The Australian Government has been requested by the Obama Administration to assist with the shutting down of the detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay by resettling 17 Uighurs (Muslim minority people from Xinjiang in the Northwest of China) who are currently being held there. These unfortunates have been held at Guantánamo for seven years despite having been cleared of any links to terrorism.
According to Human Rights Watch (see report here):
Most of the 17 Uighurs who remain at Guantanamo were turned over from Pakistan to the United States for bounties in late 2001. The US government cleared nearly all of them for release in 2004, but they were not returned to China due to credible fears that they would be tortured upon return. For several years, the US government has tried to convince other countries to resettle the Uighurs. Albania took in five in 2006, but no other country has offered to take in the remaining 17, in part because the United States has failed to resettle any detainees itself.
Here we seem to have an example of a demand that creates its own supply; if you offer to pay substantial cash bounties for “terrorists” in a very poor country like Afghanistan or Pakistan, you will find a lot of terrorists. Far from being “the worst of the worst” as Alexander Downer never tired of telling us, many of these people were innocents who were sold for cash, one of the more despicable forms of people trafficking. “Enhanced interrogation” goes hand in hand with this sordid business; it is hard work making innocent people admit they are terrorists, and even harder to get them to come up with useful intelligence.
According to the ABC’s Radio Australia News, the Prime Minister’s office says that the Government will consider the request on a case-by-case basis. The Opposition Leader says we should reject the request, not something the Coalition was prepared to do when it was in office, as the following story shows.
This is not the first time an Australian Government has been asked to share the burden of a Cuba-related mess the United States has fashioned for itself. In about 1980 Malcolm Fraser received, and acceded to, a request for a bit of burden sharing in relation to what were known as the Mariel refugees from Cuba.
The background to this was that in the late 1970s the Carter Administration adopted a policy under which any Cuban arriving in the United States was immediately given refugee status and all of the rights that went with it. Such a policy was only sustainable, of course, in a strong regime of restricted departures from Cuba. In 1980, however, a downturn in the Cuban economy led the Cuban Government to announce that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba could do so through the port of Mariel.
Between April and October 1980 about 125,000 Cubans made the journey to Florida on every kind of craft imaginable, at which point the outflow was terminated by mutual agreement between the two governments. Apart from the strain the sheer numbers put on the United States authorities, Castro took advantage of the opportunity to empty some of the jails and asylums for the criminally insane, and this was beaten up by the U.S. media. A 1991 Congressional report estimated that about 10 per cent of the arrivals were undesirables; 2% (2,746) of the Marielitos were classified as serious or violent criminals under U.S. law and denied citizenship on that basis.
At some stage the Carter Administration began to ask the friends of the United States to share the burden of absorbing the Marielitos and my information some time later was that we agreed to resettle 200 of them. I don’t know how transparent was the fact that some of the undesirables would be among them, but as the following tale will indicate, at least one of them was far from a model citizen.
Fast forward to 1991, when a change of duties within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade resulted in my becoming the Deputy Secretary in charge of the North and Southeast Asia Division and the International Organisations and Legal Division. I had been in that particular chair about five minutes when I had a request to receive a courtesy call from the Singapore High Commissioner. It was indeed a courteous call and the Singapore High Commissioner was a very nice man, but there was something on his mind far more important than making my acquaintance. He wanted to talk to me about a certain Cuban gentleman, a long term resident of Australia, who had been dumped at Singapore Airport by Australian immigration officials and had been held in the Singapore Airport “Not to Land” facility for the last ninety days. The Singapore Government would very much like to know what the Australian Government proposed to do about this fellow.
My subsequent enquiries revealed that this gent was one of the resettled Mariel refugees. He had been convicted of a violent crime against a woman in every year since his arrival, except the years when he had spent the whole of the year behind bars. There was some black comedy in this tale. As related to me, at some stage a good Christian woman had rescued him from the gutter in Kings Cross and taken him in. They were subsequently wed. She must have driven him nuts, because at some stage he had allegedly tried set fire to her, and on another he had tried to push her out of the car while she was driving. Definitely not a marriage made in heaven.
Upon completion of his last custodial sentence it was decided that the man in question should be deported. Nice thought, but incompletely thought through. In order to deport someone you have to have somewhere to deport him to, a real problem in this case because upon his departure from Cuba the Cuban government had stripped him of his Cuban citizenship and no longer recognised his existence.
This placed the Immigration Department in an impossible situation, albeit perhaps one of its own making. A deportation order was in force, so he couldn’t stay here, but there was no-one else who would agree to take him. The extraordinary decision was taken to try to return him to Cuba, without any agreement from the Cuban authorities that they would accept him. He was a foreigner as far as they were concerned; he didn’t have a Cuban passport and he didn’t have a visa.
So two Immigration wallopers set off handcuffed to this very bad man, on a voyage which had all the potential to become a Flying Dutchman saga in which they would all roam the world for all eternity because there was nowhere they could come to rest; they had no certain destination and under the law of the time a deportee from Australian could never return to Australia.
As it was described to me, they took him first to Rome, with a ticket to Havana, but when they tried to put him on a plane for Havana he was not allowed to board – no papers, no visa. They proceeded to Moscow and tried again – same story. They returned to Rome and flew to Caracas – same story again, as it would always be, because no matter which route was tried, the person was never going to be allowed to board the last leg of the journey, the one which ended in Cuba.
At this point they must have been given permission to give up – but not, of course, to return the gent to Australia. In an extraordinary act of irresponsibility, they took him to Singapore, presumably with a ticket through to Australia, but when the time came to board the aircraft in Singapore they boarded without him and he was subsequently found and detained within the Singapore airport facility, where he was reportedly an absolute nightmare.
I spoke to the Secretary of the Department of Immigration, and we jumped into a plane bound for Singapore where we had a very uncomfortable call upon Kishore Mahbubani, who was at that time with the Singapore Foreign Ministry. The meeting was very cordial but it was made very clear that this problem was an Australian problem, not a Singapore problem, and that it needed to be fixed before it became a problem between Australia and Singapore – something we knew before we left home. It was uncomfortable because we were dealing with a very capable individual who was important to Australia and we looked plain stupid; what could we say? At that stage we couldn’t even say what we could do to fix it, or how quickly; we left mumbling assurances that we would get right onto it.
In the event the solution was a sad and sinister one. The legislation was changed to give the Minister for Immigration the power, in respect of a person who had arrived in Australia, to deem that person not to have arrived, and to detain him or her indefinitely. Our Cuban was then returned to Australia, deemed not to have arrived (thereby preserving the sanctity of our deportation laws), and as I understand it, incarcerated in Long Bay, although he had completed all his custodial sentences. I lost sight of him after that, and have no idea what happened to him subsequently; he may be there to this day.
This episode seems to have been a first step along the sorry road to mandatory detention for asylum seekers. As I understand it, not long after this episode and the acquisition by the Minister of the “deeming provision”, a group of Cambodian asylum seekers arrived in north-western Australia, was promptly deemed not to have arrived, and was interned somewhere near Port Hedland. This was all too public for reliance on the deeming provision to work forever, and in 1992 the Keating Government, with enthusiastic bipartisan support, introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers.
The saga of this Marielito is a very different one from the one that now confronts the Rudd Government – the only common element is the request for a bail-out by Uncle Sam. I have no reason to believe these Uighurs will be a risk to Australian society; it will be interesting to see which way the Government will jump in the face of a request from the Obama Administration on the one hand, and a clear signal from the Opposition on the other that it will continue to seek political gain from stoking fears about immigrants from unfamiliar places.