Monthly Archives: October 2013

Death of compassion; birth of hope

October 31, 2013

Rod Lewis (right) with Ali.

Rod Lewis (right) with Ali.

COMMENT | This week marks what I believe is a first for South Australia: an ayslum seeker, who arrived here by boat as an unaccompanied minor, has graduated from high school.

After fleeing Afghanistan and making it to our shores, Ali has excelled in his studies despite all language barriers.

Yesterday, he finished high school and now awaits news of his acceptance to university.

This lad has become part of my family. He is my son. Over the past few years, I have helped and watched him grow from a lost soul to a productive and enthusiastic member of our society – one who is not only studying hard in a new language to better his own future, but one who has dedicated his life to helping Australians understand the global issue of asylum seekers. He is a public speaker, and dedicates his time and energy to help his fellow Hazara peers to improve their life too. He’s an amazing individual. And he’s only 18.

A few years ago, the federal government started a community detention program for unaccompanied minors – asylum seekers (“boat people”) who were teenagers who had made the voyage without any parents or family. The program took these teenagers out of the harsh regime of Christmas Island and other adult detention centres and put them into staffed detention houses in the community where they could get 24-hour support and supervision, start attending school and begin to normalise their life. There has NEVER been an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker who has not been accepted as a refugee.

Through Baptist Care SA, I was asked to join the program and was in the first wave of volunteer mentors to be matched with one of the teenagers in community detention. It was one of those rare matches that was perfect. Ali is now living independently, but he and I have become a father/son team. He’s accepted as my son by both family and friends.

Of all the unaccompanied minors who have been through the system so far,  I believe Ali was the first in the State (and, I believe, nationally, but I can’t confirm that) to graduate from English language school to attend regular high school, and he’s now the first in the State to complete high school. He’s applied to do IT at university next year, and considering that he’s maintained an A/B average, I’m sure he’ll be accepted.

While this is a positive story, I believe that, as a country, we are creating the very world that we fear.

Instead of compassion and neighbourly love, we are building a world of bigotry, hatred and racial unrest. I can’t understand why we want that future for our children. The only way to give our kids a better life is to teach them to embrace the tapestry of life and show compassion to those who need it most. As Buddha said, we are the heir to our actions. If we hate people, they’ll learn to hate us back. If we welcome them and help them adjust to our culture, they’ll embrace us and contribute to our society.

I have a relative who recently posted on Facebook that we should “sink the boats”. He hates asylum seekers, almost obsessively, yet he donates furniture to refugees, spends his weekends helping mates, and absolutely does not condone mass murder. The fact that he has completely de-humanised “boat people” is an indictment on just how much our politicians and media have managed to destroy Australia’s compassion. Asylum seekers are no more than broken toys to be discarded in the hard rubbish. He does not associate “sinking the boats” with the mass death of women, children and displaced men.

As a country, we need to change the conversation. If “boat people” are criminals, like our politicians want us to believe, then why aren’t they facing our criminal courts like every other criminal in the country? They don’t face the courts because they’ve committed no crime. The language is a misleading technicality because international laws state that anyone can seek asylum by any means necessary. There is no “queue” to jump and they’re not “country hopping”: countries that are not a signatory to the Refugee Convention will just deport them right back to danger, so they have to keep moving.

I used to believe that only the rich were asylum seekers because they could afford to pay people smugglers, but since educating myself I’ve realised how many families sell their home and their livelihoods just to get one child to safety. They destroy their own future for the sake of their child. If that isn’t love, what is it?

One of my Afghan friends recently attended his sister’s wedding in Quetta City in Pakistan, where Hazara people are killed weekly (a fact that our media fails to acknowledge). In his first week there, within three blocks of his family home there was a suicide bombing, a rocket launch and a bus blown up. Thank God he survived, but if it was my family living there, I’d do all that I could to get them out.

