Family's Asylum Fight Spotlights Australia's Refugee Woes

When it comes to life's hardships, Ali Baktiyari has had more than his fair share, but by all accounts the events of July 18 were among the worst — if only because hope seemed so very, very close.

More than two years after he arrived on Australian shores onboard a cramped boat bearing weary asylum-seekers from Central and South Asia, Baktiyari was finally going to be reunited with his two sons, Alamdar, 14, and Muntazer, 12, in freedom.

Or so he thought.

In a dramatic buildup of events that has put his family at the center of a human rights storm in Australia, Baktiyari had traveled from Sydney — where he currently resides — to the southern Australian city of Melbourne to meet his boys.

In June, the 43-year-old father of five had heard that his sons were part of a group of more than 30 detainees who broke out from the notorious Woomera detention center in the remote southern Australian desert. And for 21 days, as the news media carried reports of police combing the harsh, unyielding outback for the runaways, Baktiyari was sick with worry.

But aided by refugee rights activists, the boys made it to Melbourne where they sought asylum at the British diplomatic mission.

Cyrus Saring, a friend and a fellow refugee, was at Baktiyari's Sydney apartment that July morning when he finally heard from his sons. "They called him from the British Consulate in Melbourne and just said, 'hello dad, we're fine,'" Saring recounts during a phone interview with "His hand started shaking and he was crying with joy. Then he put down the phone and started doing namaz [prayers] to thank Allah."

The two men immediately boarded a flight to Melbourne, while a network of refugee rights activists alerted the national and international press.

A Melee at Melbourne Airport

The Baktiyari family's long, cross-continental reunification attempt seemed to be heading in a positive direction as the two friends arrived at the Melbourne Airport.

"When we got there, all the cameras and the reporters were there," says Saring. "And there were also ordinary people there — they started clapping when they saw him and shaking his hands and saying they're with him, they're happy for him, they were excellent."

But things took a rapid turn for the worse.

In the taxi from the airport to the British Consulate, Saring got a call on his cell phone from a journalist who told him he was heading the wrong way — Britain had rejected the boys' asylum plea, claiming there were "no grounds for anyone to seek asylum in Britain from Australia."

Reporters on the scene described the two weeping boys being led from the British Consulate to a Melbourne detention center before being put on a chartered flight to Woomera to rejoin their mother and three little sisters in the camp.

A Long Journey

The Baktiyari family saga began in October 1999, when Baktiyari, who says he is a member of Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic minority, arrived alone in Sydney. Australian immigration officials determined he was a genuine case and granted him a temporary protection visa.

But his wife and five children, who arrived separately in January 2001, were refused asylum and have been in detention at the Woomera camp ever since.

In a case study that has proved to be a microcosm of the problems plaguing Australia's illegal-entry asylum policies, Baktiyari had no idea his family members, who he says he left in his village in the Uruzgan province of central Afghanistan, had made it to Australia with his brother.

It was a former Woomera detainee who informed him that his family was in the camp. Since then, he has met his wife and children only twice although he is allowed phone calls.

But all attempts to reunite the family has proved unsuccessful as the case has hardened the lines between human rights groups on one side and the Australian Immigration Department on the other.

Tough Policy on Illegal Immigration

Australia has traditionally been relatively generous to refugees whose status has been determined before they land on Australian shores to be resettled legally.

But when it comes to the treatment of spontaneous asylum-seekers who arrive illegally, mostly on boats via Indonesia, Australia has one of the toughest policies in the world.

Although rights groups have identified many areas of concern, Australia's detention of asylum-seekers while their cases are being assessed — a process that can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years — has earned harsh international criticism.

"Our position on this is well known," says Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the Geneva-based UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). "We oppose the detention of asylum seekers, especially the detention of minors. In our view, people can be detained only for a short time while their identity is being determined."

The only other developed country with comparable policies is the United States, which detains all asylum seekers arriving on its shores illegally.

But while U.S. law allows for a judicial review of asylum cases, experts say a controversial 1998 law has severely limited the Australian courts' ability to review asylum decisions, thereby effectively removing appeal rights.

In the latest in a series of condemnations by international organizations, a report by the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights released last month, called Australia's policy of detaining asylum seekers in remote camps "inhuman and degrading."

But on its part, the Australian government has repeatedly defended its detention policy. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation earlier this month, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the report, "ignores the fact that people in immigration detention have either become unlawful or have arrived in Australia without lawful authority."

