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Australia Asylum Seekers In Detention Camps

Subj: Australia: Asylum seekers in detention camps

Australia is not alone in the world when it comes to facing the challenge of handling ever increasing numbers of asylum seekers from the Muslim world. While some, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are genuine refugees fleeing persecution, many are economic migrants without visas who, in spite of their often tragic circumstances, do not qualify for refugee status and find themselves facing deportation.

Many Mandaean (followers of John the Baptist) and Christian refugees who have entered Australia without visas, are finding themselves locked up in detention centres that are simply enclosed microcosms of the hostile environments they fled. It is not uncommon to find that in nations such as Australia, where religious tolerence is considered a virtue, talk of religious intolerance is not tolerated. As such, stories of religious persecution do not often impress governments that have no desire to get involved in politically incorrect issues.

Australia has some 2,500 asylum seekers in mandatory detention, and according to recent reports from Amnesty International’s Refugee Team, many are denied their basic religious rights, and in the midst of severe persecution, are not receiving the protection one would expect from Australian government.


On 18 May 2002, the BBC published an article entitled “Religious tensions in asylum camps” (see link below) in which BBC correspondent Phil Mercer said that, according to Amnesty International (AI), “Minority religious groups in Australia’s immigration detention centres are being persecuted and physically assaulted by Muslim asylum seekers.

“Amnesty International’s refugee co-ordinator Doctor Graham Thom says intolerance and vilification are now serious problems inside Australia’s immigration camps.

“‘The reports we’re hearing say that Mandaeans (followers of John the Baptist), Tamils and other Hindus and Christians – in particular Christian converts – are facing violence or threats of violence from certain Islamists within the detention centres. They are being called infidels. They are being refused access to kitchens and things like that because people think they are unclean as infidels,’ Mr. Thom said.”

John Clugston of the Amnesty International Refugee Teams adds, “AI is concerned about incidents in which Mandaean and Christian women have been forced to comply with Islamic dress codes. AI is concerned at the serious restrictions on religious practice for Christians, Mandaeans and Hindus in detention in contrast to the religious freedom and facilities enjoyed by Muslim detainees.”

“AI is also concerned that all food in detention centres is ‘halal – complying with Qur’anic slaughter rules,” continues John Clugston. “This appears to be a particularly serious issue for Mandaeans who have their own yaloofi food laws and for Protestants and Assyrian Christians, who are then humiliated and belittled by being thus forced to comply with the prescriptions of the Qur’an. AI has been advised that Islamists would regard it as a major coup to have succeeded in forcing Christians to comply with the Qur’an by eating Islamic ‘halal’ food in a country with Christian crosses on its flag. We have been informed that this is felt particularly keenly by Assyrian Christians and Chaldaean Catholics from the Middle East.”

Russell Skelton, a journalist with the Melbourne AGE reported in an article entitled “No Escape from Persecution”, 10 May 2002, that when a young Iranian Mandaean girl attempted to serve food in the Woomera detention centre in December 2001, a contingent of Muslims rioted violently. The young girl was abused as a “dirty filthy infidel” who had no right to handle the food of Muslims. She was pushed to the ground and kicked and abused. The authorities placed her in isolation for her own protection.

Other violent incidents in recent months include the stoning of a group of Christians by Afghan Muslims in Woomera detention centre in August 2001 that left one Iranian Christian man, who had been attacked for wearing a cross, blinded in one eye. In another incident, a blind Iranian Mandaean man was ambushed by Muslims who beat him defecated upon him and then locked him in a toilet.

In Curtin detention centre it has been reported to Amnesty International that Mandaeans are regularly prevented from using the laundry because the Muslim majority regard them as “unclean”. Recently in Woomera detention centre Muslims rioted and burnt down the dormitory blocks occupied by the Mandaeans and Christians.

According to Russell Skelton’s article in the Melbourne AGE, Khosrow Chohaili, the President of the Mandean Association in Sydney, said that most Mandaeans who flee to Australia to escape persecution in Iran find they are unable to gain refugee status as the Australian government says that Mandaeans are not persecuted in Iran. This is in spite of the fact that Mandaeans are persecuted in the detention camps on Australian soil, and that the persecution is so severe that in Woomera detention centre the Mandaeans and Christians are forced to meet together in secret, while in Curtin detention centre the authorities have advised that Mandaean and Christian services (including baptisms) be severely restricted in order to keep the peace.

One Iranian Mandaean widow in Curtin detention centre claims that she fled Iran with her two children because an Islamic teacher was threatening to forcibly convert her and her two sons. Her application for refugee status has been rejected because, according to Khosrow Chohaili, “No one believes her.” She is however, being held in isolation in a far corner of the Curtin detention centre for her own safety because, in mid April, she was seriously injured by a group of Muslim males who called her an “infidel”s and then violently assaulted her. She believes that if the correctional offic ers had not come to her aid, the men would have killed her.

It is interesting to note that Mandaeans from Iran tend to claim refugee status on the grounds of religious persecution, and the Australian authorities generally reject their claims. Meanwhile, Mandaeans from Iraq tend to claim refugee status on the grounds of membership of a persecuted social or political group – and their claims are generally accepted. Religious freedom continues to be treated as a dispensable human right.

As Amnesty International’s extensive research shows, the situation for non-Muslim minorities in the detention centers is indeed serious. Unfortunately Amnesty International’s advocacy has not as yet yielded a satisfactory response from the Australian government.

– Elizabeth Kendal

——————————————————————– Link to BBC article ‘Religious tensions in asylum camps’ 18 May 2002 http://news6.thdo.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/asia%2Dpacific/newsid%5 F1994000/1994919.stm

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