Australians are a compassionate people who have lost their way. We are one of the richest countries in the world and have more space and capacity than most other countries. The number of “boat people” we received annually during the Labor government was less than the number received monthly by many other countries. We were something like 49th on the list of countries receiving asylum seekers. A quick Google search would dispel most myths, but sadly those who hate are not interested in educating themselves. It’s only those who love who seek to understand both sides of the argument so they can present a logical defence.

Ali is a shining example of how much asylum seekers and refugees can contribute to our society – just like founder of Westfield, Frank Lowy, and Hieu Van Le, the Lieutenant Governor of South Australia.

For the sake of our children and the future of this country, we need to reject media sound bites and political fear-mongering.

It doesn’t take much research to find out the truth.

Until we, as a society, change our attitude, our politicians will continue to blame the victim and build an Australia full of hatred and racial unrest. Personally, I don’t want that for Ali. I want him and future generations to live in a harmonious world.

Yesterday was a wonderful day because an unaccompanied minor asylum seeker has motivated himself to take on a part time job so he can pay rent and afford to go to school, do homework, and study in a foreign language without any parental pressure or guidance.

He completed his schooling without the kind of support and luxuries that so many Australian kids take for granted. His success is entirely his own. And if you think that’s the trait of a bad person, then you need to question your own definition of morality.

Rod Lewis is a volunteer mentor with the Baptist Care SA Refugee Services. He is an SA finalist in the Australian Local Hero Award – part of the 2014 Australian of the Year awards.



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Australia’s draconian refugee policy is built on myths

October 31, 2013

Far from being beseiged by boat people, Australia only takes in 1.47% of the world’s asylum seekers. It’s time we dropped the political point-scoring and looked at the facts.

Riot police at the Villawood detention centre in 2011
Riot police at the Villawood detention centre, NSW, in 2011. Photograph: Tim Wimbourne/Reuters

At the heart of Australia’s hardline approach to asylum seekers is a fundamental misconception – the assumption that draconian measures will deter desperate people. And on top of such flawed logic many a politically expedient myth has been built.

Research shows that the details of a country’s asylum policy, including deterrence mechanisms, have little influence on an asylum seeker’s choice of destination.

Hazaras from Afghanistan, for example, told British researchers that they understood the risks of engaging people smugglers and travelling by boat to Australia, but given the threat of persecution by the Taliban and general insecurity in their own region, “the cost benefit analysis clearly favours clandestine migration.”

Since every choice an asylum seeker makes involves risk, it is unsurprising that threats of detention or offshore processing don’t necessarily deter in the way policymakers might anticipate.

We also know this from our experience of the previous policies on which today’s harsh responses are based. As former Australian prime ministerMalcolm Fraser has observed, “No amount of deterrence can match the terror from which those who are genuine refugees are fleeing.”

But alarmed Australians have another myth to turn to – the myth that most asylum seekers arriving by boat are not genuine refugees anyway, but economic migrants looking for a better life. The facts simply do not bear this out. Statistics published by the Immigration Department showed that over 93% of boat arrivals in 2011-12 were Convention refugees.

Still, Australians might then chastise these genuine refugees for “queue jumping”; that is, not waiting their turn in camps vaguely imagined by Australians to be conveniently available elsewhere in the world.

Australia sets an annual refugee quota of 13,750 places. There are 6,000 resettlement places set aside for refugees from overseas who have been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) as in need of protection. This number is not affected by the number of refugees who arrive in Australia spontaneously. There are also 7,750 places in Australia’s “special humanitarian program“; these are the places that can be filled by asylum seekers who arrive by boat or plane.

Australia is the only country to process refugees in this way. This dual system is an invention of the Australian government and is not premised on anything in the Refugee Convention. Nor does UNHCR’s resettlement process operate like a queue, but more like a triage system which enables the most urgent cases to be dealt with first and over which destination countries such as Australia have no influence.

