The decisions of Australia’s Immigration Ministers and their Department have traditionally been the basis for a commanding electoral lead. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, around 100 asylum seekers drowned off the coast of Australia.
The government at that stage claimed that the people on board the boat may have been terrorists, and that some parents had thrown their children off the boat in an effort to gain sympathy. What became known as the “children overboard affair” saw the Howard government attain a commanding victory at the November 2001 Federal election.
Today, immigration policy has become the source of many an embarrassment for the Howard government. The tough policies toward asylum seekers and other non-citizens, once an electoral strength, are becoming an electoral liability as Australians are growing tired of compassion fatigue.
Recently, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone was forced to apologise for her Department wrongfully deporting Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon to the Philippines. Ms Solon has commenced legal action against the government to compensate her for her damages and losses.
Ms Solon was severely injured in a road accident some four years ago. She was wrongfully identified as an illegal immigrant and deported. She spent her entire time in a homeless refuge outside Manilla, unable to communicate with those around her.
The most recent source of embarrassment is the government’s use of its powers to deport non-citizens sentenced to serve significant jail terms for certain crimes. The publicly-owned Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC TV) revealed on 23 November that a 38 year old Australian permanent resident had been deported to Serbia where he was living in near-destitution.
Robert Jovicic was deported to Serbia in June 2004 on character grounds. He spent time in jail for a string of robberies which were used to support his heroin habit. Mr Jovicic arrived in Australia at age 2. He was born in France to Serbian-born parents.
Currently, Mr Jovicic lives on the streets, spending much of his time outside the front door of the Australian embassy in Belgrade. He speaks virtually no Serbian.
The Commonwealth Migration Act enables the Minister to cancel the visa and order the deportation of a non-citizen permanent resident found guilty of crimes serious enough to warrant a custodial sentence of a certain minimum length. The law has operated to ensure the deportation of a number of permanent residents who cannot remember seeing the country they were born in and are being deported to.
In 2003, I visited the Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney. A young man of Turkish background in his 20’s was awaiting deportation to Ankara. He was born in Turkey but arrived in Australia when he was around 5 years old. Most of his family members were citizens, but for some reason he neglected to apply for citizenship or a passport.
Many deportees cannot speak the language or understand the culture of the countries they are being deported to. In the case of Mr Jovicic, the law is operating in a horrendous fashion. The Melbourne Age reported Mr Jovicic telling ABC reporters:
“If I don't lay out front of the embassy and try and get back home, I'll die. I'll die here just on medical grounds alone within a short time.”
Mr Jovicic’s sister Susanna, who also lives in Australia, summed up the family’s frustrations as follows: “You can't just throw someone who's been here all their lives and calls this place his home, and just dump them somewhere else. I mean, he wasn't even born there.”
What makes Mr Jovicic’s situation even more precarious is that the Serbian government does not recognise him as a citizen. He is therefore unable to obtain employment or welfare. Mr Jovicic is stateless and destitute.
There are hundreds of people living on the streets of Sydney. Many are drug-users, and quite a few suffer from psychiatric conditions such as severe untreated schizophrenia. Often such people find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
A high proportion of Australia’s prison community suffer from psychiatric illnesses independent of or induced by drug use. Where such persons are permanent residents, they are vulnerable upon being convicted for an offence for deportation at the discretion of the Immigration Minister.
For such unfortunate deportees, it is a case of the punishment being often unjustly disproportionate to the crime committed. To use common Aussie parlance, it is a case of the Minister telling the convicted permanent resident: “Go back to where you never came from!”
Many permanent residents have good reason to not take up citizenship. Indeed, as the cases of Ms Solon and Guantanamo detainee David Hicks show, even Australian citizenship is no necessary guarantee of government action to protect the interests of the individual.
The Howard government will continue to suffer embarrassment and reduced electoral appeal if it is unable to control bureaucratic and ministerial bungling in immigration matters. The use of tough immigration and citizenship policies as a tool to play wedge politics, often with clear racial and ethno-religious overtones, is no longer proving popular. Unless the government lifts its game, the voters may tell the Howard government to go back to where they came from – the opposition benches.
The author is a Sydney-based lawyer and occasional lecturer at the Department of Politics of Sydney’s Macquarie University.
A version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times on Monday November 28 2005.
© Irfan Yusuf 2005