The government of Iran has signed a deal with Australia agreeing, for the first time, to accept back rejected asylum seekers. The deal could set a precedent for Europe where there are about 10,000 Iranian asylum seekers, whose claims have been rejected.
On 12 March 2003, Phillip Ruddock announced that the Australian government had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In it, the Iranians said that they would accept asylum seekers forcibly deported back to Iran, in exchange for a cultural programme allowing affluent young Iranians to go and experience the Australian lifestyle.
The deal was described by Ruddock as ‘historic’ because, until then, the Iranian government had refused to accept forcibly-deported asylum seekers. Iran has an unemployment rate of 30 per cent, so it is reluctant to accept back the tens of thousands of asylum seekers that Europe is desperate to deport.
The significance of this agreement with Australia is that it will leave the Iranian government open to pressure from European countries seeking its replication. The 128 Iranians in Australia is a tiny number compared to the tens of thousands of asylum seekers that could follow from Europe. Australia’s offer of visas for a few hundred Iranian youths is no recompense for this type of financial and political burden.
Deal kept secret
So why did Iran sign the agreement? It’s difficult to know, because no one has seen it. ‘They aren’t releasing the details of it to anyone, including Parliament’, says Mary Black, a refugee advocate.
A representative of the Iranian embassy, Eshagh Al-Habib, who visited the Baxter detention centre on the 15 May 2003, was also unwilling to produce a copy of the agreement. Asylum seekers requesting to see it report being told, ‘I am here in the flesh. This is better proof than any piece of paper. You should trust me.’
During the discussion, Al-Habib mentioned personal details about the detainees that they had not told him. ‘He told them that the department of immigration had passed on details about them to the Iranian Government’, said Mary Black. ‘Many of these Iranians are political dissidents. If any information was released they’d face severe consequences once deported.’
In the Australian Financial Review, of 28 May 2003, a spokesperson for Ruddock denied handing over any more than ‘passport information, village of origin and their health check information’. However, asylum seekers from the Baxter detention centre have said that Al-Habib was in possession of more information than this.
It’s not in the Australian government’s interests to pass on details to the Iranian regime, because it has served only to make asylum seekers more resistant to deportation. So why would they do it? The only reason refugee advocates can offer is that it forms part of the deal signed with the Iranians. ‘This’, postulates Mary Black, ‘may be the reason that no-one has seen the secret agreement.’
The other possibility is that the Iranians may have signed the agreement because they are desperate to increase trade with Western countries – in particular, those countries closely allied to the United States.
This week, the Iranian delegation of the Australian-Iranian Parliamentary Friendship Group is touring Australia. This visit follows a trip made to Iran last September by the Minister for Trade, Mark Vaile, and a delegation of representatives from thirty-four Australian companies. ‘The Iranian government is very anxious to develop and expand their mining sector’, said Vaile, during the trip. ‘The attractiveness of Australia is that we’ve been at the leading edge of developing new technology in mining.’
Iran is particularly keen to buddy up to close allies of the United States because the US has recently cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran. (This week’s CNN poll is ‘Should the U.S. take steps to destabilize Tehran’s Islamic regime?’)
The third possibility is that the agreement between Australia and Iran is a secret because it does not exist. The threat of forced deportation may be a hoax, a bluff created solely to scare the Iranians into accepting a deportation package of a few thousand dollars to leave peacefully.
They were given twenty-eight days to accept the money or face forced deportation. Their time runs out next week but, so far, only three have capitulated.
Mohammad is one of the hundreds of Iranian asylum seekers who have been denied asylum but are too frightened to go home voluntarily. As a detainee, he has an unreal existence, physically in Australia (speaking English and eating barbequed sausages) but legally in no-man’s-land. He spends his days in his bedroom. He used to watch TV, or write to friends, but now he says, ‘I just sit. Sit and think.’
‘We didn’t come here for money’, he tells me, speaking on the phone from the Baxter detention centre. ‘There is jobs and money in Iran. But I cannot live there.’ His voice becomes insistent. ‘I will sell my life for $2,000? No. I do not want money.’
The asylum seekers are now as frightened of the Australian government as they are of the fundamentalist regime they escaped from. ‘We will be delivered to our enemy like sheep to a wolf’, they wrote, in a letter to the Australian public. Mohammad now takes three sleeping tablets a night. ‘Our life is stress,’ he tells me. ‘We can’t sleep. We can’t eat. I can’t see the sky.’
Why are these asylum seekers fighting so desperately for a life in an Australian detention centre? ‘Iran is Muslim but I changed to be a Christian. So I had to leave’, says Mohammad. ‘If you change religion, they kill you. The best life is in Iran but unfortunately our government is really, really bad.’
Human rights abuses
It seems it does not take much effort to engage the wrath of Iran’s religious leaders. Last month, an Iranian actress was sentenced to 74 lashes for kissing a young actor on the check at a public festival. If a kiss on the cheek is enough to earn a whipping, what will be the fate of these 128 Iranian asylum seekers, many of whom claim to be outspoken critics of the Iranian regime?
Barbara Rogalla is a former nurse at Woomera. ‘When I was there, an Iranian volunteered to go back to Iran’, she says. ‘I asked him “Why would you go back, when you know you are going to jail?” And he told me, “I’m in jail here. At least there my family can visit me.”‘
A last-minute federal court appeal to stop the deportations has been lodged. Last night an interim injunction was granted, which lawyers and refugee advocates are hoping will stop any deportations occurring until the result of the test case is known. This should take three to four weeks, says Julian Burnside QC, a member of the legal team.
In detention centres around Australia, the Iranians sit. And wait. All they know is that their lives are being put at risk by secret deals between the country they fled to, and the country they fled from.