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  Issue No 110 Official Organ of LaborNet 07 September 2001  

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Human Rights

Long Road to Nowhere

By Andrew West

Iraqi refugees travel the same tortuous road as Afghans. The refugees on the Tampa have almost certainly endured a similar ordeal.

 
 

Iraq

Talal Basha fled a forced marriage in Iraq, was raped at knife-point in Malaysia and, traumatised, chose an abortion in Darwin, as hospital documents show.

Hassan Abu-Tabikh has six bullets from the guns of Iraqi police lodged in his legs and stomach, and the scars to prove it.

When the rotting hulk carrying Kassim Al Saiek washed ashore in north-western Australia, he carried with him the execution certificates of his parents, brother and sister from Saddam Hussein.

They are all legal refugees, their stories confirmed and accepted by the Australian government. But they were among the 85pc of people from the Middle East whose claims to refugee status were, at first, doubted and then upheld by the Refugee Review Tribunal or the federal court.

And, they say, they are no different to the 460 people aboard the Norwegian ship, Tampa, refused entry to Australia but now shunted to safe havens in New Zealand and Nauru, the world's smallest republic of just 11,000 people.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock calls people like these "illegals'', "queue-jumpers'', "designer refugees'', pawns in a people-smuggling operation who pay thousands of dollars to middle-men in Indonesia and Malaysia.

But for these Western Sydney-based refugees - whose English is still limited, although they are taking lessons - people-smuggling was the only escape route from the dictatorship, religious zealotry and famine that now blanket Iraq and Afghanistan.

The recent surge of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan can be traced directly to the western powers. After the Gulf War, the anti-Saddam coalition, which included Australia, encouraged the Kurdish and Shi'ite communities to rebel. But when the dictator's helicopter gunships fired on them, and his Republican guard invaded their villages, western support vanished.

The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan is also a creation of the United States, which funded and armed its earlier incarnation, the mujahideen, to fight the previous Soviet-backed government. "You don't get in a queue to leave these places if your life is under threat,''

said the refugees' spokesman, Dhafir Al-Shammery, himself one of the first Iraqi dissidents to arrive in Australia in 1996. "You pay whatever you can and take whatever transport you can get.''

Mr Al-Shammery, 35, was one of the Shi'ite Muslim majority crushed by Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War. He saw his cousin summarily executed and fled, using a forged passport, by bus to Jordan and plane to Indonesia.

Mr Al Shammery's experience with the people-smugglers mirrors that of almost every other boat person, and probably the ordeal of the Tampa refugees.

Their initial contacts in Jordan, Iran or Pakistan, send them to travel agents in Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur. As soon as these agents see an Iraqi or Afghan passport, they know they are dealing with vulnerable, desperate and, now, nationless people.

Contrary to Philip Ruddock's claim, refugees do not wilfully target Australia as a destination. Malaysia and Indonesia are the only two countries that will accept Iraqi or Afghan passport holders without a visa, an impossible requirement if you are fleeing for your life. Once in South East Asia, the refugees' journeys stretch only as far as their finances. Mr Al Shammery's agent quoted $10,000 for a flight to Sweden, $8000 for passage to Canada, or $4000 for a boat to Australia. "They promised a big boat, with kitchens and cabins,'' he said.

Instead, he joined three Indonesians and six other Iraqis on an open skiff, eight metres long and one metre wide, which for seven days battled two- to three-metre waves. He neither slept nor ate, just sat with his knees pressed against his chest. "Smoking, drinking, scared,'' he said. "I knew I had a 100pc chance of death if I stayed [in Iraq] but only a 90pc chance of death if I fled in a little boat. So I chose the 10pc chance of life. Wouldn't you?''

When the outboard motor broke, they ripped a piece of timber from the skiff, and tore a shirt from the back of a refugee to repair it. All the men arrived with their skin, cracked, red and bleeding.

An Australian customs boat intercepted the craft and Mr Al-Shammery ended up in Villawood Detention Centre, released nine months later. Now an Australian citizen running his own business, he has become a voice for people like Mrs Basha.

Earlier this year, Mrs Basha, 23, fled a forced marriage in Iraq, to a man 44 years her senior. Along with their 20-month-old daughter, Malak, she travelled via Kuala Lumpur. One night, in a cheap hotel, her "immigration agent'' held a knife to her throat and raped her. Soon after landing in Darwin, about $4000 poorer, doctors examined her, confirmed the attack and she chose to abort the child.

