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As Scott Morrison enlarges his powers, he becomes directly responsible for cases like Shaima’s. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Taliban targets Afghan family as Scott Morrison stalls

Afghan refugee ‘Shaima’, separated from her family.
Credit: TAMMY LAW

She speaks to her mother most weeks. The line isn’t great, but her mother rarely says much anyway. She can only cry. They haven’t seen each other for more than three years, separated by 10,000 kilometres and the obscure firewalls of our federal bureaucracy. 

The daughter – I will call her Shaima – is an Afghan teenager and permanent Australian resident. Her mother now lives in a secret location in Pakistan, but rotates between friends’ homes for additional security. She fears being alone at night. She knows the Taliban will look for her, as they once had for her husband, son and daughter. “There are what I call tribal whispers,” Shaima’s advocate tells me. “I’ve seen it in PNG, heard about it with Iranian refugees. It’s the same in Afghanistan. Word travels far and quickly, and people live in fear that whereabouts or allegiances will be revealed.” 

When Shaima was 16, a Taliban chief wanted her as a bride. He had other wives, established within a concubine of rape. It was easy enough. Families tend to acquiesce to the Taliban, where fealty can mean the sexualised surrender of a child. But not with Shaima. She was appalled by the idea, and her father supported her rejection of it. So Shaima was raped, and the family attracted the wrath of the radicals.

Fearing further retribution and Shaima’s eventual abduction, their daughter was encouraged to flee in 2011 and seek asylum overseas. Their rejection of the Taliban would never be forgotten. “These people don’t forget,” Shaima’s advocate says. The family would follow her once she was established – wherever, whenever. But she had to get out. Unable to acquire a visa, her father found a handler for a people smuggler, exchanged money, and Shaima began her long journey from home. First, across land. Then by boat to Malaysia, and again to Indonesia. Finally, a decrepit fishing trawler to Christmas Island. She still wakes up seasick after nightmares about the voyage.  

Shaima was granted residency in Australia in 2011, and immediately began the application process for a “split family visa” – the provision under the Special Humanitarian Program permitting relocated people to sponsor family members. This was first lodged at the Victoria Offshore Humanitarian Processing Centre (VOHPC) in Melbourne in mid-2011. The application was for Shaima’s mother, father and brother. By this point, the three had moved to what they hoped was a secret location. They were desperate for asylum and reunion with their daughter and sister. They knew the Taliban were circling. 

Morrison's new power

In the early morning hours of Friday, December 5, while much of Australia slept, the senate passed its final bill for 2014. It was a bill containing dramatic alterations to immigration law, and it transferred unprecedented power to minister Scott Morrison. Not attached to the bill, but promised by the minister upon the bill’s passage, was the release of more than 100 children from Christmas Island. It was an inducement for the crossbenchers and it worked. But it has always been in Morrison’s power to release children from detention. 

The new Australian immigration law expunged reference to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which we are signatory. It was not an official revocation of the convention, but may effectively be as much. The convention was written in the wake of World War II and the failure of states to accept those escaping genocide. The treaty defined a refugee, and the responsibilities of states to them. Its essence was agreement on the wretchedness of returning asylum seekers to their place of persecution. 

It is worth quoting the relevant section of the convention, and pausing upon its unequivocal insistence: “Certain provisions of the Convention are considered so fundamental that no reservations may be made to them. These include the definition of the term ‘refugee’, and the so-called principle of non-refoulement, i.e. that no Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler’) a refugee, against his or her will, in any manner whatsoever, to a territory where he or she fears persecution.”  

Morrison’s bill made reservations to them. And in doing so it evaporated history. A frequent cliché of political angst is that we are witnessing a “race to the bottom”. We have also been witnessing, for some time now, the erasure of our global past. No more do we speak of genocide. No more do we speak of the origins of our international responsibilities. No more do our leaders join the dots between the men killing our soldiers and those who escape them. The stories from Canberra are aggressively and recursively myopic. The stories refer only to themselves, returning instinctively to the mantras and promises made just months before. And the media, largely, oblige this claustrophobia. 

We have crushingly simplified history – and the whole world – from popular view. Our public conversations now involve only slogans: the government’s claims of adherence and the media’s parsing of them. We govern, write and think within a shrinkingly small sphere. 

