Following them home
The fate of the returned asylum seekers
"One of the things that I found that was almost universal was that the implications of Australia's detention policies continued to affect people's lives as they had been returned. People spoke of ongoing sleep difficulties, continuing nightmares, headaches that were persistent. They spoke of, as a result of Australia's asylum seeker policies, of losing their dignity, of having lost their humanity, and they also spoke of being institutionalised in Australia's detention regime."
"There was a couple of instances in Iran of people who had been sent back with documents that put them at risk, and they were interrogated as a result of those documents. So there were different experiences of returnees, depending on where they came from, where they were returned to." (author David Corlett on "The Law Report", transcript below)
"In mid-2004, I travelled to meet asylum seekers whom Australia had returned to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. My intention was to witness first-hand the circumstances into which Australia returns people it deems not to need protection. This is the story of that expedition." - David Corlett
"The Australian government has long declared that it owes no duty of care to those asylum seekers it deports, even after the deportees in question have spent years in our detention system. This duty of care has been boldly assumed by David Corlett. His book becomes a necessary humanitarian account. But as a record of human struggle and voyaging, it makes good reading as well. In the vacuum of our government's policy, we all owe Corlett a debt." - Thomas Keneally
David Corlett has worked with refugees and asylum seekers as a case worker and a researcher. In 2003, he completed a doctoral thesis on Australia's response to asylum seekers. Written with Robert Manne, his Quarterly Essay "Sending Them Home" also focussed on Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and was shortlisted for the 2004 Human Rights Award. His writing has also appeared in the UNSW Law Journal, Dissent, Australian Quarterly and the Canberra Times.
Beyond detention centres and Australian shores, Following Them Home explores the lands that asylum seekers flee and in many cases, to which they are returned. Here, at last are the untold stories of Australia's returned asylum seekers. While the government investigates how it wrongly detained and deported its own citizens, this book is a timely reminder of the treatment suffered by non-citizens seeking protection. Through Corlett's account the personal cost of the government's policies and processes become horrifically clear. From asylum seekers brutalised by Iranian police to those living illegally and in constant fear, in the words of Robert Manne 'Corlett is inquisitive, compassionate and physically courageous'.
As Corlett's analysis of the high profile Bakhtiyari case shows, Following Them Home is a complex and in-depth exploration of asylum seekers, their supporters and detractors. Above all, this is an argument for humane treatment rather than simple asylum. With a foreword by Robert Manne, this book tells the stories Australia has until now, been able to ignore. Hard-hitting, gut-wrenching - Not since Dark Victory have we seen such a powerful attack on government policy.
Title: Following Them Home
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Preview: Talking with Alamdar
From New Matilda
In the small hours of 30 December 2004, the Bakhtiyari family was woken and whisked to the Port Augusta airport where a charter plane was waiting for them. Accompanied by twelve officials, including guards and a nurse, the family flew out of Australia. The Immigration Minister announced that the family would be billed for their detention, their legal costs and their removal from Australia; a figure of more than two million, and possibly three million, dollars.
Four days after their removal, the family, having been delayed en route by the Asian tsunami, arrived in Islamabad. According to an anonymous Pakistani immigration official cited by the news agency AFP, the family's nationality could not be verified because it had no passports or identification papers. 'We allowed them go after someone furnished a personal guarantee that they would return for investigations,' the official said. Another anonymous source who has spoken to the family said that the guarantor was an Australian consular official. The family was also initially turned away from their hotel because they had no papers or identity documents. They were only allowed to stay because of another assurance given by an Australian consular official.
Within days, the Bakhtiyaris left the country Australian officials had insisted they were from and entered Afghanistan. They went to the country they said was both home and the place from which they had been forced to flee. It was hardly, as some have suggested, an attempt to make a political point. Had it been, the family would not have fought so hard to keep out of the media spotlight.
They travelled to Roqia's mother's village in Ghazni province and then to Kabul. Ali was unable to work because of a back injury he had sustained in Australia. The family was, therefore, relying on the support of local friends and supporters in Australia.
In the beginning, all the family members took ill because of the cold and their inadequate clothing. It was mid-winter in Afghanistan and freezing. It was too cold to venture outside. They had no heating and kept warm with blankets. The boys were bored. 'I am not settled,' Monty said. 'At the moment I am a passenger. I am not doing anything. It is like being in detention.'
Nor was the cold the only thing that kept the family indoors. The security situation was uncertain. But more than anything, Alamdar told me by telephone, he was 'scared that the Australian media might find me'.
Our telephone conversation was the closest I could get to following the Bakhtiyaris home. It had taken me weeks of work to arrange to speak with one of them. I had travelled to Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra and Melbourne to chase the story down. The few people who maintained contact with the family were under strict instructions from them not to disclose their whereabouts. Members of the media were on the trail.
