Bahai News -- The plight of the Mandaeans in Oz: A new Iran contra deal
The plight of the Mandaeans in Oz: A new Iran contra deal
By Margo Kingston
June 13 2003
Something's rotten in our immigration system. We learned last week that Dante Tan, wanted in the Philippines for that nation's biggest
corporate fraud, was granted citizenship after a donation to the Liberal Party then allowed to skip the country after revelations that the
Philippines government would seek his extradition. Now we learn that a Bangladeshi politician convicted of fraud against his own people has
been granted refugee status in Australia ( Safe haven here for corrupt
Bangladeshi PM who stole his people's food).
And for two weeks now, Lateline reporter Margot O'Neill has exposed immigration
department inertia, to put it kindly, and even possible corruption concerning women lured to Australia on false promises of training then
forced into prostitution (see AFP asked to investigate alleged sex slave
ring and Immigration Dept accused of corruption.) The killer quote in
the first story is from the AFP's Tony Negus. Two Russian women complained about sex slavery to the AFP and the immigration department (DIMIA)
in May last year. Negus told Lateline: "Well, initially the matter was referred to DIMIA to actually look at. Since then the matter
hasn't progressed. Look, the matter is being investigated now by the AFP. We've made appointments with the women to speak to them later this
The revelations give new meaning to Howard's proclamation that "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances
in which they come."
The government is now preparing to forcibly return Mandaean asylum seekers - a Christian minority persecuted by
Iran's Muslim fundamentalist regime - to Iran after a secret deal with the "axis of evil" nation. It resonates with our incarceration of the
victims of Saddam Hussein and their children while Howard justifies the invasion of Iraq as a war to liberate them from Saddam's oppression. A
friend of mine regularly visits Mandaeans in Villawood and is haunted by nightmares about their fate. He feels our government is about to
commit the equivalent crime to sending Jews back to Germany under the Nazis. The Mandaeans have a stay of execution after a recent Federal
Court decision deploring the Refugee Review Tribunal's knockback of Mandaean refugee claims.
In this piece, Carmen Lawrence
discusses the Mandaean issue. For more on the Mandaeans, see the transcript of Radio National's June 8 Background briefing at Trading with Iran.
The plight of the Mandaeans in Oz: A
new Iran contra deal
Amongst the poor souls who are still detained in Australia's detention centres are
approximately a hundred Sabian Mandaeans, followers of the teachings of John the Baptist, who have fled from Iran. The Iranians are the largest
group of asylum seekers still in detention.
Some have been held, brutalised and traumatised, for as long as four years, a situation
which caused the United Nations Working Party on Arbitrary Detention to find the Australian government in breach of the Refugee Convention and
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Government's solution to this flagrant breach of out international
obligations is to throw out these people who dared ask for asylum on our shores.
Together with several hundred other refugees from the
repressive Iranian regime, there are between 17 and 22 Mandaean families now faced with the threat of forcible deportation as part of the
Howard government's secret agreement with the government of Iran. About 80 Iranians have already received notice that they could, at any
moment, be sent back to Iran, if necessary, by force.
The government has persistently refused to make public the contents of the
Memorandum of Understanding which details this agreement, telling the Senate and in answer to one of my questions that it was "not in the
public interest" to make the document public.
At a time when our partners in the "coalition of the willing" are suggesting that they
might support a popular uprising in Iran, already designated as one of the members of the "axis of evil", the Howard government is busy making
secret agreements and forging closer economic and political ties with the regime.
Recent trade talks with senior government ministers,
the visit of an Iranian parliamentary delegation and raids by the AFP of the homes of Iranians associated with the opposition forces in Iran,
all signify this closer relationship. The Iranian followers of John the Baptist - and their fellow country men and women - are part of the
contra deal for increased trade with Iran.
