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Nicholas, Alexander --- "Refugee Case Study: A Family" [2002] HRightsDef 20; (2002) 11(2) Human Rights Defender 23

Refugee case study: A Family

Alexander Nicholas

A family of three arrived in Australia two years ago claiming to have fled political and religious persecution in Iran. They were Al-Haqqs, members of a religious group related to Sufism, whose followers are viewed by the present regime as heretics. The husband was also a Kurd. They arrived without the correct visa requirements and were detained first in the remote dessert camp at Woomera in South Australia, where a second child was born.

According to the family, their six-year old son witnessed riots at Woomera, and acts of self-harm and attempted suicide by other detainees. The family experienced water canon and tear gas. Psychological reports from Woomera state that the boy was suffering night terrors, wetting his bed, was refusing to eat and his mental condition was deteriorating.

The family was sent to Villawood, where the boy’s mother claims he saw a man collapse, having cut his wrist. The boy saw the blood and stopped eating, drinking and speaking. At least five doctors and psychiatrists diagnosed his condition as acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was hospitalised seven times, once for 40 days. Each time he was rehydrated and his condition improved markedly but on return to the detention environment he deteriorated again. His doctors wrote to the Minister for Immigration, however, contrary to all medical advice, he was returned to Villawood after each hospitalisation until he was finally removed into foster care, again against the advice of his doctors.

In August 2001, the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) Four Corners documentary television programme showed the little asylum seeker boy and his distressed family. Speaking on the ABC’s current affairs programme, the 7.30 Report in August last year, the Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, asserted the boy’s illness and mental distress may have been caused by other factors.

“The child is not the natural child of the mother, it's a stepchild, and there is another child in the relationship. And I don't know the extent to which those familial matters might or might not determine anxieties in the child. I'm simply saying there are a range of issues, not necessarily related to detention, which could well have been involved.”

Shortly after the programme aired the young boy was removed from Villawood and placed in foster care. Since January, he's lived with his stepmother, and sister in Western Sydney, on bridging visas. The father remained in detention at Villawood.

Originally, the family was found by the Refugee Review Tribunal and then by a single judge of the Federal Court, not to be refugees, but the decision to deport the family was overturned in April, when the full bench of the Federal Court unanimously found the tribunal had misunderstood the law. That ruling meant the family could take its application for protection visas back to the Refugee Review Tribunal for a new hearing. On 8 August 2002, the now seven-year-old boy and his family were granted refugee status. No new evidence was provided to the tribunal. The basis of the family’s refugee claims were the same as in the first hearing.

The lawyer for the family conceded the difficulty of the legal challenge. “It was difficult in that we had to prove an error of law and need to note that that area of law that we used for this family has now changed in that the government changed the rules for review to the Federal Courts after the Tampa crisis, so now if this case came up, it would be extremely difficult for us to help the family.”

The Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock, put out a statement saying the Federal Government would not appeal against the tribunal's decision. The father is now reunited in the community with his wife and two children.

The family is receiving counselling and the little boy still has nightmares, exhibits aggressive behaviour and severe separation anxiety when he is away from his family. Psychologists involved in his case are unable to predict whether he will make a full recovery.

Alexander Nicholas is a graduate of the UNSW Political Science Masters Program. He travelled to Geneva as a member of the Australian Refugee Rights Alliance team.

This case study is taken from a document prepared by SfS entitled: Australia’s Mandatory Immigration Detention System. It is reproduced with permission of the author.

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