Finally, Alamdar agreed to speak with me. When I was in Quetta, I had spent time with a friend of his from detention. His friend had vouched for me. When he saw a photograph of us together, Alamdar said that I looked like a Muslim.
While he had agreed to speak to me - saying that he would not disclose anything 'personal' - I did not have Alamdar's trust. My work fails without trust. When it is reduced to its essence, research of the sort I do is all about relationships. I had no rapport with Alamdar and the hardest way to build such a thing is over the telephone. And he was suspicious. 'You are only talking to me because of your book,' he said. 'You are not talking to me because you are sorry for me.'
In the midst of this telephone conversation between Australia and Afghanistan - I had seen the country code being dialled into the phone and later paid the bill with that code listed - I could feel myself breaking into a sweat. I was speaking to a feisty, intelligent and angry 16-year-old who could barely contain his contempt for people like me: the professionals - journalists, psychologists, social workers, immigration case officers, Refugee Review Tribunal members, lawyers, judges, teachers, 'friends' - who spent hours of their time asking questions, eliciting information in order to pass judgement on Alamdar and his family. This phone call was the closest anyone except for three or four close friends had got to speaking with the family since they had returned and I was about to blow it. I asked about what had happened in Pakistan and Alamdar obfuscated. He did not want the conversation to go there. He was concerned about the implications of being too critical, particularly of Australian authorities. He held a deep fear of the Australian government which, from his own experience, seemed all-powerful.
Nor would Alamdar tell me anything about his uncle Mahzar, his sisters or his parents. He let it slip that Monty was 'not OK', but when pressed about what this meant, asked rhetorically, 'How would I know?'
When I asked about his own health, Alamdar told me that he did not have time to think about it. I asked if he was sleeping and he asked me if I was being a psychologist now. Scrambling to distance myself from the psychologists he so disliked, I told him that many of the returnees I had spoken to continued to suffer from their experiences in detention in Australia, including not being able to sleep properly. 'It always feels like you are in detention,' Alamdar said. 'The only difference is the country.'
He had learnt a great deal in Australia, including, he said, that 'nothing in life is fair.' His family was the victim of 'hundreds of lies'. He continued to hope that in time the truth would emerge. He also hoped that one day he might be able to continue the studies he had begun in Australia.
Alamdar said that there were many kind people in Australia, but there were many who did him and his family harm. Alamdar said that his family had become pawns in a broader political battle in Australia. He told me that his family had been caught between self-interested lawyers, journalists and the government.
His younger brother was also clear about what happened in Australia. 'People used me to embarrass the government,' Monty told a source close to the family. 'People used us in a bad way. We were punished. Why weren't they punished? We were in the middle.'
I had begun my conversation with Alamdar hoping that I could talk my way into coming over to Afghanistan to spend a couple of weeks with the family. By the end of it, this possibility seemed more remote than ever. Despite the fact that we had spoken for more than an hour, I was no closer to building a relationship with Alamdar than I was when we started talking.
About the author
David Corlett has worked with refugees and asylum seekers as a case worker and a researcher. In 2003, he completed a doctoral thesis on Australia's response to asylum seekers. Written with Robert Manne, his Quarterly Essay Sending Them Home also focused on Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and was shortlisted for the 2004 Human Rights Award. His writing has also appeared in the UNSW Law Journal, Dissent, Australian Quarterly and the Canberra Times.
The Courier Mail
The plight of Cornelia Rau has drawn the nation's attention to the culture within the immigration department. Mick Palmer, the former federal police chief enlisted to inquire into the affair, has called this culture one of "mindless zealotry".
In my recent book, Following Them Home: The Fate of the Returned Asylum Seekers, I tell the stories of others who have suffered as a result of this culture. The book is the result of my travelling to Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Thailand to speak with people who were rejected as refugees and deported from Australia.
Many of the people I met were returned to situations of fear and insecurity. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they were assured by Australian officials, and by others employed with Australian money, that the places to which they were being returned were now safe - places such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
Some of the people with whom I spoke were treated brutally on their return. Some were even tortured.
Almost all returned from Australia's duty of care as broken people - the result, in large part, of being detained for extended periods in Australia or offshore in the Pacific Solution.
To be sure, it is not only the culture of the immigration department that is the problem here. Consider the law. It empowers immigration officials to detain indefinitely, and without judicial review, people who are merely "suspected" of being "unlawful non-citizens".
Hence the legal basis for Cornelia Rau's plight.
But culture, as acknowledged by the Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, and others, is a key aspect of the problem.
In 1993 - under a Labor government - legal academic Kathryn Cronin wrote about a "culture of control" within Australia's immigration bureaucracy. Asylum-seekers who arrive by boat without prior permission represent a challenge to the culture of control.
It was this culture that led the Labor government to introduce mandatory detention, following the arrival of several hundred Cambodian boat people in the late 1980s.