Shaima's advocate

Shaima’s advocate is an elderly nun. To protect her friend, she wishes to remain unnamed. She is small with grey hair. When I meet her, she is wearing a cardigan with a small brooch and gently offers her hand. After we sit down, this modest woman reveals herself as one of the most politically savvy people I have met, possessed of great ingenuity in the art of lobbying. She has met a wide array of politicians, past and present; has assembled alliances and disassembled weaknesses. She has written many hundreds of emails – maybe thousands –
to elected representatives, their staff and senior bureaucrats, and made as many phone calls. She knows not just the personnel changes in Parliament House, but also those within the departments they run. 

“I got a call from a senior politician once,” she says. “He complained that their faxes were breaking down from constituents sending in too many messages. ‘Sister, can you please tell them to stop?’ he asked. And I rang around and told everyone to send more. I had a terrific network. You have to be creative.”

She grew up relatively poor in a Catholic family of 12. She tells me that her parents always stressed social justice and that sometimes they would take in strangers and feed them when they barely had food for themselves. They worked hard, the sister knitting clothes for her siblings. 

“But we were also closed. Racist,” she tells me. “We only mixed with white, Anglo-Catholics. That was our world. But when I was young and joined the mission I moved to Papua New Guinea. I had a whole new learning curve. I spent a lot of time in the villages, in the women’s homes. They told me stories. Secret women’s stuff. I learnt about their culture. And I loved it. They were uneducated but very intelligent. And I made great friends. If I got the motorbike bogged, they’d come and push it out. And I learnt about religion. That not all Catholic ideas are the best. It broadened my outlook on life. So nothing shocks me now, except for the brutality of this government.”

The sister has had audiences with former immigration ministers, pleading various cases with procedural and legal knowledge. She recently completed her PhD in refugee policy and procedures. 

“You could go and talk to [Philip] Ruddock. You could go and talk to [Chris] Evans,” she tells me. “But not Scott Morrison. I walked out from him when he was in opposition. He was on his mantra. We were there for just five minutes. ‘That won’t stop the boats, that won’t stop the boats, that won’t stop the boats.’ He just said that for five minutes. So I said, ‘Thank you very much, Mr Morrison, I think we get the message’ and we left. I wasn’t going to put up with that bullying.” 

The sister believes respect is hard earned. Titles, jobs and social status don’t automatically confer it. She applies this to herself. When she was young, she found it difficult wearing the nun’s habit in public. “An 80-year-old stood up for me on the tram when I was 22, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous.’ People treated us as angels, and it was terrible. I thought, ‘Well, I’m no angel.’ And I was so glad once we got rid of the habits because we then had to earn our respect as a nun. We all earn our respect. And expect that of our ministers.” 

Finding support

Shaima’s application sat at the VOHPC for years. The year after she submitted it, in 2012, the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, led by former Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, released their report. One of the suggestions, adopted by the government, was that split family visas be scrapped because delays in processing them encouraged distant families to seek reunion via perilous sea journeys. The new rules came into effect on August 13, 2012, but would not apply to applications made before that date, provided “compelling reasons” of the criteria were met. Shaima’s application, it seemed, was safe. 

Back in Australia, Shaima had found her advocate and an Australian couple willing to support her family. The couple owned a house in which they would settle Shaima’s family when they arrived, and ensure some social infrastructure. Earnest inquiries about the status of the visa were made on her behalf, while Shaima struggled with post-traumatic stress. 

A counsellor for Shaima made these judgements of her client in a letter of support to the Department of Immigration: “[Her] symptoms are a result of traumatic experiences perpetrated by the Taliban, her flight from persecution and her separation from her family … [She] is experiencing severe depressive symptoms.”

Shaima’s supporters also officially noted that she had developed English skills, made friends, won academic scholarships, and demonstrated a healthy self-awareness. She had also made study plans for after high school. All this despite constant worry about her family. It was her father’s support of her that had endangered them, she thought. Now she was ensconced in an Australian capital, while her family was in hiding thousands of kilometres away. Why the delay? 

