-Founded Fear, produced by Anne Delaney, is based on the efforts of Phil Glendenning, the director of social justice agency the Edmund Rice Centre, who has spent the past six years tracing many of these rejected asylum seekers.
About 400 Afghans detained on Nauru were returned to Afghanistan after having their asylum claims rejected. They were told by Immigration officials it was safe to go home, and that if they refused, they would remain in detention forever, according to accounts given to Mr Glendenning.
Another 400 who refused to go voluntarily were eventually found to be refugees and were resettled in Australia or other countries including New Zealand.
Mr Glendenning says he has documented the deaths of nine of the rejected Afghans at the hands of the Taliban, but he believes the figure is actually 20.
Of the other Afghans who returned home, many are hiding in Pakistan, or are forced to move between Pakistan and Afghanistan to evade the Taliban. They include a man whose two daughters were killed in a Taliban attack on his family's home near Kabul, after his asylum claim was rejected by Australia in 2002.
Senator Evans told the Herald he had asked his department to give him a "full briefing" on the matters raised by the Edmund Rice Centre.
He said the department's initial response, "and I am conscious this is the department's response - is that they don't agree with a lot of the claims made".
But he said he was "taking the claims very seriously" and had "asked for further information about the processes that occurred on Nauru and the robustness and integrity of those processes".
Much of the information Mr Glendenning used to locate the rejected asylum seekers was provided to him by sympathetic Immigration officials, concerned at what had occurred under the Howard government.
He believes the Afghans who left Nauru were "lied to" by Australian officials, and he wants the Government to reopen their cases.
"We now have the opportunity with the new Government to put the mistakes of the past to rest," Mr Glendenning said.
Senator Evans said he had an open mind about reopening some of the cases. It would be a big step, he said. "You would want to be convinced there was something very wrong that occurred.
"What some advocates are saying is you ought put them [the rejected Afghans] as a priority in the humanitarian intake over the claims of others. The reason for that priority is that they once came to Australia, were rejected as refugees, and returned to their country of origin," he said.
This would "fundamentally overturn" the basis on which such decisions were normally made, which was on priority of need.
Philip Ruddock was immigration minister until October 2003. Asked for his comments on the rejected Afghans, he said, "I would never say mistakes are impossible." But he added that Australia's asylum system was "robust and credible". He also said the Afghans left Nauru "voluntarily".
"It is the case that Afghanistan is a dangerous place but the [United Nations] Refugee Convention does not say you cannot be returned to a dangerous place," Mr Ruddock said. "The fact that somebody might tragically die [in Afghanistan] may well be as tragic as a road accident in Sydney."
It's hell for Afghans we rejected
Sydney Morning Herald
IN THE depths of the harsh Afghan winter early this year, Abdul Azmin Rajabi took an Australian with him on a pilgrimage to the graves of his two daughters.
Mr Rajabi placed his hands on the snow-covered tombstones marking where his children now lie, and told Phil Glendenning, the director of the Edmund Rice Centre: "I put my life in danger to help my family, to help my children, but I couldn't."
Mr Rajabi is one of 400 Afghans Australia rejected under the Howard government's "Pacific Solution". His story, along with many others, is told in a documentary, A Well-Founded Fear, to be screened on SBS next month.
He had reason to fear the Taliban in 2001. His family had connections to the previous communist government, and as if this wasn't reason enough for the Taliban to want him dead, he had given up his Islamic faith and had married outside his tribal group.
The Taliban came looking for him and captured his father, who refused to say where his son was. So he was beaten with electrical cords. "When he came home he was unable to walk or talk or sit," the son says in the documentary. "His entire body was blackened with bruises."
He died two days later. So Mr Rajabi fled to Australia, leaving behind his wife and children, in hiding in Iran, waiting until they could join him.
How his two young daughters came to be killed by the Taliban a year later is a tragic consequence of Australia's refusal to grant this Afghan father asylum when he came begging for refuge, say the makers of the documentary.
The decision to embark on such a perilous journey to Australia, aided by people smugglers, was a hard one. "I consoled myself hoping that, although separated from my family, at least I would find a way to keep myself and my family alive," Mr Rajabi says.