The Howard government has also consistently refused to provide any guarantees for the safety
of those deported to Iran. This, despite the fact that the head of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Justice Louis
Joinet, said this week that, having recently visited Iran to inspect the human rights situation, he had come away deep concerns about the
nature of Australia's agreement with Iraq, particularly the fact that, "There are no guarantees as to what will happen when they (Australian
detainees) are returned to Iran". He also expressed some scepticism about whether so-called voluntary returns would actually be
This scepticism is justified by the leaking of a Departmental memo which outlined the development of a strategy on the return
of Iranian nationals. The minute, signed by John Okley, assistant secretary of international co-operation in the Department of Immigration,
proposed two courses of action: the first, "encouraging voluntary departures" by inducements of $2000 per person; giving them the status of a
returnee, rather than a deportee; supplying them with airfares and travel documents; and waiving the cost of their accommodation in detention!
And if this fails, "the creation of a credible threat of involuntary removal", by telling detainees that the Iranian government would
now accept their involuntary repatriation, something they had refused to do in the past. Priority for removal was to be given to "those who
have attempted self-harm or committed acts of violence within the centres."
There is no doubt that the Howard government does not regard
itself as seriously bound by our international treaty obligations (except with the United States). But even by the degraded standards of the
government, this represents a flagrant disregard of the obligations under the Refugee Convention not to return a refugee to "a place where his
or her life or liberty is threatened" and of the Torture Convention not to send a person to "a place where there is a real prospect of
While the Federal Government has insisted that none of the 265 Iranians threatened with forcible deportation are owed
protection under Australia's migration laws, many of those facing deportation fear that, in providing information for their refugee
applications, they have exposed themselves to greater danger if they are returned to Iran. This is especially true for those who are easily
identified by religion, occupation or region, even if their names are withheld.
As Julie Macken pointed out in a recent article, the
Refugee Review Tribunal, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and the Federal Court all publish their decisions and findings on the internet and
while they do not publish names, "even with little information it is easy to work out to whom they are referring." Louis Joinet told Radio
National journalist, Tom Morton, "the very act of fleeing takes on a political complexion" and in certain cases, "this has given rise to
persecution." Ruddock's response to this elevated risk to those forced to return is the implausible conclusion that if Australia's refugee
assessment process has found that they are not refugees, i.e. that they do not have a well-founded fear of persecution, then they will not be
persecuted. By definition. Yes, Minister.
The Mandaeans, a tiny pre-Christian religious minority would, almost certainly, be readily
identified from Tribunal and Court transcripts. Because their religion is not recognised by the government of Iran, they are subjected to
discrimination and denied the normal protections of the law. The Federal Court, in an appeal against a decision of the Refugee Review Tribunal
heard last year, gave the following measured assessment of religious persecution in Iran:
In Iran all religious minorities including
Christians and of course Jews, suffer varying degrees of persecution, vis a vis the Shi'ite Muslim majority. The State, since the religiously
inspired revolution, does not, for example, permit non-Muslims to engage in government employment or attend university and there are
restrictions on the extent to which they can fully practise their religion, for example, by teaching it. If injured or killed, they or their
dependants apparently receive less compensation than would the Muslim majority, and they may suffer in assessments of their credibility as
witnesses before Iranian courts.
Religious persecution in Iran is a matter of public record and the subject of frequent comment from
human rights observers and even from the U.S. State Department. The head of a UN working group on detention centres, Louis Joinet, recently
told journalists that Iran was detaining dissidents and others without due process on a "large scale" and keeping them in solitary confinement.
Human Rights Watch reported in February that:
"The arbitrary detention of students and the targeting of government critics have
increased. Scholars and students who criticise the ruling clerical establishment have faced death sentences, teaching bans or long prison
There are many recorded cases of the execution of minority religious leaders for no other reason than that they practice
their faith and organise their followers. Iran is almost as enthusiastic as the United States in its use of the death penalty, and for much
less serious offences. Amnesty records that the death penalty and various brutal forms of torture were imposed "for issues concerning freedom
of association and freedom of expression." In 2002, 81 percent of all known executions worldwide took place in Iran, China and the USA. The
Amnesty spokesman also drew attention to the fact that over the last year alone 113 prisoners, including long-term political prisoners, were
executed in Iran. Many were also flogged, frequently in public.
