Can and able

The immigration minister, Scott Morrison, got part way through his answer before he decided “appropriateness” was too strong a metric. It was too generous to the situation.

“Where appropriate, people…” he said, halting himself, before restarting: “Where we’re able to do so, people are returned to their country of origin. That’s how the system works and that’s how the system will continue to be applied.”

Morrison was talking about the refoulement of Zainullah Naseri, the first Hazara to be sent back to Afghanistan after Australia rejected his claim for refugee status. As reported in The Saturday Paper last week, he was in the country only three weeks before he was kidnapped and tortured by the Taliban.

Naseri, who told his story in the course of several long interviews with the journalist Abdul Karim Hekmat, and whose account is supported by video footage taken by Afghan police, was deported after the Refugee Review Tribunal ruled there was “not a real risk the applicant will suffer significant harm”.

Shortly before Naseri was deported, an Afghan-Australian, Sayed Habib Musawi, was tortured and killed by the Taliban on the same route where Naseri was kidnapped. The tribunal found, however, “there
is a route from Kabul to Jaghori that is secure”. This is the difference, one presumes, between “appropriate” and “able”.

Morrison has indicated that in the wake of The Saturday Paper’s report he asked his department to launch “appropriate inquiries” into Naseri’s case. “I’ll see where that course takes us,” he said. He has done nothing to halt the deportation of seven more Hazaras whose applications have been rejected. They will be sent to the same troubled country and the risk of a similar fate.

“I should stress this: People who are found not to be refugees in Australia have been through a very long, some would argue too long, process to determine whether Australia has an owed obligation of protection to that person,” Morrison said.

“People who are returned in these circumstances are found not to be refugees and not owed a protection by the Australian government. And on that basis they have no lawful basis for remaining in Australia.”

On this point, Morrison is emphatic. He will not be moved by torture or death. If it can be done, it will be done. The measure, we now understand, is this: Where we are able to do so.

“Life is too bitter,” Naseri told Afghan police after they found him, beaten and weary, a chain attached to his ankle where the Taliban had restrained him. “It would have been better if they killed me.”

Morrison’s promise that “inquiries” are being made is insufficient. As minister, he has a pathetic record on transparency. Should any inquiries be conducted, we can have no confidence in their findings being revealed.

At the very least, the seven wretched souls Australia intends to send back to Afghanistan must be allowed to stay until the safety of the country can be ascertained. The Refugee Review Tribunal must be open about the information that led to its decisions.

But the issue is larger than that, and the response needs to be larger. It cannot be left with the minister or his department. As reports of sexual abuse spill from the detention centre on Nauru, and Manus Island looks increasingly like a failed endeavour, the case for a royal commission into our treatment of asylum seekers becomes stronger by the day.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 11, 2014 as "Can and able".

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