Who cares? 

One Man's Web  Politics and Ethics  Who cares?
Posted January 4 2004

A friend has this posted on his in-tray for all to read: Refugees- The government is doing to them what it would like to do to you.

Writing about the expulsion of the Bakhtiari family from Australia after years of imprisonment, Julian Burnside says: [Link valid 4-1-2005]

From here on the cruelty is pointless.
On the other hand, showing compassion to the family would have gone a small way to restoring this country's name for decency and humanity. Unfortunately, the Government seems concerned that mercy and compassion set a bad precedent. Given that it has a discretion to allow the family to stay, it is hard to understand why it insists on removing these people it has damaged so badly, unless its purpose is to send a message - not to people smugglers, but to us. Its message to us is this: we hold absolute power; we do not have to acknowledge public sentiment; we can crush anyone who messes with us.

One of the truisms we often hear is that you can tell the true nature of a country by the way it treats its most powerless, the prisoners, and the poor and dispossessed. Certainly the biblical prophets constantly judge their rulers, and the nation, on the basis of the treatment of widows and orphans- and of the stranger, or alien, to their country. (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Deuteronomy 27:19 "Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice." All the people shall say, "Amen!")

When I listen to government statements on the expulsion of refugees and similar issues, there seems almost a tone of satisfaction.  The words may express regret, and mention the difficulty of the choices to be made, but the tone is something else.  Compassion is lacking in the colour and tone of the statements.  The continued existence of the prison at Baxter, and the pettiness and nastiness of the place bear out this impression.  When Immigration came, the littlest Bakhtiari  had a dirty nappy, and they would not even let it be changed.  They arrived early in the morning, so that the family was gone before its supporters even knew.  They flew the family out of the country in the middle of the night.  Always there are good reasons given.... but in novels and films, and in history, we associate this behaviour and denial of basic decency with dictatorship and evil.

riticism comes from all sides of politics. In an article where she takes Phillip Adams to task Miranda Devine says: [Link live at 4-1-2005]

Australia's record has been besmirched by issues such as the delay in releasing children from detention when conditions in centres grew unsafe. There is also a question about adequate care. I have met one young African refugee (who asked to remain anonymous) who says his requests for medical help at a detention centre were ignored until he collapsed. He now suffers serious, long-term health problems.

The truth of such claims is well established.

There is something happening in Australia which I don't quite understand.  Miranda Devine's article is an illustration. She is aware of the shortcomings in our system.  She is blunt in her criticism.  Yet she needs to show that we are good with refugees, up there with the best... not that the best is anything to boast about.  And she makes much of the lie the
Bakhtiari family have allegedly told by claiming to be from Afghanistan. I've heard this from a number of people; a kind of reluctant admission, or even disgust, about our treatment of people followed by, "but they're breaking the law....  " or, "but they are not really refugees....".

It's as though the undeniable facts of the evil of our treatment of children, and their families, are beating against, but not breaking through, some underlying, deep rooted prejudice which says these people have no right to be here.  I've had this conversation, sometimes barely civil, with a colleague for over twelve months.  Now even they raise the issue of ill-treatment!  They are disgusted by what they see.  And yet sometimes they display a cold outrage at these people who have come, and have the temerity not to slink away, but to claim their human right to protection.


I have become increasingly aware of the social divides in Australia. I live in a definite non-A-List suburb.  But I work with and for people who live in the A-List suburbs.  Many of these people have expectations about life and income that I cannot aspire to, such as the yearly overseas holiday and the European-made car.  I feel a little like the long-serving family man-servant; privy to much of what goes on, even invited to functions, but inferior.  My colleagues would be surprised and hurt by this, but it's true.  As I say sometimes: How do you spoil a good party conversation in Burnside?  Answer: Tell people you live in Elizabeth.  The prejudice, and the assumed personal superiority, is real. Perhaps they also feel a certain guilt at their good fortune and lack of charity, and a fear of losing it all.

It is also a prejudice I suffer from, when noisy, ill-mannered, and truly un-civilised people are on the train into the city, or louting loudly from their car at the lights. I am rightly cautious for my safety. Beyond this sensible fear, though, I am aware of something else.  An underlying, deep rooted prejudice against these people who are different, and who threaten my comfort and way of life. I also feel a certain guilt at my good fortune and lack of charity, and a fear of losing it all.