It was not until the middle of last year that Shaima’s family at last undertook security interviews and health checks as the final stage of the split visa application. They also furnished documentation of their persecution to Australia’s embassy in Pakistan. Shaima had begun the process almost two years earlier. Their checks and documentation were later verified and approved. Reunion appeared imminent. 

A year passed. Still nothing. Shaima and her advocates had thought the rigmarole was satisfied. But inquiries were met with bland apologies and vagueness. More than a year had passed since the interviews; more than three years since Shaima first made the application. Then in August this year, the Department of Immigration declared further changes to split family visas. “Those who arrived prior to 13 August 2012, while eligible to propose applications for the Special Humanitarian Program, the applications will receive the lowest priority.”

Less than two months after this announcement, with Shaima’s application still in limbo, her young brother walked to a local bakery to buy bread for the family. He didn’t return. He was 14. “I can’t prove it,” Shaima’s advocate says. “But I have wondered if someone in the embassy released the whereabouts of the family to their enemies. The family provided everything to them, including their address.”

No recourse

Morrison’s December 5 bill strips asylum seekers of recourse to the Refugee Review Tribunal that, in the past, has reviewed – and corrected – determinations. It means that the “fundamental” criterion of non-refoulement is removed, and it means that Morrison may personally reject asylum applications secretly on the vague grounds of “character” or “security”. Secretly. 

Motoring Enthusiast Party senator Ricky Muir reluctantly voted for the bill. He said: “The crossbench shouldn’t have been put in this position, but we have. I am forced into a corner to decide between a bad decision and a worse decision, a position I do not wish on my worst enemies.”

It is not often you hear such unvarnished anguish from parliament. I don’t mean the soft anguish of petty frustration, or the simulated anguish that has been workshopped and bevelled into zingers. I mean something raw and plaintive and haunted. But here it was. 

It is almost impossible to reach Muir these days. Phones ring out; emails go unanswered. His office has experienced the tumult – and turnover – of provincial striving. And behind it, Muir protects himself by disengaging with a media he feels will patronise him anyway. But he has been doing his homework, is trying diligently to observe the responsibilities he has so surprisingly assumed. On that Friday morning he faced the contingencies that come when you’re in the corner. He picked his shit sandwich, closed his eyes, and bit down hard.

Letter from the Taliban

Soon after their son’s disappearance, Shaima’s parents received a letter from the Taliban. It announced that they had found their son alive and unharmed. A time and place was given where the father could collect him. It didn’t feel right – it felt like a trap – but desperation forced his agreement. “No police,” the letter warned. The father said goodbye to his wife and arrived at the agreed location. His body was found two days later. 

I have seen his death certificate, a police report, and photos of his corpse in a morgue. His body lies on a table in a tiled room – clean grey floors and white walls. A bandage wraps around the outline of his face, up over the top of his head and down beneath his chin. Wisps of grey hair rise from his scalp; a small grey beard covers his face and neck. A white sheet protects his modesty, while a large gauze patch obscures a wound on his right side. His chest is purple with bruising. His son is presumed dead. 

“It is my observation,” Shaima’s counsellor wrote to the Department of Immigration, “that Shaima has suffered deeply through the ordeal of waiting for an outcome on her family sponsorship. Particularly given that the family application had moved to the very final stages of processing, as all interviews, health checks and security checks had been finalised and approved. Shaima feels that the death of her father and the disappearance of her brother may have been completely avoided if there was not such a long delay in the allocation of a visa. [This delay] Shaima finds extremely hard to comprehend; especially now she has lost so much.” 

After the murder of her father and the unknown fate of her brother, Shaima was granted compassionate leave from school. She lives sick with the prospect that she will soon be an orphan. Because of this, she wants to return to her mother. Her settlement here means little if she can’t be reunited with her remaining family member. “I’m holding on to her on a leash,” her advocate tells me. “But she just wants to be with her mum. We need something to happen pretty soon. We’re getting desperate.” 

Morrison sought extraordinary powers, and he has been given them. His intention had been to streamline processes and secure borders. But the consequence of this is that cases such as Shaima’s are now his responsibility. His office must decide if a teenage refugee should be orphaned because he refuses her mother safety. And Shaima’s case, tragically, will be only one of many.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Family murdered as Morrison stalls". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.