No escape from persecution
May 10 2002
When a young Iranian non-Muslim girl attempted to serve food at the mess in the Woomera detention centre in December, she suddenly became the centre of a fierce and violent outburst by a group of irate Muslim men and women. A witness to the confrontation said the 18-year-old girl was verbally abused as a "dirty, filthy infidel" who had no right to be handling food for Muslims. "She argued back, but she was pushed to the ground and kicked and abused," the witness, a former Woomera employee, told The Age.
The girl was isolated by Australasian Correctional Management staff and spent three days confined to her room, frightened and distressed. This violent clash is just one of scores that ACM employees and church workers say take place each month in detention centres around Australia between groups of hardline Muslims and non-Muslims, usually Christians.
They say the clashes come in waves and are often provoked by Afghans and Iraqis. Staff say they are also difficult to prevent, because the targets of the violence often refuse to be placed in isolation, fearing it will only make their circumstances worse.
"The situation is very bad right now," a concerned church worker said. "When the numbers in detention drop, tensions and conflicts among those who remain just intensify."
In this particular incident, the girl was a Sabian Mandaean, a follower of a tiny pre-Christian religion dedicated to the teachings of John the Baptist. Although Mandaeans number no more than 15,000 in Iran's population of more than 60 million, their numbers in Australian detention centres are proportionally much greater, accounting for an estimated 40 per cent of the total Iranian detainee population awaiting deportation.
Church chaplains, pastoral workers and ACM employees have told The Age that the Mandaeans and Muslims who convert to Christianity are regularly targeted by devout Muslims, often Shiites, who also refuse to share bathrooms, toilets and even laundries with them. There have been violent incidents, including the stoning of a group of Christians at Woomera last year which left one man blind in one eye.
Some assaults have taken place under the cover of darkness when guards find it hard to monitor movements. In March, the Catholic chaplain at Woomera, Father Jim Monaghan, reported that a blind man had been seized, defecated on and locked in a toilet.
"At present the families there are very vulnerable. There have been attempted suicides and other forms of self-harm . . . they are desperate," he wrote after describing a number of incidents involving the victimisation of Mandaeans that included the harassment of women and children.
The president of the Sabian Mandaean Association in Sydney, Kosrow Chohaili, said that most of the Mandaeans fled to Australia to escape harassment and victimisation in Iran only to have their claims for asylum rejected.
Australian immigration officials and the Refugee Review Tribunal have ruled in the majority of cases that Mandaeans are discriminated against in Iran, but not persecuted. Of the 18 cases involving Iranian Mandaeans that went before the tribunal, only two Mandaeans were found to have a well-founded fear of persecution, and were granted visas. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said generally Mandaeans did not have a problem with persecution, although he conceded that some individuals might.
For Mandaeans from Iraq, it's a very different story. Of about 70 appeals heard by the tribunal, only three were rejected. Chohaili cited the case of a 38-year-old widow who has been held with her two sons in the remote confines of the Curtin detention centre for almost two years after her plea for asylum was rejected. "She fled Iran because an Islamic teacher was going to forcibly convert one of her two sons to Islam, but nobody believes her," he said.
"During the recent riots she was threatened and abused by Muslims who reviled her as an infidel. She was removed at her request by the ACM guards and is now being held in a separate part of the camp for her safety. But how is it that the Australian Government can say Mandaeans are not being persecuted, when the persecution is going on in detention camps on Australian soil?" he said.
The persecution has become so chronic that Mandaeans in Woomera conduct their services in secret, while in Curtin, Amnesty International believes that services are not held at all because authorities are concerned about physical attacks. Even Christian services at Curtin, including baptisms, have been severely restricted by immigration officials.
Father Monaghan concluded in his report, which was sent to the Federal Government by the Mandaean association in Sydney, by saying: "These people (Mandaeans) are all adamant that they will not return to Iran. In view of the dreadful conditions they are experiencing in Woomera, I can only conclude their situation in Iran was unbearable."