Immigration detained her for three months at Woomera, where she married a young Chechen refugee, a man whose education promised a brighter future. But the federal government claims he is Russian, and so not a refugee, and he remains in detention.

Last December, just before Christmas, a Jakarta people-smuggler extracted $10,000 from Hassan Abu-Tabikh. He was not in the mood to argue, even though the "big tourist ship'' he was promised turned out to be a 12 metre fishing trawler, which he shared with 118 others, and where he plugged up the leaks with his rolled up tee-shirt.

In 1997, the 32-year-old Iraqi had suffered six bullet wounds to the legs and stomach from Iraqi intelligence officers who raided his house, executed his mother and earmarked him for death. The crime of this farmer from Gamash in southern Iraq was to be Shi'ite and, automatically, a suspect in the anti-Saddam uprising.

Kassim Al Saiek's family felt the wrath of Iraq's ruling Ba'ath Party as early as 1979. That's the date on the execution certificate, which refugee agencies have authenticated, and which record his father as being "hung by the neck until death''. By the time Mr Al Saiek, 31, fled - first to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and then, last year, to Indonesia - his mother, brother and sister had also been executed by firing squad. The Iraqi police demanded he pay them for the bullets, in short supply because of international trade sanctions.

His tug-boat voyage from Jakarta to Darwin, shared with 40 other people, cost the comparatively small sum of $1000. The people- smuggler confiscated his passport, which he admits was false, but left him some crumpled, yellowing pieces of paper with Arabic script - the death certificates for his mother and siblings.

It was the tragic proof Philip Ruddock now demands.


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 110 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Cast Adrift
Ethnic Communities Council chair Salvatore Scevola gives his take on the Tampa saga and the underlying attitudes driving the debate.
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*  Workplace: Coming to Australia
Jagath Banderra recounts his own experience as a new arrival in Australia entering the workforce.
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*  Human Rights: Long Road to Nowhere
Iraqi refugees travel the same tortuous road as Afghans. The refugees on the Tampa have almost certainly endured a similar ordeal.
*
*  Immigration: Experience Required
Veronica Apap looks at the many difficulties migrants face in having their skills recognised in Australia.
*
*  International: Why Economic Rationalism Isn't
The CFMEUs Phil Davey surveys the wreckage after 10 years of Brazil's Government doing what the free marketeers want.
*
*  History: Johnny's Naruan Wet Dream
Rowan Cahill looks at how Australia's preferred refugee dumping ground's history is indelibly linked with our own.
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*  Unions: Getting the Message Out
Caroline Alcorso argues the integration of immigrant workers into the trade union movement has been a central issue in Australia’s post-war labor history.
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*  Work/Time/Life: Driven To The Edge
In the ACTU’S groundbreaking Fifty Families report there is one particularly sobering story. Frank tells how the modern workplace is driving some people to the fatal edge.
*
*  Review: Whose Party?
NSW Labor’s century of successes began in 1910, as did the “middle classing” of Labor policy.
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*  Satire: Ethnic Wog Gangs Rape Everyone
People who are white in colour are being raped by people who are not white, an exclusive Chaser investigation found last week.
*

News
»  Unions Rescue Afghan Worker
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»  Revealed: Migrants Face Hidden Unions Barriers
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»  FOI Seeks Royal Commission Papers
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»  Long Hours Corrode Family Life Says Study
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»  Medibank Workers 'Feel Bitter Now'
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»  Chronic Stress in Child Care
*
»  It's a Steal! Workers Underpaid Since 1991
*
»  WorkCover: Bell Rings for Round Two
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»  Transfield Fire Sale Threatens Entitlements
*
»  Foot-And-Mouth Heroes Face The Boot
*
»  Superannuation Warning to Labor
*
»  Bully Casino Locks Out Workers
*
»  Bra Wars: US Giant Quit Burma
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»  Sydney's Salsa for Saharawis
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»  Labor Council Revamps Online
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»  Get Ready to Wobble
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»  Activists' Notebook
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  The Locker Room
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  Tampa Feedback
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»  Battling the Bullies
*
»  Searching for John McNeill, Labor MP
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»  Tom Seeks Family Leave
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»  Spell Check
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»  Injured and Ripped Off
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