Monday, July 21, 2008

CRIKEY: Kevin Andrews' immigration crusade

Since the end of the White Australia Policy, there has been bipartisan support for a non-discriminatory immigration policy. But with the Howard government so intent on sucking up to sectarian groups, it was only a matter of time before someone discovered evidence of it trying to co-opt Fred Nile’s agenda before the last election in much the same way as it did Pauline Hanson’s before the 2001 poll.

Richard Kerbaj reported in The Weekend Australian of a proposal by former Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews to increase Christian migration from the Middle East.

FORMER immigration minister Kevin Andrews instructed his department to lift the intake of Christian refugees from the Middle East in response to what he saw as a pro-Muslim bias created by corrupt local case officers.

Mr Andrews was so concerned about the extent of corruption in Middle Eastern posts - despite the allegations being investigated and dismissed by his own department - that he wrote to then prime minister John Howard advocating a $200 million plan to replace local employees with Australian staff in 10 "sensitive" countries, including Jordan, Iran and Egypt ...

A Department of Immigration spokesman said there were no substantiated cases of anti-Christian discrimination in Australian embassies and no plans to replace "Islamic locally engaged staff" with Australian officials.

An investigation by The Weekend Australian has discovered Mr Andrews was petitioned by the Australian Christian Lobby to address alleged religious discrimination against Iraqis. Before losing office in the November 2007 election, he ordered the number of Christian Iraqi refugees to be increased by 1400 for 2007-08, almost doubling the previous year's Iraqi total of 1639.

"Put it this way, it was made very clear to the immigration department that more Christian refugees were wanted," a Howard government source said ...

In his letter to Mr Howard in August last year, Mr Andrews, a devout Catholic, proposed significant changes to the refugee selection process.

In the letter, seen by The Weekend Australian, Mr Andrews accused the case workers in Australian embassies of fraud and bribery when processing migration applications.Such posts are predominantly staffed by local workers.

He said this raised "considerable security risks".

"The other significant reason for changing the staffing composition of overseas posts is to prevent discrimination at the 'front office' of the posts," Mr Andrews wrote.

"Since becoming Minister, I have received a large number of representations from people alleging systematic and co-ordinated discrimination against particular persons based on race and religion at certain sensitive posts. In particular, this allegedly involves the active blocking and impediment of the lodgement of applications at the front office.

"At worst, potential applicants are simply being told not to lodge an application. The majority of such claims have been made in respect to posts in the Middle East and Central Asia. For these reasons, I think it would be timely to revise the staffing arrangements for immigration posts that can be classified as 'sensitive' and to staff these posts exclusively with Australian departmental

Mr Andrews names 10 countries - Pakistan, India, United Arab Emirates, China, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Russia and Egypt - in which the posts should be staffed exclusively with Australian departmental officers ...

There is no provision within Australian immigration laws to select refugees on the basis of religion. A former Howard government source said Mr Andrews wanted to save Christian Iraqis from persecution by Shia and Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East.

"With the intake from the Middle East the department was told that we want to focus on Iraqi Christians," the source said. "The department basically said they couldn't do that because that would be discriminating on race and religion."

The official explanation given last August by Mr Andrews for boosting Iraqi refugees numbers was that the altered intake was in response to an international conference run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees four months earlier seeking to help Iraqis forced out of their country.

The Howard government was at the forefront of extending humanitarian support for African (mostly Christian) refugees. But in response to the senseless murder of 18-year-old Sudanese man Liep Gony, Kevin Andrews declared Africans were just not integrating and committing too much crime.

But if The Oz report is correct, Muslims working in the immigration sections of some Australian embassies are behaving corruptly, giving Muslim applicants special treatment. Andrews was lobbied by the Australian Christian Lobby about discrimination against Christians in Iraq. The Oz doesn’t mention whether the ACL representatives' claims alleging nasty pro-Muslim conspirators were responsible for reducing the number of refugee places awarded to Iraqi Christians.

DIAC-heads had already investigated and dismissed these allegations, but Andrews still wrote to Howard suggesting $200 million of taxpayers’ funds be used to send Aussies to our overseas posts to make sure discrimination against Christian applicants is replaced by discrimination against Muslim ones. Or something like that.

There’s no doubt Iraqi Christians face a perilous situation in Iraq. Many are considered too close to Saddam’s aggressively secular regime. Chaldean Christians are particularly vulnerable given Saddam’s number 2, Tariq Aziz, was Chaldean Catholic. It hasn’t helped that Baghdad’s Chaldean Christian Patriarch called for Aziz’s release from prison last Christmas. The Patriarch's remarks were clearly designed not to inflame sectarian agendas but rather as a humanitarian gesture, though many of Saddam's victims will not see it that way.

Saddam was the master of sectarian wedge politics, playing one congregation off against another. His murderous legacy continues even after his death, with angry Sunni Arab community members attacking Shias and Kurds while angry Shias and Kurds attack Arab Sunnis and Chaldean Christians. Entire groups are being held responsible for the actions of powerful individual group members like Aziz.

However, Middle Eastern Christian migrants shouldn’t take Andrews’ support for granted. If any of their sons are fatally bashed during the term of a future Coalition government, there’s some chance the Immigration Minister will claim it’s their fault for not integrating properly.

A version of this piece was first published in the Crikey daily alert for Monday 21 July 2008.

Words © 2008 Irfan Yusuf

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