Plain human decency dictates to me that whatever lies the parents of the Bakhtiari family may have told, this should not be held against innocent children.  It has been held against them by Australia, which has punished them severely.  It would be decent to have confessed our sin against the children, and let them stay.  (Sometimes I wonder why Vanstone, pragmatic as she is, does not simply draw a line in the sand, and let the Baxter people out, and get them into jobs, as a simply far economically cheaper way of dealing with them!)

There are more important reasons to honour the Bakhtiari family, and those like them.  Compassion is also the conscious and determined act of turning full in the face of our class prejudice, and all the greed that goes with it, and our atavistic fear of that which is different.  Compassion is a civilising act in the face of consumerism and social uncertainty and breakdown.  It is one hope for overcoming the fear I feel along with the outrage. If we will not be compassionate, we will lose our society.




The family's supporters remain adamant they are Afghan refugees. But unless Vanstone and her department really are liars or incompetent, and the Refugee Review Tribunal and several courts are all wrong, the evidence says the Bakhtiaris are not refugees, as defined by the United Nations convention, but a plumber and his family from Pakistan hoping to make a better life in Australia. Miranda Devine. 

Whether the family comes from Afghanistan or from Quetta in Pakistan is a matter of debate, and the rival claims will never be resolved. However, it is worth noting that the Bakhtiaris are Hazaras, from an ethnic group whose territory runs diagonally across Afghanistan and into Pakistan, near Quetta. The Hazaras have been persecuted in both countries for centuries. Debating which side of the border they come from is as arid as debating in 1939 whether a Jew came from Poland or Germany. Julian Burnside 
Also Burnside: To determine whether they get a visa, a single member of the Refugee Review Tribunal receives all manner of evidence - reliable and unreliable, direct and hearsay, speculation and rumour. If that person gets the facts wrong, the courts can do almost nothing to correct the mistakes.

From an SA Council of Churches email Dec 2004:
 In Ausnews@yahoogroups.com, "Nick Poynder" <npoynder@f... wrote:
 I rarely get involved in online discussions with large groups of unidentified people, but the situation with the Bakhtiyaris isbecoming desperate and information doesn't seem to be getting out.

 In about December 2003/January 2004 Mrs Bakhtiyari's brother, Mazhar Ali, was deported to Pakistan.  He and his Australian escorts were initially refused entry into Pakistan, but after some discussion he was allowed to enter Pakistan, from where (surprise surprise) he returned to his home in Afghanistan.
 Mr Ali collected a number of letters and documents to prove that the Bakhtiyari family was from that village.  These included:
  Confirmation from the District Governor that Mrs Bakhtiyari and her family are Afghan citizens.
  Confirmation of the Governor of the Province in relation to Mr Bakhtiyari's origin.
  Confirmation from the residence of a local mosque that Mr and Mrs Bakhtiyari are from the district.
  Document from the Transitional Islamic Government of Afghanistan containing confirmation from a representative of the village confirming the residency of the relatives of Mazar Ali.  The document  also contains confirmation from the local high school that Mazar Ali is from the village.
  Confirmation from an Acting District Governor that Mr and Mrs Bakhtiyari are Afghan citizens.
 These documents were provided to the Minister's office on 8 June 2004.  No substantive response has yet been received.
 Then in July/August 2004 Mazar Ali travelled to Kabul and met a guy called Simon Russell, who has been working in Afghanistan with the Norwegian Refugee Council since December 2002. On 17 September 2004 Mr Russell provided a statement confirming that Mazar Ali is without doubt is a Hazara from the central region of Afghanistan.  This was apparently provided to the Minister only a few weeks ago; again no  response.
 From what I understand of Afghanistan, it is not surprising that there has been confusion over the identification of the village.  However the fact remains that Mrs Bakhtiyari's brother is from Afghanistan,  ergo Mrs Bakhtiyari is from Afghanistan, ergo Mr Bakhtiyari is from Afghanistan. Ergo they have all been wrongly denied protection visas and have spent years in detention for nothing.
 I was interviewed by a journalist about the above material only a few days ago, yet there is still nothing in the media about this.  I don't propose to involve myself further in these discussions, as there are plenty of others who can do this.  But I am surprised that the above information does not yet appear to have been made public.
 Nicholas Poynder
 Frederick Jordan Chambers
 53 Martin Place
 Sydney 2000
 New South Wales
 Tel: +61 2 9229 7352
 Fax: +61 2 9221 6944




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