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Hardline policy on asylum seekers won't work

By Abdul Hekmat - posted Wednesday, 16 June 2010

As a former detainee of Curtin detention centre and a refugee from Afghanistan I found it hard watching the Insight program "Stopping the Boats" on SBS recently. It was a frightening reminder of my time in detention and under a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) when former immigration minister Philip Ruddock denied that suspension had happened during his time and that his inhuman policy did not cause harm to former detainees and children.

I spent five months in the Curtin centre, a remote, ill-equipped, under-resourced camp in Western Australia. I saw the process for 60 asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, suspended for six months in 2001 without any reason. They were simply told by the immigration officials that their applications did not meet the UN High Commissioner for Refugees criteria. The rejection was in fact announced before they were even interviewed.

The suspended asylum seekers were cut off from the world; in complete despair and frustration, they went on hunger strike and cut themselves. The detainees were asking why the Australian government applied this double standard. Out of 700-800 detainees in Curtin, only 60 were told that their applications would no longer to be processed. I had friends coming on the same boat whose applications were suspended without reason. However, immigration officials spelt out to detainees that this was to deter others from coming.


I find both main parties' positions towards refugees disturbing. The Labour government suspended the processing of asylum seekers' applications from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's hardline policy is even more upsetting. He has announced that a Coalition government would reintroduce TPVs and a "Pacific-style" solution. Long-time Liberal MP Petro Georgiou, in a speech in Parliament to mark his departure from politics, condemned both sides for a "regression" on asylum seeker policy.

The policy to reintroduce TPVs, in particular, is morally repugnant. It is also cruel, arbitrary, carries a huge economic and social cost and is ineffective as a deterrent to those seeking asylum.

It must be stated again that under refugee conventions it is not illegal to cross borders and seek asylum. Unfortunately, most future asylum seekers don't know what a TPV entails and what it is like to live under uncertain conditions. Their immediate concern is to get themselves and their families somewhere safe. The possibility of receiving a TPV does not affect them. I learned about the TPV before I arrived, however, nothing prepared me for what it would be like living under such a visa - not being able to get an education, to join your family or learn the English language through government-funded programs usually provided to other refugees.

It is devastating for the already traumatised refugees to live under a TPV and in an indefinite detention centre either in or outside Australia. The pernicious impact of the detention centre and rehabilitation costs have been well-documented. Ruddock has remained unapologetic, even in the face of the known disastrous consequences of this policy on people in detention centres and on TPV holders, particularly on children living behind razor wire.

It goes against the spirit and the kind of society that Australia aspires to be - one that gives everyone a "fair go". Eventually, refugees with a valid claim for asylum will become part of our society, just as I have after several years in a state of limbo.

In essence, our politicians risk punishing vulnerable people for the sake of political gain. There must be another way to deal with the surge of asylum seekers without punishing them. Experience has shown that almost all of the about 9,000 TPV holders that arrived between 1999 and 2002 are our fellow citizens now.


Refugees in the past have contributed to the Australian economy and have filled the skill and labour shortages. A recognition of this, particularly in rural areas, was the Liberal government's softening of TPV policies in 2004.

As for the deterrent argument, even if one accepts that TPVs have this effect, there are moral questions that need to be answered. Is it ethical to punish one group of asylum seekers to deter others? Is it morally justified to keep people away from their families and children for three to five years, not allowing them to get an education or have access to social services just to discourage others from coming?

In another 50 years what will Australia think about the treatment of refugees? For the stolen children of Indigenous people, it took more than 50 years for the government to realise and then apologise for that practice. I wonder how long it will take to realise that the mistreatment of asylum seekers for political purposes is wrong.

I believe Australia can stand for something larger than politics. My experience as a refugee, despite some odds has overwhelmingly been enriching. Let's not panic and de-humanise others who come to our shores.

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First published by The National Times on June 10, 2010.

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About the Author

Abdul Karim Hekmat is a human rights advocate and a youth worker.

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