For the sake of the children

Kelly Burke
Sydney Morning Herald
27 October 2001

The people smugglers told Haidar al-Zoohairi's family a welcoming committee would be there to greet them when they reached Australia. The family knew this to be a lie.

They also knew they would be breaking Australian law and faced automatic detention upon arrival here. But they paid Abu-Quassey $US5,000 ($9,926) anyway and climbed aboard a leaking boat.

Al-Zoohairi knows that the boat was procured by two of his Iraqi countrymen - Haitham Kamil Radhi and Khalid al-Gailanni. They live comfortably in Indonesia, he says, and enjoy the protection of local police. But al-Zoohairi cannot say for sure if his family were forced to embark at gunpoint.

None of them survived the trip.

His wife, two teenage children and brother-in-law were among the more than 350 asylum seekers who perished when their boat capsized off the south-west coast of Java last week.

The last conversation al-Zoohairi had with his wife was 20 days earlier. It was a joyous telephone call. After bribing officials and securing false passports, the family had fled Iraq on July 20, landing first in Malaysia. Now they were in Jakarta, and their refugee status had already been confirmed by the local UNHCR office. Soon the family would be reunited in Australia.

Waiting anxiously in Sydney, al-Zoohairi was only too aware of what his wife and children were about to face. He had made the same treacherous journey two years earlier.

"Yes, I was fearful for their lives," he says. "But back in Iraq there is torture and death. That is certain. Here, there is just a perilous journey. There is no choice."

But the al-Zoohairi family did have a choice. They could have remained in Jakarta with about 150 other Mandaeans - a monotheistic pacifist religion pre-dating Christianity - and scores more Iraqi nationals who had also been pronounced bona fide refugees by the UNHCR. They could have remained in Jakarta and waited.

Some, says al-Zoohairi, have been waiting nearly two years, living in desperate conditions. Refugee status in Indonesia does not bring with it entitlements to work, seek medical help or send their children to school. The non-Muslim Mandaeans live with the added threat of religious persecution.

"The UN says they are refugees, but can give them no hope that they will be moved on to Australia or anywhere else," al-Zoohairi says. "They live in limbo."

In September last year, after spending 10 months in Port Hedland detention centre, al-Zoohairi was granted a temporary protection visa. But a TPV prohibits its holder from leaving the country for at least 2 years. It would have been mid-2003 at the earliest before he even gained the right to travel to Indonesia to see the wife and children he said goodbye to in Baghdad on October 14, 1999.

The al-Zoohairi family weighed up the odds, paid the people smugglers and took their chances on the open sea.

On Thursday, al-Zoohairi received confirmation that none of his family was on the list of survivors. Clutching his TPV, he now waits for no-one and weeps.

They were a prosperous family, the al-Zoohairis, who owned a thriving jewellery business and a comfortable home in Baghdad. About 100,000 Mandaeans live in Iraq and neighbouring Iran, many of whom, like al-Zoohairi, made a good living from their highly prized traditional silversmith skills.

But wealth did not protect him from persecution, once he refused to denounce his socialist convictions and join the official Ba'ath party of Saddam Hussein.

After spending a year in prison in 1998, al-Zoohairi bribed his escape to Jordan, and the persecution of the family he left behind began. Outside Iraq, he met compatriots who had lodged visa applications through official Australian immigration channels three years earlier. They were still waiting. "My family does not have three years to spare," he told them.

Al-Zoohairi paid $US10,000 to a smuggler who went by the name of Ahmed al-Pakistani and who guaranteed him a false passport, a plane ticket to Malaysia, an overland journey to Indonesia and passage by boat to Australia.

"Everything was done in broad daylight," he says of the arrangements with the smugglers in Indonesia. "Officials turned a blind eye. They didn't interfere. They knew what was going on."

After 10 days adrift in the Timor Sea, Haidar al-Zoohairi arrived in Darwin on November 22, 1999. Arrest and three weeks of isolation followed, during which he was thoroughly interrogated by immigration officials. He knew he had broken the country's laws by entering illegally.

Yes, he bought and bribed his passage to safety and laid the groundwork for his family to do the same. He may now hold a legitimate TPV, but he knows that somewhere in the progress of this debate on asylum seekers the Australian people have come to believe that if you are fortunate to have money enough to pay the smugglers to escape persecution, your need for safe haven is somehow less valid. At best you are labelled a queue jumper; at worst, a suspected terrorist.

Those around him translate the news of the day. He learns how the Minister for Immigration has expressed deep regret for the tragedy that has occurred, but Philip Ruddock has also reminded Australians that these people died because they took the law into their own hands. They tried to jump the queue. Haidar al-Zoohairi wants to know, does that make the grief from his loss less valid?

If his children's bodies are recovered from the sea, will he be allowed to bring them to Australia, to honour and bury them according to Mandaean tradition? He cannot find anyone who will answer this question for him.

Al-Zoohairi believes he does, however, know how Australia might stop the steady flow of asylum seekers risking their lives on leaking boats to get here via the back door.

Iraqis want to come to Australia, he says, because they know this country is a signatory to international agreements offering refuge for the dispossessed.

"If Australia does not want refugees, it should withdraw from the international agreements it has signed," he says. "That way people will get a straight message that Australia does not welcome refugees, and it probably won't be bothered by them any more."

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