Saturday, January 23, 2010


Red News Readers,

As published on the SMH Blog:

Thank heavens for David Marr. In a land where yobs yell racist slogans (particularly around Australia Day) without knowing why, David shines a light on the moral and ethical issues surrounding our intake of refugees and asylum seekers, and puts before our government and the people the truth about the pain caused by the hardness in many Australian hearts and minds. Those who would exclude refugees from their right to enter Australia because they did not stand in an impossible queue, should be challenged by David's account of what happened to the Irfani family under the regime administered by the Howard Government. If Australia really is the land of the fair go, we should all be clamouring for a fair go for the Irfanis and for all refugees and asylum seekers .

Jenny Haines | Newtown - January 23, 2010, 12:59PM

Indifferent land keeps desperate people waiting


January 23, 2010.

"No matter how much I shook her she did not wake up." Eight years ago this weekend Ali Reza Irfani returned to his room in the makeshift detention centre on Christmas Island to find his wife had slipped into a coma. Complaining about headaches for days, Fatima had been fed painkillers and given dark glasses. No one picked the problem: a blood vessel had ruptured in her brain and she was bleeding to death.

An air ambulance from Singapore flew the intubated patient to Perth, where she lived for another four days. "I was deeply grieving about my wife," Irfani writes with immense restraint. "We had left Afghanistan together and been in the camp on Christmas Island for 14 months. All my wife had known was suffering and hardship. She wanted a safe good life for herself and her children."

Days before Fatima's collapse, the Irfani family had agreed to return "voluntarily" to Afghanistan. A month after the doctors at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital turned off the machines and allowed her to die, the family was in the air: Ali Reza, his three little children - the oldest was seven - and a coffin.

Terrible stories from the refugee gulags of the Howard era are a dime a dozen. But the Irfani story continues to haunt the authorities. The family, surviving precariously in a refugee camp in Pakistan, wants to return to Australia. They haven't been refused but they haven't been accepted. The Minister for Immigration is mulling it over.

So much has changed. Were the Irfanis to arrive at Christmas Island today, they would almost certainly be settled swiftly and safely in Australia. Even as the politics of the boats once again turns rancid, Senator Chris Evans faces a question from the past that won't go away: what does Australia owe to asylum seekers mauled by the policies of Labor's predecessors?

A spokesman for Evans told the Herald last week: "The minister has asked the department to provide him with further information on the circumstances of Mrs Irfani's death and the family's repatriation." Here's a thumbnail sketch.

Ali Reza Irfani, a Shiite imam in a remote Hazara village, was twice abducted when the Taliban descended in 1999. "They beat me and said I was an atheist and should die." He was rescued but the following year a brother-in-law accused of speaking against the extremists disappeared and was never seen again. "We think Younas must have been killed."

The family decided to scatter. Some joined the millions of Hazaras in camps in Iran and Pakistan. An uncle arranged for Irfani, his young wife and three children to be smuggled to Australia, where they arrived on a small boat in October 2001 at the peak of the Tampa election campaign.

They waited and waited on Christmas Island. His wife was stressed. One daughter had a skin condition - cutaneous leishmaniasis - that remained undiagnosed for five months until the arrival of a pediatrician on the island. It would leave her face permanently scarred. His son had a mouth lesion. In March 2002 the whole family was flown to Perth for specialist treatment. They were back on the island in May.

At last Ali Reza Irfani had a chance to argue his case. The timing was appalling. Days after his interview with immigration officials the Australian Government declared the Taliban no longer posed a threat. Until this point nearly every Hazara to reach Australia by boat had been given refugee protection - and they would be again - but from May 2002 to December 2003 almost all Hazaras were rejected.

Irfani was given the bad news in August. The wait had been torture. His wife was being treated for high blood pressure. An appeal in December to another official of the department - in those days there was no independent review panel - proved fruitless. The Irfanis had no legal assistance whatsoever. "They said the Taliban was no longer in power in Afghanistan … they said the new government would protect me."

The family was now under intense pressure to accept the government's Reintegration Assistance Package: $2000 a head up to a maximum of $10,000 to return to Afghanistan. Two or three times a day, Irfani was being called in and told by senior immigration officials that resistance was futile. He had to accept or be sent home with empty hands.

Out on Nauru the same pressure was being applied to Afghans caught up in the Pacific solution. As it happens, nearly all the Hazaras who refused to sign would eventually be allowed to live in Australia. But in these 18 months about 420 of them would take the package. They returned to a most uncertain fate: some were killed, many disappeared and large numbers fled the country to camps in Pakistan and Iran.

The Irfanis could listen to the news from Afghanistan. "Clearly the situation was not getting better," Irfani told the ABC Four Corners reporter Debbie Whitmont through an interpreter. But they felt they had no choice. "We had to sign and we signed." Three nights later his wife woke saying, "I have severe pain in the left side of my head."

No inquest has been held into Fatima Irfani's death. The latest attempt was rejected by a Perth magistrate last month. An appeal against this decision will be heard by the West Australian Supreme Court in March. Irfani does not blame the nurses in the camp or the lone GP who examined his wife. He blames the island.

"Christmas Island is a very small island," he told Whitmont a few weeks later in that unscreened interview. "There is no specialist doctor who understands everything, and there is no medical equipment, either. They did not have a brain scanner there … if from the first day they took pictures from her brain, they would have found out, and they would have operated my wife, she would not have died."

Irfani was treated as a prisoner in Perth as he sat alone at her bedside, "a stranger having his wife dying in front of his face". Guards refused to allow him to ring people or to receive visitors. "I was very lonely. I was sitting there with her day and night." Once it was clear his wife was brain dead, the children were flown down to sit with their mother until the machines were turned off.

The journey home was grotesque. Deep snow closed Kabul airport. Waiting for a delayed flight in Dubai, Irfani saw his wife's coffin sitting in the sun on the tarmac. "He was completely beside himself," recalls Judith Quinlivan, one of his supporters on Christmas Island. She rang around the world late that night to have the problem fixed.

In Kabul Irfani discovered his wife's family had also left for Pakistan. "Nothing and no one has left for me here in Afghanistan," he told Whitmont. He turned for help to his escorts, the International Organisation for Migration. "I asked them to please arrange automobile for us from Kabul to Pakistan border. The IOM gave us a car and a van for the coffin, and from the border to Quetta we went by an ambulance and a car."

Those who know Irfani say he is an intelligent man of great dignity. He has remarried and has another young child. They live in a single room in a crowded house. His little knot of supporters in Western Australia continues to work for the family's return to Australia. Meanwhile, they are paying for the education of the children - tuition that will never, by law, lead to qualifications of any kind.

Quetta is no longer safe. When I was on Christmas Island last July, a common thread in the stories of Hazaras there was having fled violence in that city. And Australia was giving these boat people visas. About the time I was on the island, Irfani applied for Offshore Humanitarian Visas (Class XB) for his family. They are not taking a boat this time but joining the queue - of about 35,000 people who will apply for about 4500 places offered overseas this year.

"The question for us is how to respond to the current circumstances of these and other individuals returned under the previous government," Evans told the Labor MP Melissa Parke last month. But in a couple of pages of waffle the only hope the minister would offer the Irfanis was this cold Canberra formula: "All claims are considered on their individual merits."