Unfortunately, Australians come to the asylum seeker debate burdened by historical myths. As an island nation, we’ve long suffered from a disproportionate anxiety about being invaded by sea from the north. There were, for example, our national fear of the “yellow hordes” of Asia from the mid-19th century, then the falling “dominos” of Communism during the Vietnam War era and the Cold War.

The Abbott Government’s Operation Sovereign Borders suggests Australia is facing a “border protection crisis” so serious that it’s nothing short of “a national emergency”. According to the policy, “[t]he scale of this problem requires the discipline and focus of a targeted military operation”.

Yet as former chief of Australia’s defence force, Admiral Chris Barrie, has noted, asylum seekers “are not our enemy. They’re not attacking Australia … Defence is to deal with our enemies.”

When we unpick the facts from the political myths, we start to see a very different picture.

In 2012 Australia received 17,202 asylum seekers by boat, its highest annual number, but only 1.47% of the world’s asylum seekers. In the same period, we accepted 190,000 immigrants – not refugees – through our skilled and family migration scheme. And while many Australians genuinely abhor recent atrocities inside Syria, for example, we are not lining up to offer refuge to more than a token share of the two million Syrians currently displaced. Meanwhile, Syria’s neighbours – Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq – are hosting the vast majority of refugees, thought now to comprise up to 25% of Lebanon’s total population.

Australia’s asylum seeker debate has been hostage for too long to sloganeers looking to score political points. This week the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law will be launched at UNSW. Our goal is to pursue the evidence-based research we need to turn a divisive race to the bottom into a well-informed public and policy debate.


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Immigration department reports five detention centre deaths in past year

October 31, 2013

Government to implement ombudsman’s recommendations on self harm and suicide

asylum seeker

The department’s annual report says 83% of people in detention are asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat. Photograph: AAP

Five people have died in immigration detention in the past year.

The immigration department’s annual report does not say whether they were all seeking asylum, but 83% of people in detention are asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat.

The 2012-13 report refers to the Queensland coroner’s investigation into the death of asylum seeker Meqdad Hussain, who took his own life at the Scherger immigration detention centre at Weipa on March 17, 2011.

It said the department would implement recommendations in the commonwealth immigration ombudsman’s report on self harm and suicide in detention centres, released in May.

The annual report figures show 25,724 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2012-13 and there were 38,147 people in onshore, offshore and community detention – up from 19,370 the previous year.

The department had received a small, unspecified number of compensation claims related to harm suffered in immigration detention and ongoing mental illness.

There were 1319 children, including 318 unaccompanied minors, in community detention and 58 babies were born to asylum seeker parents in community detention in 2012-13.

Meanwhile, 68,480 foreign workers were granted 457 visas during that time and Tasmania and South Australia accounted for the highest growth rates in these visas while demand in WA and Queensland slumped.

India, the UK, Ireland and the Philippines were the top four countries 457 visa holders came from.

There was a 9% increase in the number of Chinese students seeking visas to study in Australia but a 26.5% decrease in the number of Indian students applying.

* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Multicultural Mental Health Australia at


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Canberra shifts asylum seekers from Nauru to repeat process

October 30, 2013

The Refugee Action Coalition says Australia has flown 68 asylum seekers from Nauru to Australia, taking the total transferred from the island to Australia in the past nine days to about 250.

The latest arrivals at the Curtin detention camp in Western Australia included 19 Sri Lankans and 49 of other nationalities.

The Coalition says all of these asylum seekers had finalised their refugee interviews on Nauru – but none has been given a decision, despite the process being completed in some cases eight months ago.

It says the group has been told that regardless of any refugee interviews on Nauru, determinations of their status will be restarted in Australia.

The Coalition’s Ian Rintoul says it would be hard to find a more graphic example of administrative abuse, given that the asylum seekers had kept on Nauru for over a year with Australia insisting the Nauru government was making the refugee determinations.

Meanwhile, the newspaper, The Australian, says just one refugee ruling has been made on Nauru – that of a minor, who has since been moved to Australia.

