Friday, June 30, 2006

My speech at Interantional Refugee Day rally - 25 June 2006

Hello everyone

I would like first to acknowledge the historical custodian of the land

Thanks for coming today to mark the celebration of the International Refugees Day.

In the last few weeks the government tried to celebrate this occasion its own way. They tried to introduce new legislation that was regarded by everyone dealing with refugees as a total departure from Australian obligation to the Geneva Convention to protect the Refugees, 1951, and other related conventions and agreements.

The Australian government is moving now to convince its backbenchers that excising the whole mainland from the migration zone, re-introduction of the policy of detaining families and kids, detaining people outside Australia for indefinite time and depriving refugees and asylum seekers of any access to their legal rights - should be acceptable practices.

All these violations to international conventions and agreements are just to appease Indonesia and guarantee its cooperation in implementing the so called “border protection” laws and to cover up the lie that these border protection laws were the ones which stopped the boat people.

I will not talk too much about these things as other speakers will cover them I guess. I will talk more about the dilema of the Palestinian refugees, especially in Australia.

You may know that the Palestinians are the largest ethnic group amongst the refugee community. 3 out of 5 Palestinians world wide are refugees. These refugees are facing uncertainty for the last half century, as they are living temporarily in refugee camps for more than 50 years.

I will talk more about this later on, but I would like to mention some of the issues facing Palestinian refugees in Australia. Let me mention one case to fully understand these challenges. Ibrahim Ishratih, a Palestinian refugee, who was kicked out of his home in Gaza, to wander in many countries in the middle east, until he settled in Algeria. He lived there and worked until the Algerian civil war started, when he was enforced to leave the country. He could get a 6 months visa to his homeland, Gaza, after Oslo accord. After the expiry of his visa, and therefusal of the Israeli authorities to renew his visa, he became illegal in his own homeland.

Can you imagine being illegal on the land that your grandparents were living in for more than 5 thousands years consecutively.

He started to hide from the authorities, as he knew what will happen to him if this will happen. But this did happen, and the Israeli authorities did arrest him on one of the checkpoints one day. He was deported by the Israelis to the Egyptian border. Egypt refused his entry, as he is Palestinian and has no Egyptian passport. He was left in limbo on the borders for couple of days, until he could get a forged passport and ticket to leave to Indonesia. Then by boat to Australia.

Australian authorities detained him for more than 2 years, and at the end decided that he is not refugee, according to his DIMA case officer. This case officer apparently does not know where Gaza is and what the situation is there. He immediately signed to be repatriated voluntarily. He knows more than his case officer what is happening in Gaza. The Australian authorities could not find him a single country to be deported to, and was enforced to release him from the detention on the basis of the Akram Al Masri habeas corpus decision. He was released with a single piece of paper, no photo ID, no right to work, no right to Medicare, no right for any government assistance. He was living for the last 4 years on the generosity of the charity organisations. But this is not the end of the story. He could not see his wife and 4 kids for more than 6 years. He was released from small detention to bigger detention, with no support.

The dilema here is that he will be stateless in Australia indefinitely. Israeli authorities refused to cooperate with Australian ones to accept his return, as this could be seen as the beginning of the right of return of millions of Palestinian refugees.

70 foreign embassies in Australia have refused granting him a visa. He is facing indefinite dilemna. I saw the latest report of his psychologist. He is suffering Chronic Adjustment Disorder with mixed anxiety and depressed mood

These symptoms could be eased immediately if he will be granted a permanent visa, consequently being able to re-united with family and so feeling some sort of certainty and belonging.

I just mentioned this case because of the unique nature of it. I also want to say that Ibrahim is not the only case of a refugee facing indefinite statelessness because of DIMA policies and decisions. These DIMA officers failed to find answers for our questions: when will Ibrahim’s suffering be finished? When could he see his family again? What did DIMA do in the spirit of the convention, which was introduced to protect the rights of refugees and guarantee dignified treatment? When will DIMA listen to the reports of professionals (like the psychologists) and act to implement their recommendations.

Let me get back to the suffering of Palestinian refugees in general. There are many well-documented reports about the destructive effect of Temporary Protection Visas on the health and well-being of refugees. These reports demonstrated very clearly that the temporary nature of the visa and so the accompanied uncertainty, are leaving devastating effects on the health and well-being of the refugees. All this because of 3 or 4 years temporary nature of the visa.

Imagine :there are more than 4 million Palestinians living on temporary visas and hope for the last 58 years. They could not plan for a natural ordinary life for 58 years! Year after year, they were waiting for the UN and international community to enforce Israel to let them go back to their villages, towns and cities. They are still living until now, in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syrian, Jordan .... on a hope that they will be able to go back one day to their homeland. What could professionals working in this field diagnose the whole Palestinian refugee community with? How many recurrent post traumatic disorders are we suffering form? Can they convince DIMA that Ibrahim and his Palestinian and other stateless asylum seekers have suffered a lot in the last half a century and they deserve Ministerial intervention at least to end their dilema? Is DIMA waiting for the solution to the Palestinian issue and creation of a Palestinian state to send Ibrahim then there? How long this will take? My family waited 58 years, and there is no signs that it could happen soon in the immediate future.

On the other hand can the Australian government, who is sending representatives and spending millions to recruit tens of thousands every year to fill the workforce shortages, convince us why they could not allow Ibrahim to live in Australia and help in filling the shortage of the workforce?. I forgot to tell you that he is a qualified schoolteacher and definitely can help with filling the shortage of workforce.

What kind of message does the Australian government want to send to the whole world? That we lack basic compassion and humanity in helping solving the dilema of a couple of stateless people. Australia has full moral and legal obligation to help the Palestinian refugees. Australia helped to occupy Palestine 1917 which opened the door to create the worst refugee crisis in contemporary history. Australia has the obligation, not only under the Geneva Convention, to help the Palestinian refugees, but as an occupying force that led to this crisis.

Let us hope that on our next celebration of international refugee day, Ibrahim's dilema would be solved, along the dilema of hundreds of detainees in detention centre and asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas. I know that this is maybe very hard under this government. But we should not rest until achieving this.

Thanks and keep up the good work. Ibrahim and the other refugees and asylum seekers need you.