Mr Rajabi, a member of the persecuted Hazara ethnic group in Afghanistan, arrived on Nauru in late 2001, where his claim for asylum was rejected and he was given no right of appeal.
He tells Mr Glendenning, whose search for rejected asylum seekers is at the heart of the program, that Immigration officials told him it was safe to go back. They offered to give him $2000 to return "voluntarily", or face indefinite detention. "They told us that even if we stayed there for 10 years we would never be accepted."
So in late 2002 Mr Rajabi went back. Four months later he was at home with his family in a town outside Kabul when an explosion ripped through the walls and windows of his house. He describes in the documentary how first there was one bang, then another. Shrapnel tore through the window, killing his daughter Yalda. Rowna, his youngest daughter, died a few minutes later.
It was a grenade attack, believed to be by the Taliban who, according to local medical authorities and newspaper reports, targeted the family.
Mr Rajabi drops his head into his hands and breaks down, unable to go on.
Today he lives with the remainder of his family in Pakistan, where he can't send his sons to school for fear of their safety.
He only came to Kabul so he could tell Mr Glendenning, and Australia, in person, what happened to him. "We could only speak from our heart, which we did," he says of the account he gave to Australian officials seven years ago, but which they didn't want to believe.
Mohammed Rizae is also a Hazara Afghan who was rejected by Australia. He believes this had something to do with the translators used by Immigration officials on Nauru who were all Pashtuns - the same ethnic group as the Taliban.
He was too scared to tell the translators some aspects of his story, such as the fact he is Ishmaili, a member of the pacifist Islamic sect targeted by the Taliban and the nomadic Kuchis, who are also Pashtuns.
Mr Rizae's grandfather had refused to fight the Soviet-backed communists. He was publicly hanged by the Taliban in a bazaar.
But Australian officials told Mr Rizae there were inconsistencies in his testimony, and they were unable to substantiate his fear of persecution because Afghanistan was now safe.
So in 2002 Australia sent him back to Afghanistan, where he was forced to flee to Pakistan because his old enemies returned to pursue him again. Today his province is in the hands of the Taliban.
"Those places where we live are not and never were secure," he tells Mr Glendenning.
Mr Rizae now spends his days moving between Pakistan and Kabul.
There are many other stories.
Gholam Payador, also an Hazara Afghan sent back to Afghanistan by Australia in 2002, holds up a photo of himself and two other Afghans standing together on Nauru. The other men are now dead, he says. One was shot by two men on a motorcycle.
Mohammed Hussain, another Afghan rejected by Australia, also meets with Mr Glendenning. "I was forced to leave this country, and seeking refuge in Australia worsened my crime," he tells him.
A self-described poet who was working in a coalmine, he disappeared soon after he met the filmmakers. Eyewitnesses saw him taken out from his workplace by gunmen who put him into a 4WD vehicle with blackened windows. Mr Glendenning said he is still missing and there are grave fears for his life.
Fear of the known
Documentary-makers reveal the dark side of the Pacific Solution
Sydney Morning Herald
Anne Delaney hopes her controversial documentary will make many viewers ashamed of being Australian. Or at least make them feel so embarrassed about the Kafkaesque treatment of asylum-seeking refugees under John Howard's so-called Pacific Solution that they put pressure on the Rudd Government to reopen the files of those who risked their lives to appear in her film.
A Well-Founded Fear has already made front-page news. Immigration Minister Chris Evans demanded answers after learning of the documentary's claim that up to 20 asylum seekers rejected by Australia were killed after being sent back to Afghanistan to face the Taliban.
"If we're going to make these life-and-death decisions," Delaney says, "we have to get them right."
The film follows the travels of Phil Glendenning, who is the director of Sydney-based social justice body the Edmund Rice Centre. For six years, the passionate but soberly spoken Glendenning has travelled to some of the world's most dangerous hotspots on the trail of would-be refugees who were rejected by Australia. So far, his team has confirmed the fate of more than 250 returnees in 22 countries, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Columbia. Some rejected by Australia have been allowed asylum in New Zealand, Britain, the US or Canada.
Glendenning's crusade was inspired by a simple question: how do the Australian authorities know they made the right decision when ruling particular asylum seekers could be returned safely to their country of origin if they never checked what happened to them afterwards?