News Content © Radio New Zealand International
PO Box 123, Wellington, New Zealand



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Asylum seekers in Darwin would opt to stay in detention over returning home

October 25, 2013

VIDEO: Asylum Seekers prepared to remain locked up in Darwin.

Immigration officials have been telling more than 2,000 asylum seekers held on Christmas Island that they have a choice: return to their country of origin or face indefinite detention.

Under new Federal Government rules, any asylum seeker who arrived by boat after July 19 can be sent offshore for indefinite detention or returned to their country of origin.

It is not clear what the response of the Christmas Island detainees has been.

But in Darwin, where more than 1,000 people are living in four separate detention centres, some detainees have told the ABC are prepared to remain locked up rather than face persecution or even death in their country of origin.

Every Thursday evening, members of the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support Network (DASSAN) gather outside the Airport Lodge immigration detention centre, just a few hundred metres from Darwin Airport.

They set up protest placards and talk through a cyclone wire fence to the men, women and children living in converted shipping containers at the centre.

“What we’ve seen is a move away from a decision where people are having their claims assessed to one where people are completely without any idea about what’s going to happen to them,” DASSAN member Peter Robson said.


Last night, a crowd of asylum seekers came to the fence as the ABC approached with a camera crew.

“I have no home right now,” one asylum seeker said.

“Where should I live? I should live in Afghanistan? I have never seen Afghanistan.”

Another woman said through a translator that she was brought to Darwin for medical treatment but she wants to return to Christmas Island, where her family is.

Outside of detention, there are about 21,000 people in Australia on bridging visas awaiting the outcome of their asylum claims.

Refugee advocates say they are in limbo and scared about proposed changes to the Federal Government’s assessment policy.

Many of the people the ABC spoke to have been brought to Darwin from Christmas Island for medical treatment. They are from Afghanistan, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq.

Detainees in the dark about their future

“If they tell us we’re going to stay here for a year, two years, five years we don’t have problem,” another asylum seeker said.

“But they don’t tell us. And maybe, before I came here on Christmas Island my transfer was cancelled three times.”

Several of the women have recently given birth or are about to have a child. Mr Robson says four women who had recently given birth were sent offshore with little notice.

“What we do know is that they were woken up at 5am, they were ushered out of their rooms.


“They had an opportunity to make a phone call, which is why we know what happened to them, and then they were simply put on a plane and taken to Christmas Island.”

Some of the asylum seekers the ABC spoke to knew they would not be allowed to stay in Australia but said they would be prepared to stay in detention indefinitely rather than face death in their country of origin.

Not one of the more than 10 asylum seekers the ABC spoke to knows what is going to happen to them.

One man said through a translator that he is afraid of contractor Serco, saying they knock on his door and tell him to go back to Christmas Island.

Under the new Federal Government, any asylum seeker who arrived by boat after July 19 could be sent offshore for indefinite detention or returned to their country of origin.

Several of the people the ABC spoke to did not want to return to the Christmas Island detention centre because they say it is overcrowded, there are not enough toilets for everyone and people have to line up for hours to get a meal.


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Iranian refugee firefighter giving back to a sunburnt country

October 24, 2013

Iranian refugee Iman Shirinia of Lyons has just returned to Canberra after helping fight bushfires in NSW.Iranian refugee Iman Shirinia of Lyons has just returned to Canberra after helping fight bushfires in NSW. Photo: Melissa Adams

Iman Shirinia is just one of many firefighters who have travelled across state borders to lend a hand at the NSW fire front, taking risks to help protect the lives and property of others.

But the story of how he got there spans years, crosses oceans and features hardships of his own.

Mr Shirinia fled his native Iran in 2010 as a refugee and travelled to Indonesia before boarding a boat for the treacherous journey to Australia – an act that would have had him labelled an “illegal arrival” under the Abbott government’s new terminology.