Amnesty has also written to Ruddock, asking him to urgently investigate the victimisation of Mandaeans. Amnesty has requested that the Mandaeans scattered through Woomera, Port Hedland and Curtin be taken to Sydney's Villawood centre where they can receive pastoral care from the local Mandaean community, be allowed to practise their religion which requires flowing water for constant baptism and be served traditional food, rather than the halal food they are restricted to at Woomera and Curtin.
"Mandaeans are a persecuted minority that have never in their long history tried to impose their religion on anybody," Amnesty refugee case worker, John Clugston, said. "They are not a threat, yet they are locked up in long-term detention here and face being returned to an Islamic country were they have been demeaned and discriminated against."
Evidence gathered in Iran by human rights groups paints a grim picture of discrimination and repression against not only political opponents of the regime, but religious minorities.
The Shiah-dominated government has been condemned by the US State Department, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch for its persecution of Baha'i Muslims. Muslims who convert to Christianity still face the death penalty, either by hanging or stoning. The State Department and Amnesty report that non-Muslims are prevented from attending universities or holding government jobs. Until very recently it was not a crime for a Muslim man to rape a Mandaean woman. The murder, jailing and disappearance of students and journalists at the hands of security police and Basijis (state-sponsored vigilantes) is also well documented by US human rights agencies.
But all this has had little impact on the Australian Government. Philip Ruddock is pushing the Islamic Republic to accept the return of 333 Iranian detainees, including an estimated 100 Mandaean and Christian converts from Australian detention centres. Many have been detained for more than a year, some for more than two.
The group also includes economic refugees, asylum seekers who have been politically active against the regime, and a large number of badly traumatised men and women who have attempted suicide and carried out self-mutilation.
Many of these are in need of psychiatric care. Among this group is a man whose wife was so distressed that she no longer recognised her children. While the woman is apparently unfit to travel, her husband has been told that he will be deported.
Iranian detainees are a major problem for Ruddock and a growing embarrassment for the Howard Government. Most of those rejected as refugees won't go home and they cannot be forced to go because Iran accepts only those who volunteer. Ruddock has said he has no intention of following the example of many European states of releasing them into the community, so they are being held in detention indefinitely with no serious prospect of release.
Meanwhile, the minister wants Teheran to accept forced repatriations from Australia and is ready to offer Iran a deal that he believes could make it financially attractive. But with his planned trip to Iran cancelled last week, setting up the scheme does not look promising. It is also debatable whether Iran would be interested in taking back its dissident citizens against their wishes.
Iran has a massive refugee problem of its own: it is the unwilling host to more than two million Afghans and has an economy in rapid decline. Iran is seeking more than $US1 billion in aid from the international community and Australia's stranded Iranians are low on the list of national priorities as the economic benefits of overturning the present policy on returnees would be slight in comparison.
To complicate the situation for Ruddock, there is evidence that returning Iranians - a few have returned voluntarily - face arrest, interrogation and and possibly imprisonment. Christian converts face immediate danger on their return should their conversion become known.
Last week The Age reported that two Iranian men, one of them a Christian, had been arrested at Teheran airport. It is hardly surprising then that the vast majority of Iranians prefer living in harsh conditions in remote detention centres in Australia to life under the Shiah clerics.
The executive director of the Refugee Council of Australia, Margaret Piper, believes the government should consider allowing groups like Mandaeans to remain in Australia. "In Europe many countries have a special category for asylum seekers who cannot prove they are being persecuted but for whom it would be clearly unsafe for them to return," she said.
So what is driving Ruddock on his mission to force failed Iranian asylum seekers back to a country that features so prominently in President George Bush's "axis of evil"? According to one of Ruddock's advisers, it's all about sending a message to people smugglers who flourish in and outside Iran.
"The minister believes that the only sure way to defeat the smugglers is through deals that allow unauthorised arrivals to be deported quickly," the adviser said. "Such a deal stopped the flow of asylum seekers from China. Faced with deportation from Australia, there is no doubt that Iranians would choose Europe or the US."
Ruddock also sees no moral problem in sending people back to a country that provides for the execution of Muslims who convert to Christianity.
"If people have a well-founded fear of persecution, they are not sent back. The only people we are looking at are those who cannot sustain their claims that they have such a well-founded fear," he said.
©Copyright 2002, The Age (Australia)