Delaney realised there was an important film to be made soon after being introduced to Glendenning in 2006. By then, Glendenning had presented his early findings to the Howard government, which had rejected them as baseless and inaccurate.
To prove Glendenning's allegations one way or the other, Delaney's film crew would have to accompany him as he met returnees he had tracked down - in places such as Kabul in Afghanistan, Tehran in Iran and Damascus in Syria.
The film was commissioned by SBS while Howard was still prime minister, a decision Delaney describes as "brave, given the political climate". But the Rudd Government had been elected by the time filming started last December (the delays were caused by Taliban offensives or the reluctance of the returnees to be interviewed on camera). Eventually, the delay worked in Delaney's favour.
"Their attitudes towards going public clearly changed," she says. "I think they had just got so desperate. These people really wanted their story told. They wanted the Australian public to know what had happened to them."
Glendenning says the film accurately reflects his work. Some 400 Afghans who were detained on Nauru were told by our immigration officials it was safe to go home. Of those his team have tracked down, "95 per cent are now living in danger", he says.
The cruellest irony is that those who believed the Australian Government live in fear, while "those who remained in Nauru and did not believe what Australian officials told them are now living in Sydney or Melbourne".
"I stood with one man in Kabul who knows that if he hadn't believed the words of the Australian Government, his children would still be alive today."
Does Glendenning feel ashamed of what was done in Australia's name?
"Yes. I feel the Australian people were sold considerably short. Not only were these [refugees] lied to, the Australian people were lied to by a government that decided to exploit vulnerable people for its own political advancement."
But weren't we all complicit? Shouldn't we have asked more questions? Put the Pacific Solution under greater scrutiny?
"I think that's right," Glendenning says. "But it goes primarily to leadership. These people jumped into fishing boats with their pots and pans. "They weren't terrorists. Terrorists travel first class."
Arguably the film's most shocking revelation is the plight of the biduns born in Kuwait who arrived in Australia without passports because they are officially stateless. To be rejected, they needed travel documents - otherwise, they couldn't be sent to a country willing to accept them. The film claims some were allowed to leave Nauru on documents Australian officials knew to be false.
Others were issued with six-month visas to Syria, a country with an appalling human rights record, described by President George Bush as one of the four rogue states in his "Axis of Evil". Once the visas ran out, they were liable for arrest.
"Why Syria?" Delaney asks. "Some questions need to be asked."
Seeking Australian asylum: a well founded fear
Last month, according to media reports, gunmen abducted and then threw Afghan man Mohammed Hussain down a well before killing him with a hand grenade near his home in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A grenade just outside Kabul also hit Abdul Azim Rahim's home in January 2006. His two young daughters, Rowna and Yalda, were killed.
Two and a half years earlier, in August 2003, Mohammad Mussa Nazari was gunned down near his home in Ghazni province.
Mohammed, Azim and Mussa had all fled their homeland to seek protection in Australia. Instead of receiving protection and safety, they were detained within Australia's Pacific Solution before being returned to Afghanistan; a country racked by violence.
Their stories are told in the documentary A Well Founded Fear, screened on SBS on November 19. The film follows Phil Glendenning, director of the Edmund Rice Centre, as he travels to Syria, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan - where Mohammed was abducted during filming - seeking to uncover the fate of some of those people that Australia returned after they sought asylum here.
The documentary provides a harrowing insight into the consequences of Australia's response to people seeking protection during the Howard years.
It hints at the destructive implications of Australia's mandatory detention policy that forced asylum seekers to choose between the daily psychological destruction of indefinite incarceration or returning to situations where their lives and liberties were threatened. It is a story of corrupt, and arguably illegal, practices on the part of some Australian immigration officials.
But it is also a story of the violation of basic human rights, including the right to life. The Edmund Rice Centre has documented the deaths of "as many as nine men returned from Nauru" and "three children of people sent back from Nauru". According to Phil Glendenning, as many as 20 returnees from the Pacific Solution could have been killed.
At the beginning of the film, Glendenning asks how it could be that we, as Australians, could allow this to happen "and at the same time not imagine how we would feel if it was done to us?" How is it that we could show such a lack of empathy? How is it that we could not see their suffering?
