Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Friday 19 July 2002

Two boys, 12 and 13, claiming to be Afghans, denied asylum at British Consulate-General in Melbourne

The two were amongst 35 detainees who had escaped on 27th June from the Australian government’s Woomera detention centre for asylum-seekers in the South Australian desert, where they had been held since January 2001. The basis of the denial is the UN Convention on Refugees which requires claims for refugee status to be considered in the first ‘safe’ country reached – Australia, despite the somewhat draconian policies adopted by that country’s government, clearly qualifies on that score. The boys’ mother and three children (including the two boys) have already had their applications for asylum as refugees rejected on four separate occasions, according to Philip Ruddock, Australian Immigration Minister. The father, who had been granted a temporary visa and now lives in Sydney, is also likely to be removed from Australia, it seems, because the Immigration Department has concluded that the family is in fact of Pakistani, not Afghan, origin.

Quite how the two boys were able to reach the British Consulate-General in Melbourne, a distance of roughly 600 miles from the Woomera detention centre (where there have been frequent riots, hunger strikes and suicide attempts), is unclear; it is also not entirely clear why they chose to seek refuge at a British diplomatic post, rather than that of another western country. One wonders whether it has something to do with the announcement last week by the British Government (by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, if memory serves, or perhaps by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary) that as Afghanistan is now free of Taliban rule, it is safe for Afghans abroad to return home. The boys’ lawyer (Eric Vadarlis, a high-profile human rights lawyer) claims the boys wept over the prospect of being returned to what he described as ‘jail’; the whole incident seems decidedly murky.

The difficulty in assessing whether those claiming asylum as refugees do in fact meet the criteria laid down in the UN Convention, or whether they are ‘economic migrants’, is acute and no doubt in some cases it is hard to resolve claims equitably. It seems clear, though, that the attempt to involve the UK in this particular incident suggests that the motives of the boys’ lawyer, and perhaps the Australian authorities (although I tend to doubt the latter), are open to question.

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