Australian authorities send refugees to their deaths

by ANNCOL Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2002 at 5:03 AM

Four years ago, Colombian dissident Alvaro Morales fled to Australia to escape death threats from Colombian government-backed paramilitaries. In May, the Australian authorities turned down his application for asylum. When Morales returned to Colombia he was shot dead by right-wing paramilitaries.

According to Vlaudin Vega, coordinator of the Colombian Solidarity Committee (CSC) in Sydney, the immigration department doesn't believe that Morales is dead. They want proof. Vega told Green Left Weekly that he contacted a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), who has requested that Alvaro's wife, Haide, seek permission for Alvaro's body to be exhumed in Colombia so that tests can be done to verify that he is dead.

Vega told GLW that he is concerned there may be Colombians in Australia with connections to the right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia, who pass information back to them about the activities of Colombians in Australia. He believes that Morales' activity in Australia may be the reason he was killed. Morales was involved with the CSC, and, although not taking part in it, he helped organise an occupation of the Colombian consulate in August 2001, which aimed to highlight human rights abuses in his country.

In making his decision, the Refugee Review Tribunal member hearing Morales' case explained that he felt Morales was lying about his involvement in the CSC and the occupation of the Colombian consulate. Other asylum seekers have their fears of persecution dismissed because they came to Australia via another country.

On August 15, Australian Latin America solidarity activist Dick Nichols was called before the RRT to give evidence on the human rights situation in Colombia, in a case involving a Colombian asylum seeker. However, the tribunal ruled that this information was irrelevant because the question it was considering was whether or not the applicant would be deported to Argentina this was the country the asylum seeker had come to Australia from.

The implication, Nichols explained, was that the tribunal's only job was to assess whether or not it was safe to return to Argentina. The tribunal argument was that because Colombia and Argentina do not have an extradition treaty, there was no danger of the person being forcibly sent back to Colombia. The deportation of Morales from Argentina to Colombia and his subsequent death has proved this false.

The Australian government's response to news of Morales' death was to wash its hands of any responsibility. "He went there voluntarily and what occurred after that was really his own responsibility", Attorney-General Darryl Williams told ABC news on October 10. Morales left Australia because he had exhausted his appeal options due to a change in legislation that bars access to judicial review.

A central tenet of the 1951 UN refugee convention is the principle of non-refoulement: "No contracting state shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

Immigration minister Philip Ruddock pledges his firm commitment to non- refoulement, yet he has presided over a range of legal changes which have narrowed the refugee assessment process so much that many refugees who have real fears for their lives are being forced to return home.

Even if the RRT had believed that Morales was involved in activities in Australia which would have put him at risk if he was to return to Colombia, this could not have been taken into account in assessing his eligibility for refugee status.

Amendments to the migration act introduced in September 2001 make it unlawful to take into account, when assessing a refugee claim, the conduct by a person awaiting refugees status, unless the minister agrees. For example, Iraqi asylum seekers in Australia who speak out against Saddam Hussein's regime would not have that activity taken into account in assessing their refugee claims. Yet that activity could get them killed if they were forced back to Iraq.

Since September 24, 2001, the definition in law of a refugee has been substantially narrowed. To be recognised as a refugee, a person must face persecution for a reason listed in the refugee convention. This entrenches one of the fundamental weaknesses of the refugee convention — the more widespread the violence and war-like conditions in a country, the less likely is it that a refugee can prove specific persecution under the convention definition, even if their chances of being tortured or killed are still high.

According to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, under this legislation, German Jews might not have been eligible for refugee status until 1941.

Many European countries have a humanitarian visa which they grant to those who do not fit the refugee definition but whose safety cannot be assured if they return to their home country. In Australia, humanitarian visas are granted very selectively at the complete discretion of the immigration minister.

The response of the ALP acting immigration spokesperson, Laurie Ferguson, to news of Morales' death was to claim that the government was working with inadequate information about countries that people have fled from. But the problem is not simply inadequate information; it is bias and discrimination in the assessment process.

At the end of 2001, the UNHCR listed 720,000 people of concern in Colombia. Yet the Australian government accepts hardly any of them through its humanitarian program. Of the 7625 people resettled in Australia in 2000-01, only 14 were from Latin America.

“The [Refugee Review] Tribunal discriminates against Colombians… They assume all Colombians are lying”, Vega told GLW. “If you claim to be a leftist or a socialist, they ask you questions like, `When was the Communist Manifesto written? When was Karl Marx born?' If you live in Colombia, you don't worry about those things! You worry only about the daily struggle, where your next meal is coming from.”

“It is understood that the UN has concerns that the tribunal has been rejecting refugee claims by Colombians without assessing the merits of individual cases”, reported the October 9 Sydney Morning Herald. “There are believed to be about 120 cases pending in Australia. At least 10 cases are understood to have been refused and there have been calls for them to be reopened.”

Asylum seekers that are from countries that the Australian government, for diplomatic or political reasons, considers to be “safe” have a vastly reduced chance of being accepted, no matter how desperate their situations.

It is very rare for ethnic Chinese Indonesians, for example, to be granted refugee status in Australia, despite their well-documented persecution, because the Australian government gives greater priority to its strong economic and political ties with Jakarta.

No South Korean will be granted refugee status in Australia, regardless of the brutal repression carried out against leftists and trade unionists, while the country is such a strong trading partner.

Morales is not the only asylum seeker to lose his life at the hands of the government's rigid and discriminatory refugee assessment process. There are many others like him. For example, the October 9 Sydney Morning Herald reported the case of Bilal Ahad, an 18-year-old Pakistani, who came to Australia in March 2001 on a temporary entry permit and claimed refugee status.

Ahad claimed his life was in danger because he and his family had been involved in an anti-narcotics organisation in Pakistan. His grandfather and uncle had been killed by a drug smuggling network, and his family had fled to the United Arab Emirates.

Ahad's claim was rejected by the RRT, and he was deported in August. He was not able to return to his family in the emirates because he had turned 18. He was reportedly killed 20 days later.

Published with permission from Green Left Weekly