Visa shock for bereaved

November 2, 2001
Middle East Times

Heather Tyler
Special to the Middle East Times SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

Visa shock for bereaved seekers when their overcrowded boat sank en route to Australia

The grieving fathers of children who drowned off the coast of Indonesia have been denied permission by the Australian government to be reunited with their wives unless they leave the refuge of Australian soil.

Australian Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the two Iraqi men, Ahmed Al Zalime and Ali Mehdi Sobie, would forfeit their three-year temporary residency visas if they left the country to comfort their wives who are still in Indonesia after the tragedy in which 356 asylum seekers from the Middle East lost their lives.

The asylum seekers were Iraqi, Palestinian, Afghan, and Algerian. Most victims were women and children. One eight-year-old boy who survived lost 21 relatives in the disaster and prominent Australian politician Peter Beattie has urged the federal government to at least let this child realize his dream of a new life in Australia. However, so far the government has not budged.

The surviving mothers were also not permitted to join their husbands in Australia, despite their dreadful loss.

Ahmed Al Zalime, 38, was counting down to the day where he would be reunited with his wife and three daughters in Australia after five years of hardship and forced separation.

Although he had entered Australia as an illegal immigrant, he had managed to obtain a temporary visa.

The former teacher, who fled Iraq for Iran with his wife in 1988, wanted a life in Australia without persecution.

His family rang him from Indonesia last week where they were about to board a boat with 400 other illegal immigrants for the dangerous boat trip to Australia.

Their voices were full of hope but Al Zalime feared for the safety of his family and pleaded with his wife not to make the trip at this time because of uncertain weather conditions and the Australian government's new policy of turning away asylum seekers.

But his family boarded the overcrowded boat that capsized and sank off the coast of Indonesia on October 19, and his three daughters Eman, 8, Zhra, 6, and Fatima, 5, drowned, leaving their mother Sondos Ismail fighting for her own life in the gasoline- polluted water.

Only 44 asylum seekers survived the tragedy and 356, mostly women and children, died. A weeping Sondos, 26, said after the tragedy: "I have lost everything. I just want to meet my husband."

She was angry at the people smugglers who had crowded over 400 people onto the boat, which should have taken less than 100.

"They are criminals and they are trading with the blood and lives of people," she said. The man believed responsible for the deaths of the boat people, Egyptian Abu Quassey, is being sought by Indonesian police. He is a people smuggler well known to Australian authorities.

Ahmed's brother, Ali Mehdi Sobie, also in Australia with a temporary resident's visa, lost his wife Zainab, and his three daughters Dunya, 14, Marwa, 12 and Hirajn 10 in the disaster.

Grieving with the two men is Imam Muhammad Al Mossawee, whose wife Khadeeja Ismail drowned.

And Iraqi refugee Haidar Al Zohairi lost his wife Sameeya, 58, and daughter Hadeel, 19 and son Hadeer, 15, who were on their way, hoping to reunite in Australia.

Al Zohairi and his family are Mandaeans, followers of John the Baptist. Mandaeans are acknowledged by the United Nations to be victims of persecution in Muslim countries, including Iran, Iraq and Indonesia.

Al Mehdi Sobie and Al Zalime now blame the Australian government's hardline stand on asylum seekers.

"My life has come to a stop. The government has caused this tragedy," Ahmed cried.

The head of Australia's Muslim community, Sheik Taj Al Din Al Hilaly, said the government's immigration policies had "opened the gates of death."

"All the sharks and all the carnivorous fish who preyed on these innocent children are now thanking Mr. Howard [the Australian Prime Minister] for his policies." The 60-year-old Egyptian-born cleric has been outspoken over the boat people crisis. He praises the virtues of his adopted home, but in a country which uniformly backs American foreign policy, even Sheik Hilaly's referral to the United States as "Rambo" for its attack on Afghanistan may ruffle a few political feathers. However, he is unrepentant in his views.

"Being an Australian makes me a member of a free, democratic society, a society that gives me the right to worship freely, but seemingly gives me the privilege of a quarter of the normal right to freedom of expression that is afforded to others," he said.

Since the tragedy, the government's policy towards refugees has also been attacked by more conventional voices in Australian society.

Dr. William Maley, associate professor of politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy, says: "Refugees, whatever their mode of entry to Australia, are vulnerable human beings whose dignity should be respected. It is simply not good enough that those... who cry for help are treated as nameless numbers on a list that was afterwards mislaid."

Dr. Maley was also critical of treatment towards Afghan refugees. Many who try to reach the safety of Australia are Hazara, persecuted by the Taliban.

"Mr. Ruddock's approach of treating genuine refugees as if they were the scum of the earth will not work because nasty as his policies may make life in Australia for Hazaras, it is still preferable to life under the Taliban.

"[If he] ... wishes to dissuade desperate Afghans, he will need to move beyond failed, expensive and mean-spirited deterrence policies.

"There remains in Australia a serious ignorance of the circumstances which force Afghans to leave their homeland and of the problems they later confront."

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