Iran... Go Home? 

One Man's Web > Politics and Ethics > Australia and the refugees > Iran... Go Home?
Posted 29/6/2003

This was kindly brought to my attention by Senator Stott Despoja. You can see the original in Hansard [Date 26 March, 2003 Database Senate Hansard  Speaker Bartlett, Sen Andrew (Leader of the Australian Democrats, AD, Queensland, Opposition) Interjector Patterson, Sen Kay Page 10243 Source Senate ]


Senator BARTLETT  (Queensland— Leader of the Australian Democrats) (5.00 p.m.) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

About an hour ago in this place Senator Ludwig listed 21 returns to order that the government has failed to comply with in recent times. Even though he said that he had not had time to research to see whether that was a record, I can almost guarantee that it is—

Senator Patterson —It might be a record number of returns to order, too.

Senator BARTLETT —in part because there is a record number of returns to order happening. I agree with that statement of Senator Patterson. It is still a very large number and an indication of what is in effect a contempt of the Senate, in my view and in the Democrats' view. That is perhaps reflected by the words of the minister's statement, which were that the Senate resolution `requested' a copy of the document. It is not a request, it is an order; that is why it is called a return to order. It is a defiance of an order of the Senate to fail to do so. Once again, we have the totally undefinable and catch-all defence of `It is not in the public interest to say why this document can't be tabled.'

The minister then said—no doubt words given to her by the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs— that the matter contains sensitive immigration information and there was a guarantee given at the time it was negotiated that it would not be made public. The government should not give guarantees like that; they should not be negotiating with the intention of keeping documents secret and then relying on that intent to justify not releasing them. It is very much in the public interest for the public to know what sort of agreement the federal government have reached with the government of Iran—a government, let me remind the Senate, that is part of President Bush's axis of evil and that is frequently criticised for significant human rights breaches.

We have had the government in this place today and in recent times making lots of statements about the terrible human rights abuses in Iraq and how concerned they are for the people in Iraq. Iran might not be up at that level but it is certainly pretty high up in terms of nations that have significant human rights breaches inflicted on its people across the board. Yet this government have negotiated an agreement with that nation to make it easier for them to return people to that very nation. The minister will say that they are people who have been proven not to be refugees and therefore have no legitimate fear of persecution. Two things need to be said in response to that. Firstly, the hurdle for being recognised as a legitimate refugee under Australian law is fairly high. There is a very tight definition. Secondly, the issue of persecution is much wider than that just under the refugee convention. There are plenty of other ways you can be persecuted than the ways outlined in the refugee convention.

Senator Patterson —That is absolutely untrue. More people get through. It would pay you to get your facts straight.

Senator BARTLETT —The minister wants to interject about people not getting their facts straight, yet they hide behind secret documents that they will not let the public see. It is an absolute undeniable fact because it is clearly on the public record that there are many ways to be persecuted other than under the definitions in the refugee convention, which are very specific. You can be persecuted for a lot of reasons other than those outlined in the refugee convention. If Minister Patterson is not aware of that it is a great tragedy given her former role as parliamentary secretary.

Senator Patterson —This is misrepresentation.

Senator BARTLETT —I know you have been misrepresenting me but that does not mean I am not going to respond. The convention against torture, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on Civil and Political Rights require Australia to ensure that people's safety is protected. The convention against torture in particular requires us not to send people back to situations where they may face persecution for any reason, not just the narrow reasons contained in the refugee convention. Yet that is the situation faced by virtually all the Iranians who are in detention in Australia now, at whom this MOU is aimed. This MOU with Iran was adopted specifically with the aim of enabling the deportation of Iranian detainees. It will enable easier deportation of all people to Iran, of course, but that was the intent, that was the driving force behind the government's desire to adopt it.

Once again we have it being used as a form of psychological pressure, adding to all the other psychological pressures used on detainees: `We'll give you a financial incentive to return home. That incentive is available for only a short period of time. If you do not take it then we now have this new secret MOU—nobody knows what is in it—that says we can send you back anyway.' That is an ongoing part of the psychological pressure that is being brought to bear repeatedly on detainees, not just from Iran but also from Afghanistan and Iraq. The effect of that psychological pressure is being seen every day in terms of the almost epidemic—literally— levels of serious depression and psychiatric disorders created directly as a result of the prolonged detention that this government inflicts on those people. There are ample testimonials from psychiatric experts, mental health workers, health workers who have worked in the camps and others that have quite directly drawn the link between the ill health, the mental illness, the psychiatric disorders and the depression generated by the detention regime and by the continual pressure because of the fear of being sent back to a place where people have a legitimate fear of persecution.

Nobody is going to sit in a jail in the desert for years on end rather than go back to somewhere where they feel quite safe. People have a genuine fear of the sorts of things that this government has outlined in great detail about Iraq in recent times. After the sorts of things the government has been saying the entire Iraqi people are afflicted with, why would anybody in their right mind be thinking it is safe to go back there? Yet that is the sort of line that this government is trying to suggest to the Australian people— that it is safe for people to return. There is a big difference between not meeting the narrow definition of the refugee convention and absolute safety. There are some basic humanitarian issues involved there.

