Australian Ombudsman condemns officials over refugee’s suicide

An Australian Ombudsman’s report has concluded that bureaucratic hostility drove a former Pakistani refugee to commit suicide outside federal parliament on April 2. The report presents a damning picture of anti-refugee prejudice in the immigration department and uncovers a litany of broken promises to the man and his family, cruel and unnecessary delays, misinterpretation of the law and bias.

Shahraz Kiane set himself on fire with petrol after more than four years of frustrating obstruction and rejection of applications by his wife, Ms Yasmin, and their three children, Asma, Anum and Afia, to join him in Australia. He died on May 27, almost two months later, aged 48, from infection and abdominal problems arising from burns to 54 percent of his body.

Although careful not to say so, the Ombudsman’s report demonstrates that the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) and the government were responsible for Shahraz Kiane’s death. The Ombudsman, Ron McLeod, said his examination of DIMA’s files raised “serious concerns” about the department’s “fairness and professionalism” and suggested that its rejection of the family’s visa applications were “tainted by bias and irrelevant consideration”. McLeod stated: “It would appear that Mr Kiane’s frustration and loss of hope of ever being reunited with his wife and daughters led to this desperate and tragic act”.

Shahraz Kiane arrived in Australia and was accepted as a refugee from Pakistan in October 1996. His family, however, were refused admission and forced to remain in Pakistan because eight-year-old Anum suffers from cerebral palsy. The government objected to Anum’s entry on the ground that she would require special education, sheltered employment and residential care costing an estimated $430,745 during her lifetime.

Even after Kiane became an Australian citizen, entitling him to apply for family reunion visas, DIMA treated the family with indifference, subjecting them to disheartening delays. Ms Yasmin initially applied for a humanitarian visa in November 1996 but was rejected in January 1997 without receiving an interview. She applied again in 1998 after a new family reunion provision was introduced, but was rejected in July 1999. At this stage, Kiane’s brother, an Australian citizen, complained to the Ombudsman, who investigated the case but did not release a public report until after Kiane’s death.

A draft report, handed to DIMA last year for comment, found that the immigration officer who decided the second application was hostile toward the family. He made irrelevant comments about Ms Yasmin’s credibility, such as “(the applicant) appears to be telling me a few whoppers”. He also claimed that Kiane’s brother was involved in securing Pakistani onshore protection visas and incorrectly asserted that Kiane had taken two years to apply for his family’s reunion.

Moreover, the officer applied the law incorrectly. The legislation excludes applicants who have health problems—and entire families are rejected if a single child is ill—but the health requirement is usually waived if it is the only factor preventing refugee status. Reasons for refusing the waiver “must be fully documented”. This was not done in Kiane’s case. In addition, the immigration officer incorrectly required Ms Yasmin to prove refugee status, when she was applying on the grounds of family reunion.

Draft report defied

After the Ombudsmen complained to DIMA and received an unsatisfactory answer, he produced a draft report. DIMA then agreed to consider “expeditiously” a third application from Ms Yasmin, with the government meeting the costs.

Yet, even after a Canberra counselling service warned DIMA on March 23 about Kiane’s deteriorating mental state and the risk of suicide, DIMA further delayed referring a health waiver request to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock and set additional criteria for the family to meet.

The Ombudsmen stated: “DIMA has failed to honour its undertakings given to me in August 2000 following my draft report... Ms Yasmin’s final application was not processed expeditiously but was subject to a number of further unwarranted delays.” In addition, Ms Yasmin initially had to pay the costs herself and “officers in the department continued to take irrelevant factors into account”.

Among other things, the department raised doubts about Kiane’s refugee status, in a manner “intended to prejudice consideration of the split family applications”. Kiane was not told of these allegations or given any opportunity to respond, and this amounted to “a fundamental failure to accord natural justice”.

Finally, McLeod noted that “three months after her husband’s death and eleven months after being assured of expeditious treatment, Ms Yasmin’s application still had not been finalised”.

For these blatantly unfair practices and abuses of process to occur, despite the Ombudsman’s intervention, suggests that such animosity toward asylum seekers and their families is systemic and entrenched in DIMA, reflecting the government’s anti-refugee policy. After reviewing complaints received by his office over the past two years, the Ombudsman commented: “The issues which arose in this matter are not unique.”

Despite his findings, the Ombudsman declined to criticise the use of health tests to exclude refugees—tests that necessarily discriminate against asylum seekers from the poorest backgrounds, whose health is likely to have been damaged. McLeod made only minor recommendations, calling for a consistent application of the test to all refugees.

Minister attacks report

Nevertheless, Immigration Minister Ruddock denounced the report as “unbalanced” and attempted to further blacken Kiane’s name and undermine his family’s credibility. Ruddock claimed that the Ombudsman had not considered all the facts and had failed to conduct a proper investigation. Furthermore, even after the tragedy, he reiterated his support for the government’s policies and their application by DIMA.

Having earlier dismissed Kiane’s suicide as a publicity stunt, Ruddock reiterated his callous response. He accused Kiane of trying to coerce the government. “Such actions, or threats of such actions, cannot be used to put pressure on decision-makers in the hope of coercing them into not applying the law and government policy.”

Ruddock stepped up the government’s efforts to blackguard Kiane, even after his death. He claimed that Kiane had failed in an earlier refugee application in 1988 and declared that DIMA erred in granting him refugee status in 1996, because Kiane later returned to Pakistan when intruders entered his family’s house.

Ruddock’s reaction highlights the government’s determination to stop at nothing—breaking the law, defaming asylum seekers or driving people to suicide—to deter and punish unwanted arrivals. His vilification of the dead man was matched days later by his actions in the case of six-year-old refugee Shayan Bedrie, whose severe psychological trauma from being imprisoned in the Woomera and Villawood detention centres was recently reported on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation television program Four Corners.

Ruddock ordered the boy to be separated from his detained parents and placed in foster care, against the family’s wishes, accusing the parents of preventing their son from eating or talking in order to obtain a favourable outcome. Even though the family has lodged a legal appeal against deportation, Ruddock has refused to allow Shayan’s parents to leave the Villawood detention centre, declaring that if he did, other parents would harm their children to avoid deportation.