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Baktiari's deception will only harm the cause of asylum seekers in detention

By Ken Parish - posted Friday, 30 August 2002

Ali Baktiari 's belated confession that he is really from Pakistan after all (not to mention his claim that he had told DIMIA this all along – they must have just misunderstood him because of the language difficulty) would not have come as a surprise to readers of The Australian, whose reporter in Afghanistan had been unable to find anyone in his home village(s) who'd ever heard of him.

It came as even less of a surprise to me, because I began hearing over 12 months ago, from contacts in DIMIA, that they were receiving complaints from the local Afghan community to the effect that a significant minority of "Afghan" refugees granted protection visas were actually Pakistanis. That news in itself should have been predictable, because I knew that the acceptance rate as genuine refugees for Afghan asylum seekers up to that time had been an almost unbelievable 80 per cent or so (compared with the overall success rate of around 30 per cent).

On the other hand, it was heartwarming to see our beloved Prime Minister sinking the slipper into "bleeding heart" refugee advocates by reassuring Australians that he "did not derive pleasure from the news" (I wonder who he thinks he's kidding).


Now, before you go typecasting me as just another right-wing blogger beating up on an obvious soft target, let me first make a claim for a modicum of bleeding-heart virtue myself. I have acted for quite a few asylum seekers over the last decade, every one of them on a pro bono basis. However, frankly, that makes me even angrier about the Ali Baktiaris of this world. Public support for Australia's continuing commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention is already fragile enough without a revelation of this sort of scam. Moreover, according to Ruddock's office, another 700 of the 4,000 Afghans already granted protection visas are also under investigation for suspected Pakistani origins.

The ones I really feel sorry for are the five Baktiari children, whose parents knowingly subjected them to more than a year of traumatic detention at Woomera to further their fraudulent scheme. Of course, the Howard government is also complicit; I'm not a supporter of mandatory detention of children by any stretch, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the primary responsibility for the plight of detained children of bogus refugees lies with their parents.

Almost all the asylum seekers currently in mainland detention are in that category. No asylum seekers have arrived in Australian waters, and been detained in Australia, since before "Tampa" in August last year. That time period means that all (or almost all) current mainland detainees have been found not to be refugees, have then lost again on a full independent RRT merits review, and are now at some stage of exhausting their judicial review rights. The Muin and Lie decisions by the High Court a couple of weeks ago will prolong the review process by a year or more, but it is safe to assume that only a tiny proportion of the failed applicants will ever get a visa.

A sad and almost unappreciated irony of the whole Baktiari saga was when misguided (but conceivably well meaning) refugee activists took the two escaped Baktiari boys to the British consulate in Melbourne to seek asylum. What few people (and obviously no-one in the media) apparently knew was that Britain's acceptance rate of Afghan asylum seekers has never exceeded 30 per cent. If they couldn't successfully negotiate the relatively generous Australian system, they had Buckley's chance of getting into Britain.

Moreover, most other European countries are even less generous. Australia's overall acceptance rate for onshore asylum seekers hovers around 30 per cent over the long term. Most European nations consider themselves excessively generous if they approve 12 per cent. Many of them have a so-called "white list" system which either conclusively deems asylum seekers from a long list of designated countries as not being at risk, or subjects them to perfunctory processing with a strong presumption against genuineness. These are the people who were lecturing the Howard government about breaching human rights standards. The reality is that, leaving aside the appalling mandatory detention system, figures show that Australia's approach to asylum seekers, even under Howard and Ruddock, is more compassionate than any other country with the exception of Canada.

Finding a workable alternative to mandatory detention is by no means easy. Britain does not detain most asylum seekers, and the Home Office was recently forced to admit that the result is that around 2/3 of unsuccessful applicants simply disappear into the illegal economy before they can be deported. There is no reason to believe that Australia's experience would be any different if we had a similar system. On the other hand, there are more than 70,000 illegal overstayers at large in Australia at any given moment, a fact which has never given rise to any public fear and loathing at all. It might have something to do with the fact that most of them are Americans and Poms with pale skin.


In a broader sense, the Baktiari story is replicated throughout the western world. All western countries are experiencing "compassion fatigue", and politicians everywhere are reacting to adverse opinion polls with standard "law and order"-type responses. The Refugee Convention itself is under question. Its architects didn't foresee a seemingly permanent worldwide refugee and displaced population of around 35 million people. Nor did they anticipate the emergence of people smuggling gangs moving an astounding 1 million people each year for an annual income of more than $10 billion. It's almost as profitable as heroin, and a hell of a lot safer for the traffickers! Solutions to this crisis of compassion won't be easy, but it's certainly worth puzzling about it. We should never lose sight of the fact that very many asylum seekers really do face trauma, torture and death. They're not all Ali Baktiaris. That, however, is a subject for another day.

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About the Author

Ken Parish is a Darwin-based lawyer and former Labor member of the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. He now teaches (mostly public law subjects) at Charles Darwin University, where he founded Australia's first fully online external law degree program. Ken is no longer associated with any political party, describing himself as a "committed sceptic".

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