'We are humans,we deserve our freedom'

TONY WALL
Last updated 05:00 08/06/2014

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In part two of his investigation into asylum seekers, Tony Wall traces the journey of two Pakistani brothers stranded in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia after failing to reach Australia, and examines New Zealand's increasingly hardline asylum policy.

The wounds are hard to look at. The left hand is a grotesque alien claw; the right is also disfigured. An angry scar snakes its way down the left leg.

Mushtaq Hussain's mangled body is the result of a suicide bomb attack on a hotel and mosque complex during a Shi'ite religious festival in Peshawar, northwest Pakistan in 2008.

Mushtaq, 26, a handsome musician and sound engineer originally from Parachinar, a war-torn tribal area on the Afghanistan border, was in a coma for five days and underwent a year of rehabilitation and surgery.

But there's more: a bullet wound on his left arm is a reminder of another attack, when Taliban gunmen opened fire on a group of Shi'a - considered heretics by hardline Sunnis - in Karachi, southern Pakistan in July last year.

That finally convinced Mushtaq that he should follow his younger brother Sajid, 20, and seek sanctuary in Australia.

The brothers' mistake was to put themselves at the mercy of people-smugglers. After a fraught journey of several thousand kilometres they came smack up against Tony Abbott's Operation Sovereign Borders, a military operation aimed at stopping boats before they reach Australian territory.

Mushtaq was returned to Indonesia, where he remains, his money gone, reliant on aid organisations. About a month ago he got word that his baby son, who was born while he was in detention and whom he'd seen only on Skype, had died in Pakistan of fever.

Sajid's boat was intercepted by the Australian navy, he was held on Christmas Island for six months before being transported to the notorious detention camp on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where an acquaintance, Iranian Reza Barati, was murdered in February during detainee riots and revenge attacks by locals.

Sajid told the Sunday Star-Times via Facebook last week that detainees were terrified they would be killed by locals or guards, who used alcohol and drugs and abused them every day.

"[They] say ‘f... you motherf....., I will kill you'. Manus is very dangerous place, maybe people here all die," Sajid said.

Opponents of Australia's asylum seeker policies are nervously watching the New Zealand Government's response to the issue.

Last year John Key's Government toughened the law to allow for the detention for up to six months of "mass arrivals" of 30 or more people and restricted family reunification provisions.

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Australia has invited New Zealand to send future boat arrivals to Nauru or Manus Island for processing, and while Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse told the Star-Times that was "not under active consideration", it could not be ruled out.

"At this stage I don't believe it would be necessary. We just have to take a position on that if the occasion calls for it."

Woodhouse said the law changes were made to ensure a maritime arrival of asylum seekers could be managed "expediently" and in accordance with the Bill of Rights Act.

"Sure, some will say we're taking a hardline approach. I wouldn't describe it as hardline but it's certainly not soft."

Pamela Curr, of Australia's Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said she was concerned that there were "secret agreements" between New Zealand and Australia to stop the boats.

"It's a dirty business," she said. "New Zealand has been exemplary until now, you took a lot of the Tampa people, the kids. What an indictment - New Zealand, which reached out and took children and families off Nauru and gave them a new start in life, [now] sucked into Australia's obscene asylum seeker policy. Our policy is so toxic we are infecting the whole region."

The New Zealand Refugee Council presented a paper to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last September, stating there was never any justification for holding an asylum seeker who had committed no crime in a prison or correctional facility.

It urged New Zealand to avoid allowing the issue to become a "highly charged and divisive political football" and for politicians to engage in multi-party talks to agree in principle what should happen if a boat arrived.

Council spokesman Gary Poole said if New Zealand did not learn from the Australian experience it would be an "unmitigated disaster" in terms of human rights and a "complete abrogation" of our obligations under the Refugee Convention.

"The first nation that receives [asylum seekers] should determine if they are valid [refugees] - you can't contract it out or put people into concentration camps in Papua New Guinea."

Tracey Barnett, author of The Quiet War on Asylum, said Australia had been "shamed worldwide" for its asylum policy, China publicly chastising it in March and the governor of Port Moresby last month taking out full page ads calling the camps "repugnant" and against Papua New Guinea's culture.

"My biggest fear is that our prime minister is already signalling New Zealand would be happy to send any future boat arrivals to these gulags," Barnett said.

"I sure hope the New Zealand public wakes up and sees that Australia is trying to pull us into their disastrous, inhumane detention practices.

"Australia's shame doesn't have to be ours."

Mushtaq Hussain and his wife, Nazneen, sold all their gold to pay people-smugglers US$10,000 to get him to Australia. The plan was for him to go first, and Nazneen, two months pregnant, and their small daughter would follow by official channels.

Mushtaq didn't want to go the illegal way, but his application for a visa at the Australian embassy in Islamabad was turned down. After being caught up in two separate terrorist attacks in Karachi last year, he was convinced by his father to follow his brother, who had left a few months earlier.

Mushtaq's attempt to reach Christmas Island from southern Java ended the same way as thousands of others over the past few years - his overcrowded boat took on water after three days at sea, and the crew were forced to use satellite phones to call the Australian navy for help.

"We are sick, no water, no food, just vomiting, vomiting. Everyone look like death," Mushtaq said. The passengers were returned to Indonesia and Mushtaq spent several months in a detention camp in northern Sulawesi, before being released on humanitarian grounds because of his injuries.

He now lives in the city of Makassar, Sulawesi, in an apartment block he shares with three families from Iran and two from Afghanistan. The room is provided by the International Organisation for Migration, which also gives him $125 a month for food. He has withered from 85kg to 55kg.

Mushtaq has registered with the UNHCR but has not been given a date for a resettlement interview.

He is worried about his family in Parachinar - just last week another bomb went off - and has been suicidal because of the stress. "Really, my life is like a death life, everything is lost."

On Manus Island, Sajid is unsure how long he will be in captivity, but he fears it could be years. He heard the news reports that a New Zealand security guard was present when Barati was killed, but doesn't know the guard's name. He says compared to Australians, New Zealand guards are good.

"They all respect us. The [Australians] abuse us every day, say ‘you go back home'."

Mushtaq says life is better in Indonesia, but as a Shi'a Muslim he fears attacks by Wahhabi extremists. He wishes he could be with his brother.

"He is only young. He say the immigration police and public [on Manus Island] are like animals. He say they no different to Taliban. He say if Australian government gone, they [locals] will kill me, because they don't like immigrant. He say to me, ‘brother help me'."

Mushtaq is confused about what to do: return to Pakistan and a life of terror, or wait, broke, in Indonesia hoping to be resettled by the UNHCR.

He would like to come to New Zealand - an Immigration NZ spokesperson said he would have to first be referred by the UNHCR.

Mushtaq said he had "so much talent, so many skills" in computer software, sound recording and music, and would make a good citizen.

"He was upset to hear New Zealand had toughened its asylum laws. "As if Australia wasn't difficult enough, now New Zealand is also making similar policy. Where will we go, what will our future be? We are humans and we deserve our freedom."

- Sunday Star Times

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