Iranian refugee Iman Shirinia of Lyons has just returned to Canberra after helping fight bushfires in NSW.Iranian refugee Iman Shirinia of Lyons has just returned to Canberra after helping fight bushfires in NSW. Photo: Melissa Adams

After being intercepted by Australian authorities, he spent about 20 months in detention centres where he struggled with depression and anxiety. He was admitted to hospital several times before being released into community detention in Canberra for about nine months.


The Lyons man smiles widely as he recalls when a caseworker called him to say he had been granted residency. ”I can’t describe it because after a long time, it was about 29 months of waiting, finally I found that I am free, I can do whatever I like. It was very good,” he said.

Mr Shirinia had worked in agriculture in Iran and wanted an outdoors job. After work experience within the ACT government, he was employed about three months ago on a seasonal basis at ACT Parks and Conservation.

He trained as a firefighter and left Canberra on Friday afternoon to help with back burning and directly attack the fires, working around Penrith, Mt Wilson and Mt Victoria.

Mr Shirinia said he was working with an experienced and supportive crew, so while he was sometimes fearful, he never felt his life was in danger. He has put his hand up to return to the fires this Friday. ”I really wanted to do something to help other people. I know life is a very short period and one of the things that gives meaning to our lives is helping each other,” he said.

”When we are doing a job and when we finish the job, I feel very satisfied about what I did because I can see the difference that my job and my work can do for the community and for other people.”

Fire services manager Neil Cooper said Mr Shirinia was a joy to work with and was one of the first staff members to volunteer to go to the fires in NSW. ”That’s pretty amazing. He’s actually in another country, his adopted country, in effect putting his life on the line to protect other people’s property,” he said.

ACT Parks and Conservation has 150 trained firefighters, with 24 expected to travel to the NSW fires on Friday.


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Refugee looks back on ordeal of seeking asylum and being detained in Nauru

October 23, 2013

Mohammad Baqiri

Mohammad Baqiri speaking at a rally against offshore processing of asylum seekers last year in Melbourne.

When 10-year-old Mohammad Baqiri saw a bird flying across the sky, the significance had little bearing on his mind.

It was the first bird he – and the 150 people onboard the tiny fishing boat – had seen since it had left Indonesia seven days previously.

After asking his seasick, 36-year-old brother, Bani, he had little time to grasp the fact they were close to land because they were being circled by the Australian Navy.

“That’s when the real problems started,” said Mohammad, who had fled Afghanistan with his brother and auntie’s family.

“They got on their little boats and circled us and threw paper onto our boat saying ‘You guys need to go back to where you came from’.”

“[But] it wasn’t a proper boat, it was a fishing boat but a bit bigger, like the ones you see on the news,” he said.

Mohammad said that after a while people on the boat began to smash the hull in an attempt to sink the vessel.

Soon, to ensure the small fishing vessel could not be towed back, the boat was set alight.

“Everyone was panicking, running around and people started to throw themselves into the water,” he said.

“I remember seeing a lady jumping off the boat with her face down and she stayed there.”

Two women died and Mohammad’s nephew was unconscious for six hours.

According to Mohammad, it took the Navy two hours before all the people on board had been rescued.

It was 2001.

The clothes we were saved in, we had to stay in for two months.

Mohammad Baqiri


“From there they took us to Christmas Island,” he said.

Mohammad says the detention centre did not resemble the structure that stands there today.

“The centre wasn’t really properly built. There was a lack of medical assistance … the clothes we were saved in, we had to stay in for two months,” he said.

Mohammad and his family were told they would have to go to Nauru for their claims to be processed.

“We were really happy; why not if you’re going to process our cases?” he said.

“So, they flew us to Nauru and there we found out it was a lie.”

Mohammad’s escape from Afghanistan

In 2000, Mohammad’s parents felt they had no choice but to organise for their sons to escape from Afghanistan.

