On January 17, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced that a Memorandum of Understanding allowing the Australian government to forcibly return asylum seekers had been signed by Afghanistan, Australia and shamefully, by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Bowen stressed that the significance was that the agreement would allow the government to forcibly remove Afghan Hazaras to Afghanistan. “Never before today has there been an involuntary return from Australia to Afghanistan,” he said.

But within days of Bowen’s announcement, the agreement had begun to unravel.

At Curtin detention centre, the announcement precipitated the biggest mass hunger strike in the history of mandatory detention. A few people had begun a hunger strike a week earlier in protest at the long delays processing their claims. Then, with news of the agreement, up to 1000 Afghan asylum seekers joined the protest hunger strike. Several hundred staged a sit-in protest inside the detention centre.

By the end of January, a statement condemning the agreement initiated by the Edmund Rice Centre was signed by 42 organisations, pointing out that Afghanistan was not safe. Among the impressive list of signatories are the Refugee Council of Australia, Uniting Church in Australia, along with the Australian Education Union, Australian Services Union, Finance Sector Union, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the NSW Fire Brigades Union and Labor For Refugees.

Then Afghanistan’s Minister of Refugees Jamaher Anwary declared that the memorandum of understanding did not include anything about deportation. Afghanistan’s envoy to Australia, Amanullah Jayhoon, insisted the agreement only applied to voluntary returns. Senior adviser to the Minister of Refugees, M Jawad Mohaqeq, says neither the Afghan government nor the Ministry can give a guarantee of adequate security to returned asylum seekers.

Bowen was quick to get confirmation from those higher up in the Afghan government that it really would allow forced deportations. But it is clear that the Afghan government has no heart for accepting Afghans forced to return to the war torn country.

Despite the agreement, the Australian government will need the Afghan government’s cooperation to be able to deport Afghans. A serious question mark hangs over their willingness to cooperate in the future.

Forcing returns
The danger is that the existence of the agreement will be used to wear down asylum seekers and coerce them into returning “voluntarily”. Faced with the prospect of indefinite detention if they stay, asylum seekers may be intimidated into agreeing to be returned to danger. The International Organisation of Migration is already operating inside detention centres encouraging asylum seekers to accept “voluntary” repatriation packages.

This is exactly what happened on Nauru under the Howard government. Hundreds of Afghans, including unaccompanied minors, were coerced into returning to Afghanistan. Twelve of the Afghan asylum seekers presently in Curtin were actually returned to Afghanistan from Nauru.

The number of Afghans in detention in Australia has grown dramatically since the Rudd government imposed the six-month visa freeze on Afghan asylum claims in April 2010. In January over 2400 Afghans were languishing in immigration detention.

Prior to the freeze announcement, 99.7 per cent of Afghan claims for asylum were successful. But after the government announced the freeze and declared that it expected approval rates to drop—surprise, surprise—that is exactly what happened. Approval rates dropped to 50 per cent or less. Chris Bowen says this is because refugee assessors have “better country information”.

In truth the drop in approvals reveals the extent to which the off-shore refugee determination process is open to political interference. The country information actually shows that the Afghan security situation has not improved. A further indication of this political interference is that an astonishing 70 per cent of rejected claims are being overturned at the Merits Review hearing, using the same country information.

Afghanistan is not safe. Even the US State Department country report states, “no part of Afghanistan should be considered immune from violence” and that the “security environment remains volatile and unpredictable.”

In June last year, in Oruzgan, the province where most Australian troops are deployed, 11 Hazaras were beheaded and their heads left next to their bodies. Similar atrocities have occurred in Kabul itself. But that is not going to stop Bowen and Gillard using the agreement (and the proposal for the regional processing centre, p12) to prove their tough on refugees credentials.

The government may have an agreement on paper—but a determined campaign can stop them putting it into practice.

By Ian Rintoul

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