Spotlight on Woomera

Besides the legal concerns regarding the possible arbitrary nature of detention, rights groups have also raised alarms over the conditions under which asylum-seekers are detained, often in remote locations, with little regard for keeping family units together.

In the past few years, international attention on the detention conditions has focused on the Woomera Detention Center situated in a former rocket testing range in the hostile, virtually uninhabited southern Australian desert, where temperatures can exceed 140 degrees F.

Once the largest detention center for illegal immigrants in Australia, Woomera has been the site of a spate of protests by inmates and activist groups in recent years.

Rights groups have been particularly disturbed by what is called incidents of "self-harm," where detainees have sewn their lips, sliced their wrists, launched hunger strikes and even attempted suicide.

And a recent U.N. report warned about what has been called a pervasive "collective depression" among children in detention in Australia.

According to government figures, as of May 2002, there were 1,495 persons in immigration detention, 65 of whom were female minors and 105 male minors. Woomera itself has 35 children among the 230 detainees.

Offshore Island Camps

At its peak, Woomera hosted just under a thousand illegal immigrants, but the number of detainees have been falling following government plans to "scale down" the center.

Although a new detention facility is currently under construction in the southern Australian town of Baxter, Australia's recent policy of paying Pacific island nations to take in "boatpeople" has been condemned as cruel and demeaning.

Last year, Australia showed it was serious about stemming the flow of boatpeople on its shores when it refused entry to 433 mainly Afghan refugees in August, who were picked up by the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, near Australia's Christmas Island.

A high-tension international stand-off ended only when neighboring New Zealand and the island of Nauru agreed to take the boatpeople — the latter in return for payment. Since then, Australia has also done a deal with Papua New Guinea.

International monitors visiting the island camps however, have sharply criticized the conditions there. In a report put together for Amnesty International in December, John Pace, a former U.N. official described the camps in Nauru as "hellish" and "Dante-like."

A Front-Burner Political Issue

Nearly 50 years after Australia revoked its now-infamous "White Australia policy," some experts say a fear of being "swamped" by "hordes" of Asians lingers on in the Australian psyche despite a concerted move towards "cultural pluralism" during the early 1970s.

But while immigration has been a longstanding issue, with waves of Vietnamese and Cambodian boatpeople arriving on Australian shores during the '70s and '80s, the current administration, led by Prime Minister John Howard, has made the unauthorized arrival of asylum seekers a front-burner political issue.

Three months after the Tampa incident, Howard won a third term in office on a wave of what some commentators called "widespread political support" for his immigration policies.

"There has been a deliberate strategy of the current government to popularize the issue of detention and to cultivate fear," says Eve Lester, Refugee Coordinator of the London-based Amnesty International. "It has become a very powerful election issue now."

Questioning the Case

And in a climate where the lines between activists and ordinary Australians supporting refugee rights on one side and those in favor of tough policies on the other are drawn, the Baktiyari case has turned into the center of an increasingly acrimonious storm.

While some commentators have charged that the case has been emotionally manipulated by rights groups, others have expressed concern over the government's publicly hardening immigration stance.

While the Department of Immigration has said the family is in fact Pakistani, the Baktiyaris insist they are Hazaras who fled central Afghanistan for Pakistan before making their way to Australia.

Rights groups have reacted angrily to the government's charges that the family is Pakistani. "It is totally inappropriate and unacceptable for the government to make such public comments before the case has been finally resolved," says Lester. "The government is discrediting this person rather than give him the opportunity to have the merits of his case — and that of both sides — officially considered."

While Sirang worries that Baktiyari's temporary protection visa will be revoked when it comes up for review next year, rights groups are not willing to comment on a possible outcome.

"I don't know where this is going to lead," says Lester. "What I can certainly say is I hope his right to have a fair consideration of his claims — and that of his family's — is not compromised."

Meanwhile, Sirang says his friend worries about his children's physical and mental health in Woomera.

A report by Woomera detention center psychologist Marie O'Neill last year found his eldest boy, Alamdar, to be severely depressed and traumatized by the conditions around him.

"The mother cannot control them, she's an illiterate woman from the village," says Sirang. "The boys are mental cases — they've been though so much trauma, they tell their father how they've seen grown men slash their stomachs and people sew their lips together. We have to help this family. We have to help all families who have to live this way."