Control remains imperative, but there have been other developments since then. We have witnessed a culture of indifference emerge within the immigration department.
A culture of control leads to policies such as mandatory detention. A culture of indifference is what prevents the overseers of such policies from recognising or caring about the suffering that these policies cause.
A culture of indifference immunises officials from taking seriously the plight of the people they seek to return to places such as Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
But to say that this is only a problem within the immigration department is to miss the broader significance. The emergence of a culture of indifference is a political development. It is a product of government.
Though she is far from alone in this, Vanstone has been a key contributor to this indifference.
When I was in Pakistan, I met men who had returned from Nauru to Afghanistan in December 2003. The situation in Afghanistan had been deteriorating for some time.
The United Nations refugee agency had closed its operations in many parts of the country following the murder of one of its staff. Vanstone was asked in the Senate about the wisdom of returning asylum-seekers to such an environment. Her answer reeked of carelessness.
Vanstone told the Senate: "Australia does not repatriate people if we believe there is a risk to them - an inappropriate risk. I mean there is a risk in walking across the street obviously." This is to trivialise a situation in which lives are at risk.
Just months later, the UNHCR - the United Nations' refugee agency - and then Australia reopened the cases of the remaining Afghans on Nauru because of deteriorating security in Afghanistan. Many were found to be refugees and were sent to New Zealand or brought to Australia. It was too late for those who had already been sent back.
The Palmer inquiry will be scathing of the immigration department. It will suggest ways of improving the detention system, including the provision of health care within that system.
The report may also have something to say about how the culture within the department might be improved. There may even be a phrase in it about being more "client-focused".
The changes that follow from this, like the reforms Prime Minister John Howard reluctantly agreed to following the Petro Georgiou-led revolt, will be important. But they will not get to the heart of the matter, that under the leadership of the Howard Government, our political culture has grown indifferent to the suffering of people who are deemed to be different from ourselves.
The many broken lives I have encountered in the course of writing my book are testament to that.
David Corlett, who has worked with refugees as a case worker and researcher, is the author of Following Them Home: The Fate of the Returned Asylum Seekers (Black Inc).
The Law Report: Removal of Failed Asylum Seekers
The Law Report
With Damen Carrick and Anita Barraud
Transcript (section only)
A University researcher has found that the mental state of returned asylum seekers is often fragile, as a result of long-term detention. Their mental condition may affect their ability to make informed decisions and put them at risk.
David Corlett, from La Trobe University, interviewed 28 people who had been removed from Australian Detention Centres to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
David Corlett: The experiences of returnees sort of varied in those different countries. The returnees to Iran had a range of experiences; some seen to have gotten through okay, meaning that they weren't particularly targeted on arrival and they continue to live their lives. Not a very fulfilling life, but a life nonetheless.
Anita Barraud: Reasonably safe?
David Corlett: Reasonably safe. Then there was a spectrum from those who did okay to those who were treated terribly, and probably the most extreme case of an Iranian returning was someone who was sent back and who was detained immediately on arrival, and tortured for a considerable period of time. Eventually he escaped from where he was being detained and fled, and he's now seeking asylum in a European country.
Anita Barraud: Was there any reason given as to why he was detained?
David Corlett: He told me that he didn't know what the reason was, so no, I'm unclear about why he was targeted in particular, and others haven't been.
Anita Barraud: And what about the others?
David Corlett: Then there was a spectrum of responses, so people who had been detained and interrogated for shorter periods of time, for a few days to periods of hours, and then days; then over a week, to months. All of those people had been questioned and interrogated.
Anita Barraud: You also went to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Can you describe what you found there?
David Corlett: Yes. The situation for Afghan returnees in Afghanistan and Pakistan is really quite different to the situation for Iranians. And the reason is that Iranians basically fear a heavy-handed, repressive state, whereas the Afghans, their fear is based around the inadequacy of the states that they're in. So the Afghans who remained in Afghanistan continue to fear terrorist attacks. We know that the Taliban is still not defeated in Afghanistan, and we also know that warlords continue to dominate much of Afghanistan. They also live in pretty desperate circumstances, which is another issue again.
Anita Barraud: But you only were able to go to Kabul?
David Corlett: Yes. Which is the safest part in Afghanistan, so the people that I spoke to were relatively safe, compared to others. Many of the Afghans that I spoke to in Afghanistan and in Pakistan had been detained as part of the 'Pacific Solution', and as I understand it, the last significant return flight of Afghans from Nauru occurred in December 2003. In January 2004, so a month later, maybe even less than a month later, both the United Nations and the Australian government deemed that they would re-open the cases of the remaining Afghans on Nauru, because they accepted that the security situation in Afghanistan was not adequate for people to be returned.