Just this week I was sent photographs from Iran of people executed on
"hanging trucks", mobile cranes used to hang people in public, even for minor offences such as the possession of marijuana (the photos are at
MDC Watch).Yet refugees from religious persecution by this vicious regime are held
not to be "genuine" refugees.
Although there are only an estimated 20,000 Mandaeans, significant numbers have fled to Australia,
claiming religious persecution much as the now well-settled families of the Bahai faith did in the 70s and 80s. Most of them have ended up in
detention because the Howard government has consistently refused to accept that they have been subjected to persecution, insisting that they
have merely suffered harassment, and has denied them refugee status. The Iranian government, until now, has refused to accept their return as
part of a general policy of resisting involuntary repatriations. The result is that the Mendaeans have been stranded in the twilight zone of
indefinite detention, many in the desert camps. Men, women and children alike exhibit the predictable psychological symptoms of such prolonged
For the Mandaeans this is a double jeopardy, since they are also subjected to discrimination and mistreatment by some of
the other detainees who regard them as unclean. Evidence given in a Federal Court hearing recounted events during 2001, in which Mandaean
people were denied access to showers in the ablutions block because of the aggressive actions of a small group of hostile Muslims. The
Mandaeans were warned to stay away because they were 'dirty people'. These threats were apparently backed up with action, since the persecutors
simply turned off the water supply when the Mendaeans attempted to use the facilities. This mistreatment escalated to the point that they had
to be placed in a separate compound.
Although their plight has not excited much attention in the mainstream Australian media, they were
the subject of a report by Amnesty International last year. Amnesty concluded that they, and other religious minorities in the camps, were
suffering additional psychological trauma because of the constant discrimination they faced. Amnesty reported that as well as their dietary
needs being ignored, they were not allowed to celebrate their religious festivals and had no access to their own clergy. Amnesty also recorded
instances of violence or threats against them and concluded that intolerance and vilification were now serious problems within the camps. The
small Mandaean community in the Port Hedland have been particularly badly treated, initially without much protection from the camp
administration. Although the Government and DIMIA are responsible for ensuring the well-being of all detainees, they clearly abdicated this
responsibility a long time ago.
One of the very generous Australians who provide support and succour for those in detention told me that
deporting these people "would amount to murder" and that those he sees on his regular visits "are in a state of terror". Another, who has been
visiting a young Mandaean mother and her 2 children in the Baxter detention centre, holds grave fears for their survival if they are not
allowed to settle here.
Although there are several Federal Court injunctions standing between these people and other Iranian detainees
threatened with deportation, it is clear that the Howard Government is determined on a program of forced deportation, first of those whose
claims for asylum have failed and then of those on Temporary Protection Visas whose countries of origin have been deemed to have improved
sufficiently to allow their return. Even a cursory examination of the state of security and basic infrastructure in both Iraq and Afghanistan
would lead to the inevitable conclusion that people returned would confront serious risks to their lives and health.
As Russell Skeleton
reported in The Age this week some of the Iranians threatened with deportation have had a reprieve as a result of a recent Federal Court
decision. (Russell's article is republished below). Mr Justice Richard Cooper's judgment included a scathing condemnation of the Refugee Review
Tribunal's failure to investigate the specific claims of persecution made by an Iranian family of the Mandaean faith.
As a result,
Justice Cooper ordered a review of the family's claims for asylum, noting that the tribunal had ignored vital evidence, including violence and
threats of violence against Mandaean women by Muslim men. He also found that while the Tribunal had apparently accepted evidence that Mandaeans
living in Iran could not attend university, were harassed in daily life, were not adequately treated in hospitals and did not have their
complaints to police acted upon, the Tribunal had employed an overly narrow definition of "persecution" in reaching their decision to refuse
This judgment potentially undermines more than 60 adverse decisions already made against Mandaean families and offers
some hope that the Courts may achieve what the Howard Government has refused - the protection of asylum seekers from possible loss of liberty,
torture and even death if they are returned to Iran.
But this is just the beginning, the experiment, ahead of the mass deportation of
people from Iraq and Afghanistan who hold Temporary Protection Visas; people whose claims for refugee status have been confirmed. The
Government wants to test the resistance of Australians to this indecency. I hope they are unpleasantly surprised and that Australians will draw
the line at forcing people back to situations where their very lives are at risk.
