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Refugee Sues Australia Over Detention Fees

Immigration: Man denied asylum is billed $14,250 for stay in holding facility.

September 02, 2002|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — Shahid Qureshi paid a big price when he sought asylum in Australia.

For six months, the 27-year-old Pakistani was locked up at a detention center in Melbourne. He slept on an old mattress in a small room with three other men. The entrance to the room had no door, and guards came in frequently during the night to shine a flashlight in his face and make sure he was still there. As many as 70 detainees shared three showers and four toilets.

When Qureshi was released on a temporary visa, the Australian government presented him with a bill for his stay: $14,250.

Making matters worse, the terms of his visa prohibit him from working in Australia.

Qureshi, a member of a militant Muslim group who claims he would face persecution if he was sent back to Pakistan, filed suit against the Australian government last Monday in Melbourne contending that the bill, which he can't possibly pay, is an illegal tax and an unjust confiscation of property.

"No rational person would pay anything to be treated like that," said Julian Burnside, one of Qureshi's attorneys.

The lawsuit is the first test of the government's practice of billing all asylum seekers for the costs of their stay in detention.

Unlike other countries, Australia has a policy of locking up any asylum seeker who arrives without proper documentation. Since 1999, when Iraqis and Afghans began, the government has incarcerated 9,400 asylum seekers, some of them for years. Of these, 8,000 have been granted asylum.

Officials say payment is normally waived for those who are granted asylum. But asylum seekers who are denied entry to Australia are billed for the costs of their detention, their legal proceedings and, in many cases, their air fare home.

During the last three years, according to the Immigration Department, unsuccessful asylum seekers have been charged a total of $18 million for their detention. Some have received bills for $100,000 or more. That doesn't include the tab for court cases and appeals, which can easily exceed $10,000.

Authorities say they do not really expect the asylum seekers to pay, but those who don't will never get permission to come back to Australia.

"If they should ever wish to return to Australia, they would have to pay that debt before they could get a visa," said Steve Ingram, spokesman for Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock.

Australia's system of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, including children, has been widely criticized.

A year ago, Australia refused to let the Norwegian cargo ship Tampa land with 433 asylum seekers it had picked up at sea after their boat started sinking. Instead, the Australian navy shipped them to a detention center on the remote South Pacific island of Nauru, where most of them remain today.

The government calls its strategy the "Pacific Solution" and says its harsh approach has been successful in keeping asylum seekers out of the country. No refugee boat has reached Australia since last year.

Qureshi's case is somewhat unusual. He arrived legally by airplane in February 1998 on a student visa. After it expired, he stayed in Australia illegally. He was detained in March 2001 and sent to the Maribyrnong detention center in Melbourne.

He applied for asylum, saying that as a member of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba group he would face persecution if he returned to Pakistan. His application for asylum was denied and he appealed the decision.

Because he arrived in Australia legally, he was released while his case was on appeal. As he left Maribyrnong last September, he was handed the bill for his six-month stay.

Qureshi's lawyers hope to put the government's treatment of detainees on trial. They plan to present evidence of the conditions in Australia's six detention centers to show that they are no better than "an institutionalized system of abuse," said Josh Bornstein, one of Qureshi's attorneys. "In Australia, a convicted pedophile is treated more favorably than an asylum seeker who has committed no crime," he said.

Qureshi's attorneys declined to allow him to be interviewed. His lawsuit contends that he was kept in a dormitory room that was too small to accommodate the four people it held.

The detainees had no privacy. Throughout the night, the lawsuit alleges, guards came in every half-hour and shined their light in the detainees' faces. Guards were aggressive and insulting, the lawsuit contends. Toilets were often broken, and detainees sometimes had to wait two hours for a shower.

Qureshi was charged the equivalent of $79 a night for his stay. For the money, Bornstein said, a guest could get better accommodations at a top Melbourne hotel.

Government officials defend the practice of billing asylum seekers for their detention, saying that it is required by a 1979 law. "We have an obligation to recover money for the taxpayers," said Ingram, the minister's spokesman.

Ingram said the price of $79 a night is reasonable. Detainees get three meals a day, medical treatment and the use of exercise facilities, he noted.

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