The government have made great play in recent times about their immense humanitarian concern for the civilians of Iraq. Well, here is a simple way for them to demonstrate that humanitarian concern: let them into the Australian community. It would not cost the government a dollar; in fact it would save them quite a lot of money because of the outrageous cost of detention, and it would cease the immense psychological trauma that is literally driving these people mad, driving them to despair and to suicide. That should not be tolerated in a humane society.

Because the government has refused to table the document, which contains so-called `sensitive immigration matters', this means that nobody knows the legality or the extent of the agreements that the government has reached with Iran. Once again, as in so many other areas in refugee and immigration law, this government is putting itself outside the law, outside the reach of scrutiny, above and beyond the rule of law. It is the latest in a long line of legislative amendments and actions by this government in the immigration area to totally remove itself from any public scrutiny.

I imagine that most, if not all, of these people would have put in section 417 requests to the minister seeking his intervention. The rationale for his decisions and the nature of the consideration given to those requests are completely private. They are not made public in any way beyond whether the minister has made a decision to agree to intervene. The only thing that is made public is what the decision is.

The degree of total secrecy and the total lack of transparency in life and death areas is simply shameful. Now we have a so-called `historic' memorandum of understanding with the Iranian government—widely acknowledged as a government involved in, or overseeing, a nation that has significant human rights abuses—aimed at enabling an easier return of people to that regime. The fact that, as we speak, Iranians in detention are being pressured even more by the department to accept so-called `voluntary' return makes it absolutely critical that this document be made public. Nobody can confidently rely on the process used to legitimise these deportations if that process relies on a secret agreement. It is a fundamental issue in terms of the accountability of government decision making in an area that is literally one of life and death.

Anybody that has taken the trouble to meet the individual people or to read some of their testimonies or reports by health workers and others sees the massive human trauma and human cost that occurs as a direct result of this government's policy—a policy that, admittedly, builds on the policy of the previous Labor government in relation to mandatory detention. The psychological pressure that is put on all these people to sign a piece of paper saying they return voluntarily is enormous. That is why we are seeing so much trauma, so much disorder and so much depression in these centres. We are supposedly trying to say to these people, `This is all legitimate. It is fine. We have your best interests at heart,' yet the government will not even release the agreements it has made with Iran about this issue. When you have genuine and legitimate concerns about people being returned to a place where they have real fear for their safety, to say that that return is conducted on the basis of a secret document is a pretty bad principle.

Let us leave aside for a moment the problem of the government showing contempt for the Senate by ignoring returns to order—serious though that is—we should not even need to do returns to order to get documents like this made public. It should be part of open government. The fact that the government from the outset has obviously had the intent to keep it secret because that was part of the negotiations, according to the minister's statement, highlights again the whole culture of secrecy and the lack of transparency and accountability to the law and to basic principles of governance and human rights that so pervades the area of immigration in particular. Once those basic principles are seen as able to be ignored in certain circumstances, then it is quite easy to say, `We have done it in this area, why can't we also do it here? Why can't we do it in another area?' The whole practice of secrecy and lack of concern for particular principles when they are not convenient can then permeate all other areas of government activity. I think we have seen evidence of that in recent times. That is why it is so important to make these points, to stand up on these matters and to try to hold the government accountable.

There are people today suffering enormously, literally on the edge of breakdown and in complete despair. They are being affected directly by this document. Their futures are fundamentally intertwined with this MOU. Their very survival may be intertwined with this MOU, and yet it will remain a secret document between this government and the Islamic Republic of Iran. I think that is a very worrying scenario. It is one that the Democrats deeply regret and strongly condemn. We will continue to advocate on behalf of those people in detention because they deserve to know that there are people in Australia who do have concern for their wellbeing, who do believe that basic humanity is something that needs to be acknowledged and stood up for.

I send out the message to those people who are suffering as a direct consequence— indeed, as a deliberate consequence—of government policy that there are many people in the Australian community, the Democrats among them, who do support you and are doing everything they can to try to end your suffering. It is a deliberate intent on the part of the government to make these people suffer, because that is a key way, in its view, to make them return to other countries—that is, to break them down so that they have no hope, see no future and say, as many of them do, `I may as well die quickly back where I was born rather than die slowly in a jail in Australia.'

The fact that our nation has deliberately executed, and continues to deliberately execute, a public policy with that outcome is simply inexcusable. I think it is incumbent upon the Australian public and everyone in this place to do what we can to turn that policy around. There is no doubt that, for people who do not wish to return home voluntarily to countries like Iran and Iraq, the deliberate intent of the regime of detention and the other ways that people are treated is to destroy all of their hope until they feel that they have no future and no hope and that they may as well go home to face the very horrors and fears that they fled from. The fact that Australia is doing that is a tragedy. The refusal to make public the agreements that the government has reached with Iran compounds again the outrageous behaviour of the government in this whole area. This is an issue the Democrats certainly will not give up on, and I know many other Australians will not either.


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