So what you have is this thing where Afghans are returned to a country which, a month later, the government and the United Nations deems is unsafe to return people to. Now more people I spoke to had fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, and again, what they fear is ongoing terrorist violence. And at the time I was there, which was the middle of last year, up to about the year previous to when I was there, there had been over 100 believers in Shia Islam had been killed in terrorist attacks in the year preceding my visit. And most of those were Hazarras, ethnically Hazarras.
The other thing that the Afghans in Pakistan fear is the Pakistani Police. They're often harassed by the Pakistani Police, who often raid places where Afghans are living. I was in a place called Quetta, and also expect the Afghans to pay them bribes, and the threat is, if they don't pay them bribes, they'll be either jailed or forced back into Afghanistan.
Anita Barraud: When you visited these people and spoke to them, were there any issues of safety arising out of the documentation that they had?
David Corlett: There was a couple of instances in Iran of people who had been sent back with documents that put them at risk, and they were interrogated as a result of those documents. So there were different experiences of returnees, depending on where they came from, where they were returned to. One of the things that I found that was almost universal was that the implications of Australia's detention policies continued to affect people's lives as they had been returned. People spoke of ongoing sleep difficulties, continuing nightmares, headaches that were persistent. They spoke of, as a result of Australia's asylum seeker policies, of losing their dignity, of having lost their humanity, and they also spoke of being institutionalised in Australia's detention regime.
Now the point about this is that it relates to return, because the Australian government says that one of the reasons that justifies Australia's mandatory detention policy is that it keeps people available for return if their case for refugee status is rejected. Now the thing is that if that's a legitimate policy outcome - and I think it is a legitimate goal that people who have no claim for remaining in Australia be returned - that actually it seems that detention undermines that outcome, because what it does, it undermines people's ability to make decisions.
So the issue about being institutionalised is people's ability to make decisions is undermined. So if you undermine somebody's ability to make decisions, and then you expect them to make the momentous choice of abandoning their hopes, be that for protection or for a better life in Australia, you expect them to abandon that - well I think it shows that the mandatory detention policy is actually counter-productive for return.
Anita Barraud: David Corlett, Research Associate in the School of Politics at La Trobe University, whose book, Following Them Home, based on his interviews with returned asylum seekers, is published by Black Ink, to be released early next month.
Refugees' fate beyond the wire
Reviewed by Antony Loewenstein
AUSTRALIA'S relationship with asylum seekers has often been based on misunderstanding, cruelty and occasional kindness. The Howard years have seen a deterioration of our international responsibilities, and our moral and ethical obligations. Despite an abundance of media coverage of the refugee issue in recent years, this book proves how unwilling many journalists have been to look past government spin.
David Corlett doesn't claim to be an objective reporter or witness. Rather, his aim is to chronicle the various lives often ruined by Australian authorities after detainees are sent back to their country of origin.
But this is no left-wing polemic aimed at conservative pundits and government officials. Asylum seeker supporters are taken to task, including Bob Ellis, an early supporter of the now infamous Bakhtiyari family (birthplace still unclear, but likely to be Afghanistan, despite various media reports "proving" otherwise).
The self-important Labor supporter released a public statement about the Bakhtiyari boys against their wishes, "because I believe more harm will come to them and others if I do not". Corlett rightly argues, "with friends of this sort, one cannot help but wonder, who needs enemies?" Lawyers acting for the family are painted as opportunists trying to score political points against the Government, forgetting people's lives were at stake.
Corlett travels to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan and wonders whether the Howard Government considers the fate to which they are sending the refugees whose claims they have refused. Take the story of Qasim Ali, who was returned to Afghanistan during a period when conflict was still raging.
Ali had tried to arrive in Australia during the Pacific Solution, Howard's neo-colonial policy designed to deter future refugees. He spent two years in Nauru and slowly lost his mind.
The constant uncertainty of his situation and his inability to utilise Australia's legal system all contributed to his deteriorated mental condition. When Corlett meets him, he describes a "broken man" and an individual who sometimes spends hours "sitting in his room and just staring at the wall".
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book relates to the forced repatriations to refugee countries. The Immigration Department is accused of threatening detainees with force if they refuse to accept the involuntary order. What kind of country - assisted by the UN, Corlett observes - drives a policy based on pragmatism alone? Refugee protection becomes secondary to the priority of sending people to another country.
I was particularly moved by the challenges Corlett offers to his readers, namely to recognise that Australia's name has been permanently sullied in the eyes of millions the world over. An unknown number of asylum seekers' lives have been ruined and families separated in the name of winning elections and keeping an electorate "alert and alarmed".
Corlett's exposure of media and government cynicism should be praised for articulating a highly unpopular message.
Robert Manne's introduction says it best: "At a time of great national self-satisfaction and self-congratulation, [this book] quietly tells the story of the human lives we have so carelessly allowed to be destroyed."