“We fled persecution, our lives were in danger, so we tried to leave Afghanistan,” Mohammad said.

He said his ethnic group, Hazara, was targeted by the Taliban.

We used to shower in salty water, the facilities, the toilets, everything was disgusting … a prison in Australia is better than the facilities in the detention centre.

Mohammad Baqiri


In order to fund Mohammad and Bani’s escape from Afghanistan, their parents sold their land.

Before arriving in Indonesia, the brothers had to make a number of border crossings by both boat and plane.

The Baqiris stayed in Indonesia for six months before they tried to come to Australia.

After their first attempt was foiled by local police, Mohammad and his family got on a boat to Australia two months later.

Less than four weeks after that, Mohammad would be flying to the Nauru detention centre.

Life in detention on Nauru

At just 21 square kilometres and made almost entirely of solid phosphate, Nauru – otherwise known as Pleasant Island – is the smallest republic in the world.

“I remember going there by plane and just thinking, ‘We’re going to live on a rock’,” he said.


According to Mohammad, the tropical island only had two types of weather – hot and sunny, or raining.

Mohammad said refugees were confined to the centre for two years in primitive conditions.

“We were living in long houses … they only had curtains that divided the rooms,” he said.

“We didn’t even have proper mattresses, so we slept on the ground and we just used blankets to sleep on.

“There was a lot of mosquitoes carrying malaria, and for a wound to be treated it would take a lot of time because the medical conditions weren’t that good.

“We used to shower in salty water, the facilities, the toilets, everything was disgusting … a prison in Australia is better than the facilities in the detention centre.

“The food … it was just horrible, some days we would just have bread. A good day was when we had eggs; that was like Christmas for us.”

According to Mohammad, the most prevalent medical conditions were psychological.

“Everyone who came there … they were all traumatised and suffered from anxiety.

“For people like my brother, waking up on the same floor for three years, they would go crazy – there’s nothing else to do there. I know a lot of people that lost their minds.”


Eighteen months into Mohammad’s detention, federal government officials began to inform asylum seekers they would not be allowed to settle in Australia.

“They said, ‘you guys need to go back’,” he said.

Following the announcement, Mohammad says demonstrations within the detention centre began to increase.

“[Especially] in that last year people were getting sick of doing small demonstrations because it wasn’t working,” he said.

A small number of detainees sewed their lips shut in protest, Mohammad says.

“People joined in every day and this is how it got out in the media,” he said.

After three weeks Australian officials capitulated and allowed the Baqiris to come to Australia.

But the news had failed to mollify Mohammad.

“At the time, people were in tears, they asked, ‘why didn’t you give us this outcome three years ago?’,” he said.

“The thing is, I wasted my childhood there, I wasn’t allowed to do anything, there was no education.”

Starting again in Australia

Once in Australia, the Baqiris were provided with temporary protection visas and told they would know the status of their claims within three years.

After three months of learning English in Melbourne and without completing a single year of primary school, 13-year-old Mohammad was enrolled in grade 8.

Friendship was hard for me, people excluded me from groups. People were telling me to go back to my country.

Mohammad Baqiri


“When I went to high school I didn’t really know English and I found it was a really different place, friendship was hard for me, people excluded me from groups,” he said.

“People were telling me to go back to my country.”

Bani and Mohammad stayed in Dandenong for a year, but after struggling to find work, Bani decided to take his brother to Shepparton to go to school there.

In 2008 he was given permanent residency.

Today Mohammad is a third-year business and law student at the University of Victoria. He is also studying a diploma in interpreting.

“When I finish, I want to get into immigration law and hopefully the interpreting can help me with that. I want to help people that were in my position,” he said.

Mohammad Baqiri at a rally

Mohammad (left) with others at a rally against offshore processing for asylum seekers last year in Melbourne.



Filed under Asylum Policy, Detention Centers, Life after detention, PNG/Pacific Solution, Talented Asylum Seekers