Last month, according to media reports, gunmen abducted and then threw Afghan man Mohammed Hussain down a well before killing him with a hand grenade near his home in Kabul, Afghanistan.
A grenade just outside Kabul also hit Abdul Azim Rahim’s home in January 2006. His two young daughters, Rowna and Yalda, were killed.
Two and a half years earlier, in August 2003, Mohammad Mussa Nazari was gunned down near his home in Ghazni province.
Mohammed, Azim and Mussa had all fled their homeland to seek protection in Australia. Instead of receiving protection and safety, they were detained within Australia’s Pacific Solution before being returned to Afghanistan; a country racked by violence.
Their stories are told in the documentary A Well Founded Fear, screened on SBS on November 19. The film follows Phil Glendenning, director of the Edmund Rice Centre, as he travels to Syria, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan - where Mohammed was abducted during filming - seeking to uncover the fate of some of those people that Australia returned after they sought asylum here.
The documentary provides a harrowing insight into the consequences of Australia’s response to people seeking protection during the Howard years.
It hints at the destructive implications of Australia’s mandatory detention policy that forced asylum seekers to choose between the daily psychological destruction of indefinite incarceration or returning to situations where their lives and liberties were threatened. It is a story of corrupt, and arguably illegal, practices on the part of some Australian immigration officials.
But it is also a story of the violation of basic human rights, including the right to life. The Edmund Rice Centre has documented the deaths of “as many as nine men returned from Nauru” and “three children of people sent back from Nauru”. According to Phil Glendenning, as many as 20 returnees from the Pacific Solution could have been killed.
At the beginning of the film, Glendenning asks how it could be that we, as Australians, could allow this to happen “and at the same time not imagine how we would feel if it was done to us?” How is it that we could show such a lack of empathy? How is it that we could not see their suffering?
The answer lies, in large part, in the political manipulation of distance between “us” and “them” - the mainly Afghan, Iraqi, and Iranian asylum seekers who began arriving in Australia by boat in significant numbers from 1999.
The Howard government and its supporters in the media promoted a sense that the asylum seekers were somehow different from us. They were labelled as “illegals”, “queue jumpers” and in the terrible, bureaucratic jargon of the government, SUNCs; suspected unauthorised non-citizens. They were said to be criminals, terrorists and threats to something called “the Australian way of life”. Worse, they were portrayed as being less human than we are, as though they were incapable of the same depth of experience and attachment to loved ones that we share.
The sense of distance that Australians were encouraged to feel towards people seeking our protection fed an indifference to their plight. The official response to stories of their ill-treatment and even death upon return exemplified this.
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