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A brief display of humanitarianism

By Helen Pringle - posted Wednesday, 23 March 2005

Cui Yu Hu is 104 years old, her only relatives being her daughter and son-in-law in suburban Melbourne. The Migration Review Tribunal found that she was not entitled to a visa to remain in Australia. One avenue of recourse was left to Mrs Hu: an appeal on humanitarian grounds to the Immigration Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone.

Late on March 8, Senator Vanstone intervened in her case, saying Ms Hu would be allowed to stay in Australia under an aged dependant-relative visa with full access to Medicare.

Perhaps Senator Vanstone saw in Mrs Hu's case a chance of redemption for her chilling actions in the case of Zhu Qing Ping in July 1997. Senator Vanstone was Justice Minister at that time, but was acting Minister for Immigration in the absence of Philip Ruddock.


In a terse media release on July 15, 1997, Senator Vanstone noted that on the previous day she had returned to China 69 adults and 23 children who had arrived in Australia by boat. The Minister added that the deportees ''had not engaged Australia's protection obligations and had exhausted all avenues to remain in Australia''. Senator Vanstone concluded ''the Australian Government appreciated the continuing high level of co-operation shown by the Chinese Government in the return of people who arrive in Australia unlawfully''.

What Senator Vanstone's media release did not say was that on the plane leaving from Port Hedland in ''Operation Ox'' were at least two heavily pregnant women. One of the women, Zhu Qing Ping, was 36 weeks pregnant when deported by Senator Vanstone. On Ms Zhu's return to China, she was hunted down and forcibly aborted on July 21 at the Behai Hospital (her due date was August 12). Documents from the Behai Hospital showed that Ms Zhu was billed for the procedure. At least three other women who had been deported were also forced to have abortions, and one of these women was sterilised as well.

Ms Zhu had arrived in Darwin in November 1994, and was transferred to Port Hedland Detention Centre as an unauthorised non-citizen. She made two unsuccessful applications for refugee status, and pleaded to be allowed to stay in Australia until after the birth of her second child.

A Senate Inquiry was established in May 1999 when Ms Zhu's story came to light through the courageous efforts of Senator Brian Harradine. Ruddock and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Alexander Downer, instructed their departmental representatives not to respond to questions from the Inquiry in regard to the case of Ms Zhu, instructions which were overruled by the Senate Committee. The ''removal'' of Ms Zhu to China was also the subject of a Ministerial Inquiry (resulting in the Ayers report, presented to the Minister in September 1999).

Under the Refugee Convention, Australia has an obligation of non-refoulement. That is, we are prohibited from returning a refugee to territory where her life or freedom would be threatened on account of her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. This obligation is repeated in other international conventions.

For example, the Convention against Torture mandates that refoulement shall not take place if there are grounds for believing that a person would be subjected to torture on return. To address claims on such humanitarian grounds, an appeal to the Minister for Immigration can be granted where it is in the ''public interest'' to do so.


Another pregnant woman deported on the same flight as Ms Zhu had requested such ministerial intervention on the grounds that she feared being forcibly aborted on return to China. The Minister (presumably Mr Ruddock) refused to consider exercising such a power. Senator Vanstone's Media Release stipulated that she too would not consider exercising her ministerial powers under the Act in these cases.

When Ms Zhu's story came to public attention in 1999, Senator Ruddock covered for Senator Vanstone. Mr Ruddock at first claimed that it was ''highly unlikely'' that a heavily pregnant woman would be sent on an international flight. At any rate, he added, Australia did not have an obligation ''to take every pregnant woman from China'', although he did concede that abortions late in a pregnancy are ''highly undesirable'' (The Age, June 7, 1999). Later in 1999, a press release from Mr Ruddock noted that it had not been established whether Ms Zhu's abortion was forcible or not.

The Prime Minister in an interview with 3AW on June 18, 1999 praised Mr Ruddock's ''skill and care'' in regard to Ms Zhu's case, and added in a Panglossian moment that ''the lady has returned to her hometown in China, that there were a number of assurances about her safety, about her position which were given by the Chinese Government''. But there was no sympathy from Mr Howard for Ms Zhu's plight in his conclusion: ''On the other hand we respect the fact that she is a citizen of China and it must of course be remembered that she originally entered Australia illegally and it's very important that Australia be able to have a co-operative relationship with the Chinese Government regarding the return of people who come to this country illegally.'' And what of other vocal opponents of late-term abortions? From Tony Abbott, from John Anderson, from Ron Boswell, and from Alan Cadman: silence.

However, Alan Cadman now offers this warning on his website: ''One life saved is a triumph. It is morally corrupt to allow the killing of children capable of living outside the womb. Part of the answer may be the banning of abortion after 24 weeks.''

Ms Zhu had no chance in this moral colosseum. In apparent contrast, Mrs Hu has now been allowed by the Minister for Immigration to remain in Australia with a few shreds of her dignity intact. That is far more than Senator Vanstone, or her colleagues, ever conceded to Ms Zhu.

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First published in The Canberra Times on March 11, 2005.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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