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AUSTRALIA: ‘Chinese Asylum Seekers’ Rights Were Violated’

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Mar 29 2009 (IPS) - A yet-to-be released report by Australia’s human rights watchdog into the 2005 treatment of a group of Chinese asylum seekers held at the immigration detention here has concluded that serious breaches of civil and political rights were made by the immigration department.

The infringements occurred during and after the detainees were interviewed by visiting officials from China’s ministry of public security (MPS) at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney in May 2005.

The report by John von Doussa, until recently the president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), into complaints made by 26 Chinese immigration detainees found that the human rights of the complainants were violated.

In the report, which IPS has obtained, HREOC found that the actions of the then department of immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs (DIMIA) breached the detainees’ right to be treated with humanity and dignity and the right not to be subjected to arbitrary interferences in regards to privacy.

These are violations, respectively, of articles 10 and 17 (1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Australia is a signatory and has ratified.

While the HREOC is now called the Human Rights Commission DIMIA is now formally known as the department of immigration and citizenship (DIAC).

The purpose of the interviews conducted by the Chinese was ostensibly to expedite the identity of the detainees in order for the required travel documents to be prepared for their repatriation to China.

Of the 26-member group 23 had applied for asylum in Australia and had exhausted all avenues of appeal at the time – “most had been rejected more than three years prior to the interviews,” says the report – with only one person awaiting a final decision.

The other two had yet to apply for asylum when the interviews were conducted.

While von Doussa found that DIMIA did not breach the detainees’ rights in arranging the interviews, he concluded that the way the interviews were carried out, as well as the subsequent treatment of some of the detainees, infringed upon their rights.

These numerous violations included DIMIA’s failure to take adequate measures to minimise the risk of detainees being questioned about their protection visa applications, as well as DIMIA’s failure to notify detainees about the information it provided to the MPS officials, the purpose of the interviews and the identity of the interviewers.

The detainees “did become distressed and frightened as a result of the interviews and some did disclose information about their protection visas,” writes von Doussa in his report.

Additionally, recordings of the interviews were made by the Chinese officials without the detainees’ permission and a DIMIA official was only present for the first interview.

According to immigration lawyer Michaela Byers, who began representing the detainees several months after complaints regarding the interviews and subsequent treatment were filed, the Chinese requested that the DIMIA official leave the interview room as it was too small.

“He agreed and he left and he never came back. And that was during the first interview,” she says.

Further rights breaches were made when 18 male detainees were moved to “separation detention” – whereby the men were isolated from the general detainee population following their interviews for periods of between one and fifteen days – at the request, according to a DIMIA submission to the inquiry, of the Chinese delegation.

Byers says that the entire episode highlights what she describes as the “negligent attitude” that existed within the immigration department at the time.

“Right from the start, someone just didn’t care. It was part of the culture in the department for 2005 that people who were detained lose their rights as human beings,” she says.

“They used to treat them however they liked, as was shown in the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon cases and they just didn’t seem to care if the Chinese detainees’ rights were protected,” Byers told IPS.

DIMIA was criticised in a 2005 inquiry into its treatment of Rau, a German national with Australian permanent residency status, and Solon, an Australian who was illegally deported to the Philippines.

But while 24 of the former detainees remain in Australia after having been granted residence here – they are also receiving compensation of up to AUD 9,000 (6198 US dollars) as part of the recommendations made by von Doussa – Byers remains deeply concerned about what happened to the two men who were returned to China in 2007.

“No-one has heard from them since the day they were deported, so I really feel for their safety,” she says.

Although Byers has no proof of her former clients’ fate, she fears “that they were arrested at the airport, detained, tortured and they may have died”.

“This is my feeling and my experience in dealing with other Chinese clients and doing a lot of research into the human rights area in China,” says Byers by way of explanation.

She says that “someone should be held accountable” for the detainees’ treatment.

E-mails sent by IPS to Australia’s embassy in Rome requesting an interview with Amanda Vanstone – currently the nation’s ambassador to Italy, Vanstone was immigration minister at the time of the interviews and separation detention in 2005 – have so far gone unanswered.

Paul Power, chief executive officer of the Refugee Council of Australia, the nation’s peak refugee organisation, argues that ministerial responsibility is “a moot point more than two years after the minister has left office’’.

For Power, the priorities now are compensating the detainees, determining the extent of the damage that has occurred and ensuring that a similar situation does not arise rather than apportioning blame or having those in positions of authority at the time accepting responsibility.

He is also concerned that the interviews provide information to Chinese authorities about nationals who have fled their homeland.

But “even if they are successful in putting their case for protection…then you’ve got to think about the impact on family and connections who remain behind in China,” Power told IPS.

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