Judge orders refugees review
Dozens of Iranians may not now be deported from Australia after the Federal Court delivered a damning assessment of
the Refugee Review Tribunal and its failure to investigate claims of persecution made by an Iranian family of the Sabian Mandaean
Dozens of Iranians may not now be deported from Australia after the Federal Court delivered a damning assessment of the Refugee
Review Tribunal and its failure to investigate claims of persecution made by an Iranian family of the Sabian Mandaean faith.
Richard Cooper, who ordered the tribunal to review the family's claims for asylum "afresh in their entirety", found the tribunal ignored key
evidence and failed to deal with claims of violence and threats of violence against Mandaean women by Muslim men.
stinging judgement, which also questions the tribunal's narrow definition of "persecution", by implication calls into question more than 60
adverse decisions made by the Immigration Department and the tribunal against Mandaean families now awaiting forcible return to Iran under a
secret agreement between Canberra and Tehran.
The judgement, handed down on May 30, will increase pressure on Immigration Minister Philip
Ruddock to review the asylum claims of Mandaeans, followers of a tiny pre-Christian faith that adheres to the teachings of John the Baptist.
Although there are only an estimated 20,000 Mandaeans, significant numbers fled to Australia from Iran and Iraq. The vast majority have ended
up in detention because the Federal Government refuses to recognise that they are treated as "infidels" and persecuted by Shiite
Justice Cooper's judgement questions the Federal Government's stand by canvassing a number of legal opinions asserting that any
definition of persecution should include sustained discrimination against individuals and groups unable to protect themselves. The Government
has informed the tribunal that Mandaeans are discriminated against but not persecuted.
Justice Cooper found the tribunal had accepted
evidence that Mandaeans living in Iran could not attend university, were harassed in daily life, were not adequately treated in hospitals and
that their complaints to police were often not acted on.
"The tribunal was required to ask itself why this conduct was engaged in, and if
for a convention reason, whether or not it constituted persecutory treatment. This it did not do," he said.
"The tribunal did not address
all the claims of personal violence, and threats of violence to Mandaean women in their homes and in hospitals from Muslim men, nor the reasons
for such violence and threat of violence. Nor did it address the claims that children were denied the right to be taught their religion at
school, were denigrated for their beliefs and put under pressure to convert to Islam."
In relation to the family's specific claims,
Justice Cooper said the tribunal did not deal with the wife's claim that she was physically assaulted and threatened by Iranian police in front
of her children and had not been treated appropriately in hospital because of her religious beliefs.
The president of the Sabian Mandaean
Association in Australia, Khosrow Cholaili, yesterday called on Mr Ruddock to review the cases of 17 Mandaean families waiting to be deported
to Iran under the terms of a memorandum of understanding between Iran and Australia.
"It is clear from this case and from other recent
judgements that the plight of Sabian Mandaeans and the persecution they face in Iran because of their beliefs has not been properly taken into
account by the tribunal," he said.
Mr Cholaili said there was plenty of evidence that the high levels of discrimination in every facet of
daily life amounted to persecution. "Because of our alleged 'uncleanness' it is difficult for us to obtain medical attention. Even our children
are not to permitted to attend kindergartens. If a Mandaean handles food in the market, the whole lot will be thrown out and they will be made
Meanwhile, the head of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Justice Louis Joinet, has called on the
Government to explain plans to deport more than 100 Iranians by force.
"Experience has shown that even with the case of voluntary
repatriations, as in the case of Afghanistan, you have to be sure that people are returning voluntarily," he said.
Justice Joinet said he
had recently visited Iran to inspect the human rights situation and had come away with deep concerns about the nature of Australia's memorandum
"There are no guarantees as to what will happen when they (Australian detainees) are returned to Iran," he said on
radio at the weekend.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said last night that the minister was unaware of Justice
Cooper's judgement and declined to comment on its implications for the tribunal and Sabian Mandaeans.
©Copyright 2003, The Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
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