The answer lies, in large part, in the political manipulation of distance between "us" and "them" - the mainly Afghan, Iraqi, and Iranian asylum seekers who began arriving in Australia by boat in significant numbers from 1999.
The Howard government and its supporters in the media promoted a sense that the asylum seekers were somehow different from us. They were labelled as "illegals", "queue jumpers" and in the terrible, bureaucratic jargon of the government, SUNCs; suspected unauthorised non-citizens. They were said to be criminals, terrorists and threats to something called "the Australian way of life". Worse, they were portrayed as being less human than we are, as though they were incapable of the same depth of experience and attachment to loved ones that we share.
The sense of distance that Australians were encouraged to feel towards people seeking our protection fed an indifference to their plight. The official response to stories of their ill-treatment and even death upon return exemplified this.
When confronted by reports of Mohammad Mussa Nazari's murder, then immigration minister, Amanda Vanstone, told the Senate that while "tragic" it did not reflect the inadequacy of Australia's protection determination processes.
In late 2003, after a group of Afghans from the Pacific Solution had been returned by Australia amid reports of ongoing insecurity in Afghanistan, Vanstone denied that Australia would return people to danger, and then, mimicking her predecessor Philip Ruddock, drew parallels between the risks of returning to a life in war-ravaged Afghanistan and "walking across the street".
Furthermore, in late 2006, after the Edmund Rice Centre had uncovered the deaths of more asylum seekers returned from Australian detention centres, Senator Vanstone scoffed at any sense of responsibility we might have to the relatively small number of people who could have been helped. Instead Senator Vanstone suggested that out of the millions of people who had returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, "It would not surprise me if ... not all of them are alive".
The stories told in A Well Founded Fear are not new. They have been documented in earlier reports of the Edmund Rice Centre and in my own work.
But they are stories that need to be told again and again.
In part this is because nothing has been done to rescue the hundreds of people who were denied protection by Australia and sent back to danger.
The Rudd Government must re-open the cases of Afghans and others returned by Australia during the Howard years and bring those in need of protection back to these shores.
However, in order that such people be saved, we as Australians need to accept responsibility for the acts that were perpetrated in our names. A thorough inquiry into Australia's return policy and practice ought to be conducted; nor is this only for the benefit of those returned. As Glendenning says in the documentary, our treatment of these asylum seekers not only violated their rights but also compromised our own humanity. We are a lesser nation for the fate to which we have returned these people.
Furthermore, there is a need not to repeat the mistakes made by the Howard government. The Rudd Government has done a good deal to curb some of the worst excesses of the Howard government's response to asylum seekers. But, there is always a danger that unless we take full account of the past we risk making the same mistakes again.
As A Well Founded Fear draws to a close, we see Azim at the graveside of Yalda and Rowna. He tells us of an Afghan saying: "The water runs where it has run in the past." There are profound human reasons for us, as Australians, to do everything that we can to ensure that in this instance, this old Afghan saying is proved wrong when it comes to Australia's treatment of asylum seekers.
Immigration officials who breached rights 'should face action'
ABC ONLINE NEWS
A former human rights commissioner says Immigration Department officials who breached human rights under the Howard government need to face disciplinary action.
Cultural problems in the department were identified in several inquiries into detention conditions and illegal deportations.
Dr Sev Ozdowski, who is now at the University of Western Sydney, says the politicians have left government but it is not known whether public servants who still deal with asylum seekers meet required ethical standards.
"There was systemic problems and it's very difficult to put it under carpet and say 'now we provide better training for our officers and now the Government is telling us that we should behave better, so we are behaving better'," he said.
"We won't fix it unless we address the issue."
Dr Ozdowski told a parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention that the Government's move to make detention a last resort is welcome, but it needs to become law.
He says assessments of staff over past wrongful detention or deportations would ensure Immigration Department culture does change.
"I think they should be verified by the public service as to whether they are fit to serve in the Australian public service," he said.
Dr Ozdowski says it would not be a witch-hunt, but it could change a culture where overzealous public servants did not provide fearless and unbiased advice to the Howard government.