Subject: SMH: A department of mean spirit [refugee deportations]

Sydney Morning Herald

A department of mean spirit

By Mike Carlton May 7, 2005

THE mindless cruelties and the rank stupidity of this country's immigration policies grow more disgusting with each passing week.

In a long, descending spiral, we have come now to the late-night knock on the door, a device of dictators everywhere. This is the latest tactic of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs as it goes about the business of cleansing Australia of a wretched handful of refugees from East Timor.

Those on the proscribed list who open their doors in the dark will find two officers from the department with a letter bearing the Commonwealth coat of arms. I have a copy of one, which begins thus: "I refer to your application made on 2 March 1995 for a Protection Visa, which was refused on 19 November 2002 and again by the Refugee Review Tribunal on 24 April 2003.

"I have given this matter much thought, but I have decided not to consider the use [sic] my non-compellable Ministerial power to grant you a visa under section 417 of the Migration Act 1958. AdvertisementAdvertisement

"You should now make arrangements to leave Australia." The signatory is Amanda Vanstone, Minister.

In the past fortnight, some 21 of these letters have been delivered either by night or, more humiliating, to East Timorese at work.

With families included, exactly 50 people are involved, a suspiciously neat figure no doubt pleasing to the bureaucratic mind. All are refugees who fled the Indonesian occupation of their homeland. Some had been at the infamous Dili massacre of November 1991, when Indonesian soldiers slaughtered 271 peaceful demonstrators in the town's Santa Cruz cemetery.

They have since made a new life in Australia, for 10 or 12 years. Most have jobs, paying taxes. They send money to support relatives in East Timor, where the daily wage, if you are lucky enough to have work, is about one Australian dollar. There are children at school, some born here and who speak only English. No reason is given for their deportation. They are kicked out, just like that. There is a carrot along with the stick, a "re-integration package" of one-way air fares to Dili and cash of up to $10,000 per family. But, as Vanstone informs them: "I must advise you that this offer will remain open for 28 days from the date of this letter. If you do not accept the offer by that date, the offer will lapse. There will be no extension of time."

And here is the killer: there is no date on the letters. Presumably in her haste to fling these people overboard, the minister neglected to add one. So those who got them do not know when this ultimatum expires. Distressed and confused, they have no idea how much time they have to uproot for a return to a homeland stricken by drought, poverty and hunger.

ONE of those ordered out is Simon Pereira, 31, a single man who has worked for six years as an aide at St Anne's Catholic nursing home in Hunters Hill. He came here when he was 21. He studied nursing and gained some qualifications but, as a refugee, was not permitted to complete the degree he had hoped for. From a small wage, he repatriates $500 a month to help his family.

Hurt and bewildered, he told me - in good English - that he regards Australia now as his home. "It is very stressful," he said, over and over again, voice breaking. "I do not know what to do. I hope to appeal, but if I do that I do not get the plane ticket and I might be sent to a detention centre." Which is possible.

Sister Susan Connelly, a Josephite nun of the Mary McKillop Institute of East Timor Studies, told me all the deportees are in the same position. It is catch-22. Appeal, and you might well end up behind the barbed wire in Gulag Vanstone.

"Simon is the salt of the earth," she said, seething with quiet fury. "He is a loving man who does wonders for the elderly people he cares for. To send him back is disgraceful."

The manager at St Anne's confirmed to me that Pereira is a valuable and popular employee, and I also have an email from a dismayed relative of one of the patients singing his praises as an "angel and a treasure".

So why is he going? Bad character, according to the acting Immigration Minister, Peter McGauran, who blandly assured the ABC's Lateline program last week that "overwhelmingly, there were character grounds - and serious character grounds - for the 50".

Vanstone has used the same phrase. But both refuse to give details and so does the department, so the accused have no means of defending their reputations from the easy smear.

Pereira tells me that his only brush with the law has been three tickets for speeding.

AMONG those taking up arms to fight this injustice is Tom Uren, the former Whitlam minister and, before that, a prisoner of war of the Japanese in Timor. He points out that up to 50,000 Timorese were killed during the Japanese occupation. "We owe such a debt to them," he told me. "How could we ever refuse shelter to these people who gave us shelter?"

Sister Connelly makes the same argument. "One of the disgraceful things about this deportation is the unique relationship we have with the people of East Timor. They stood by us. Yet we are sending them back to poverty and hunger." At a loss for any other explanation, she wonders if these 50 souls are being used as some sort of bargaining chip in the Australian Government's negotiations over East Timor's rich oil and gas fields.

"There's something rotten in the state," she said. "I don't know what it is, but it smells like a rat." This is an intriguing conspiracy theory, but it would credit the department with a competence, however malign, that it demonstrably does not have. Bureaucratic idiocy is the more likely explanation. This is the department which boldly claims it can tell a Pakistani from an Afghan with a few simple questions yet was unable to detect for 11 months that the mentally disturbed Cornelia Rau was an Australian.

More recently, we learnt that these bunglers managed to deport a mentally troubled Australian citizen to the Philippines, where she vanished. On Thursday a Federal Court judge found that another psychiatric patient in detention had been treated with "culpable neglect". Vanstone has conceded that some 20 other Australians have been detained by the department, although according to an ABC news report on Thursday that figure might be as high as 100.

I finish this column sick at heart that these things are happening in my country. I hope you are, too. Be ashamed. Be very ashamed. Then do something about it.

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