Saturday, May 23, 2009

Protection visa system leaves a family torn apart

Refugees ... Mrs Hashimi with children Zahra, Hossein and Qasseme. Inset, Amer Hashimi, who held a temporary protection visa but is now in detention in Jakarta.

A former Sydney resident has been left to languish in jail, writes Tom Allard in Jakarta.

* May 23, 2009 - SMH

LOCKED in a crowded cell at Jakarta's immigration detention centre, his life savings gone and family separated from him, Amer Hashimi has plenty of time to contemplate his misfortune.

Like many Faili Kurds from Iraq, Hashimi has experienced his share of persecution and hardship. Perhaps more heartbreaking still, he has also had a taste of a "dream life" in Australia snatched away.

The genial 43-year-old truck driver is one of many former holders of temporary protection visas who have attempted to return to Australia in the past year, making the perilous journey by boat from Indonesia for a second time.

The visa - a centrepiece of the Howard government's immigration policy - allowed refugees to stay in Australia, but barred them from bringing their immediate families to join them.

Amid a recent wave of boat people attempting to reach Australia, there have been calls for its reintroduction as a deterrent. The Opposition is considering endorsing a new type of visa that contains many of its features.

But Mr Hashimi's decade-long struggle to find a safe place for his family shows how the visa can compound misery.

"In 1999, I first come to Australia in a big boat, maybe 370 people," Mr Hashimi said during a telephone interview from his cell block. "I like this country very much. I live there more than four years, but I can't see my family for this time."

After paying a human trafficking syndicate $US2500 ($3200), Mr Hashimi could not afford to bring his wife, Nahle Abd Uan, and his three children with him. They stayed in Iran, where they had fled from Iraq.

He lived in Sydney's western suburbs, and worked six or seven days a week, sending his wife money so she could pay bribes to allow their children to attend school.

"My wife and children is having a very hard time in Iran. They only have white card, so not allowed for school, for working," he explained.

Mr Hashimi had hoped that if his refugee status was reconfirmed after three years in Australia he would get a permanent visa and be able to bring his wife and children out to live with him.

But while judged to be a genuine refugee by Australian immigration officials he was issued with a second temporary protection visa. It was a devastating blow. His family were being harassed in Iran and threatened with repatriation to Iraq, then in the grips of the US-led war to topple Saddam Hussein.

In April 2004, he was granted a travel document and returned to Iran for a reunion. He believed, incorrectly, he could return to Australia. On his way back he was imprisoned for four months in Iran, then deported to Iraq. He slipped illegally back into Iran to see his family and plead his case with consular officials at the Australian embassy in Tehran.

"They said they couldn't help me," he said.

Increasingly desperate, Mr Hashimi took his family to Indonesia to apply for refugee status with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in late 2005.

Nothing happened for two years. The Australian embassy in Jakarta refused to see him.

"It's very hard to live here and just wait. We do nothing. We just sit at home," Mrs Hashimi said. Frustrated and depressed, Mr Hashimi decided to engage a people-smuggler.

His last $US3000 and wife's gold jewellery paid for the passage. But the boat was small and overcrowded, and after setting out from Lombok in November last year its main engine failed and the passengers landed on a remote beach on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa.

"We walked for five hours to find someone," said Mr Hashimi. When they did, they were arrested by local police. Indonesian authorities considered Mr Hashimi a flight risk and have put him in detention while his family live an hour away in the hills of Puncak.

Last month, Mrs Hashimi and her children had their claim for protection as refugees finally approved.

Even so, it could still be years before they are resettled in another country. And, while the successful claim gives Mr Hashimi hope, it also fills him with anger.

"If they had given it more quicker, I would never tried to catch the boat. Now I am in jail," he said. "Please, I just want to come back to Australia."

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