The War on Decency: Refugee Policies and the War on Terror

August 1, 2010

According to Iraqi government figures, July was the deadliest month for ordinary Iraqis since May 2008. 535 people were killed by violence while over 1,000 were wounded. I think this shows pretty comprehensively that U.S. strategy has failed to quell instability, and that the much bally-hooed surge of 2008 was something of a damp squib.

And it also shows that Iraq is far, far from a safe place to return refugees (who after all fled a British-American invasion in the first place). Yet this is happening at a faster pace since the Lib-Con coalition took office. Labour,  of course, were very keen to speed deportations, but now the state seems to be clicking into gear.

This will (re)produce countless individual nightmares. Take Rabar Hamad, for example. Since losing his parents in a bomb blast and fleeing Iraq “hidden under the wheel arch of a truck” back in 2008, 16 year-old Rabar has settled in Manchester and has been taking GCSE courses. Social workers have somehow decided, however, that he is 20, not 16 as he maintains, and hence qualifies for deportation.

Campaigners say that giving local authorities responsibility for assessing the age of asylum claimants (a huge number are branded liars) is unfair, and an independent body should undertake the task. Meanwhile, friends of Rabar are sure that he is who he says he is. As Katie Miller told the Independent, “It’s completely absurd. There’s such an obvious difference between a 20-year-old man and a 16-year-old boy. Rabar’s school, his football club, his children’s home, they all believe he’s 16 but he risks being thrown out of the country simply on the say-so of a single social worker.”

Or, as Rabar himself puts it, “I’m 16 and I should be allowed to stay. It is so good here, the staff are brilliant and I’m really happy. I love it here in England and I want to say. I don’t even look 20. I don’t want to go to Iraq, they will kill me like they did my parents.”

The UK has a shameful government – ready to divest itself of any responsibilities towards the people whose lives it has helped to wreck. Greece, however, is still worse, reflecting a pretty much worldwide problem. In Greece, as DPA reports, “From the over 30,000 asylum applications examined in 2009, only 36 were granted refugee protection status while 128 were granted subsidiary protection status.” Children from Iraq are routinely just locked up for months, with no legal support, little medical care or social life. And then they are sent back to whatever godawful fate awaits them.

Australia has a notoriously odious record on accepting refugees, and has been keeping up the tradition with its penal camps on Christmas Island, where asylum seekers are “processed.” There is, as in all such sites, a callous disregard for humanity. Ahmed Shahb Aldoury, for example, arrived on Christmas Island after his home in Iraq was burned down and his family murdered. He’ll most likely be sent back, despite enlisting the legal help of prominent Iraqi diplomat Mohamed Al Jabiri who pled his case before an assessment committee at the refugee centre.

Al Jabiri claims that he was summarily ejected from the hearing by the assessor, prompting him to say that “I was extremely shocked…’I would never believe anything is happening like that in Australia, with my age and reputation.” But in reality, he shouldn’t be so shocked. Australia has a long record of seeking to block non-white immigration and asylum claims, a tradition that is feeding smoothly into the current election campaign. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, the two main contenders, are scrapping it out over who can stop the most refugees arriving on Australian soil. The only difference between the two is where an “offshore” processing centre is to be built. Gillard, the Labour candidate, has been looking around the Pacific region, floating East Timor as a potential site (before being slapped down by the Timorese president Xanana Gusmao) as well as Papua New Guinea. Tony Abbott wants Nauru to host it, presumably because the tiny island state has not signed the UN’s refugee convention, making repatriation that much easier.

After the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Nauru became a key part of ex-Australian PM John Howard’s chillingly named “Pacific Solution.” Refugees were forced to land on the island and refusal rates soared, with the lame explanation that conditions in Afghanistan had changed with the fall of the Taliban, while the government in Canberra began bribing refugees to return. The Refugee Council of Australia maintains that Nauru was a disaster, with virtually no legal representation and spiralling mental health problems.

The link between perceptions of developed nations like the UK and Australia and refugee policy is rarely made in the mainstream media. But by acting so callously (and brutally) such nations appear morally bankrupt to peoples across the world, and rightly so.

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