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New Zealand's humanity puts the Australian government to shame

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Thursday, 19 February 2004

Towards the end of 2003, The Age newspaper ran a front page story about Ali, an Afghan refugee who had lived in Melbourne for the past three years. Ali was finally about to reunite with his wife Sakina and six-year-old daughter Sadika. Unfortunately, to do so he had to abandon his job, his friends and his life in Australia. His wife was not permitted into Australia and he could not leave the country to visit her. He had not seen his daughter for four years and she had no memory of him other than the phone calls he had been able to make when he found out they were being held in detention on Nauru, along with his younger brother. His family was reunited only because the New Zealand government accepted that his wife and daughter were refugees and offered them the chance to rebuild their lives.

I had met Sakina and Sadika a few months earlier in one of Nauru's detention camps. In a conversation lasting less than 30 minutes, their desperation was clear to see and the sadness of the little girl difficult to bear. At the time, there was no clear prospect of them ever reuniting with Ali. Australia would not acknowledge Sakina or her daughter as refugees. The only option they were being given, very bluntly, month after month, was to return alone to the very place from where Ali had fled persecution.

Despite pleading their case, and those of eight other splintered families in an identical situation, publicly and to the Minister on my return to Australia, there was no indication that the situation was likely to change. Even a situation with such compelling humanitarian and public interest grounds seemed to be hitting a brick wall.


It was wonderful news when it appeared that the hard work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the New Zealand government's willingness to include these refugees detained on Nauru in their intake might provide a solution to this nightmare scenario. It was a very happy day for Ali and for his wife and daughter, but it was a very sad day for Australia that a refugee had to flee our country to escape torment that was being inflicted on him by our own government.

Two other families, one Afghan, one Iraqi, were also given freedom and a future through New Zealand's refugee program.

Last month I visited Nauru again. Ali's brother Sajjed, who served as a virtual father for Sakina over the two years on Nauru, was still in detention, alone and despairing. Six other Iraqi women and their children were waiting with anticipation the prospect of following the same route as Sadika and Sakina to New Zealand to reunite with their refugee husbands marooned in Australia. Their hope and impatience contrasted with the impotent fury and frustration of the husbands of others with no such hope of obtaining the freedom they craved.

I left Nauru and went on to New Zealand to get a better idea of what the chances are for others to be accepted by that seemingly more generous and compassionate country. I met with MPs and people in the community who worked with and on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers. I also sought out Ali and his family, now living in Hamilton, 90 minutes drive south of Auckland.

While I was there, another family who had endured the same tortuous road to freedom dropped over to visit. Their two six-year-old girls played together, giggling and running around, indistinguishable from any other normal happy girls. They were starting school for the first time the next week.

The relaxed smiles, the laughter and the chatter made a stark contrast from the despairing, anxiety-riddled people I met with just a few short months back.


Such a massive change to the lives of a family because of a single, simple decision! The same transformation from despair to joy, from hopelessness to freedom, can be provided for all the people on Nauru with a simple exercise of political will by the Australian government. Two hundred and sixty-four people remain on Nauru, unable to return home but with nowhere else to go. It is an easy action to give them their lives back, which would save taxpayers' dollars and cause no disruption to our refugee or migration program.

The Sawari family still have problems to deal with and difficulties to confront but they can now do so from a position of control over their lives and their options for the future. The others on Nauru deserve no less. They have suffered enough, it is time to let some joy back into their lives.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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