With refugees facing death if they return to Syria, Rach Mason is appalled that the Federal Government is still trying to convince some to head back to their war-torn homeland.


As the world fearfully watches the civil war in Syria, Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison has once again proven that he fails to understand the meaning of a “refugee crisis”.

Despite Morrison’s recent promises to resettle 4,400 fleeing Syrians and Iraqis, released unclassified emails show the appalling treatment of Syrian refugees at Manus Island.

The emails, obtained under freedom of information laws, discuss plans for the repatriation of the detained Syrians, diplomatically labelled “transferees”, despite the extremely dangerous journey home. The documents make it clear that the refugees were given an “ultimatum” despite fear of death upon return to Syria and the severe mental illness of two of the Syrian refugees.

Katrina Neuss, the immigration department’s operations lead on Manus Island, describes an interview held with three Syrian detainees on the island in an email dated 20 January.

“I was very open and frank with the transferees , I described the options that they have and I was clear that they would not be settled in Australia or a third country. I did say that if they chose to return home the department would work to get them home safely, with no guarantee of any time frames. The transferees were visibly upset and quite anxious, they were quite adamant that I would be sending them home to their death.”

This was in response to departmental secretary, Tim Ricketts, who asked in regards to the Syrians, “Are we in ‘ultimatum’ territory (we want to know if you are signing up for VR or not?) or can we hint that departing from PNG doesn’t necessarily mean returning to Syria.”

Another co-worker Hasan Sowaid corrected Neuss in an email dated 26 January, reminding her “Tehran is in Iran, not Syria.” Luckily, the department established this before the Syrian “transferees” were “diplomatically and efficiently repatriated” to the wrong country.

The staff members fail to mention little more than the difficulty of organising flights, remaining silent on the bloody conflict in Syria, which has resulted in over 100,000 deaths. If ever there was a cause to grant someone refugee status, it would be this. Yet the government continues to treat a relatively small number of asylum seekers in our care –1,100 in 2013– as a “crisis”, while 2.56 million refugees are currently fleeing Syria. The immigration department fails to recognise not only the severity of the war but of the return home for the Syrians at Manus Island.

Australia director at Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, says that “While Syrian authorities are committing crimes against humanity including systematic killings and torture, Australia is doing the unthinkable – trying to send Syrians back home.”

Pearson also comments that the Department of Immigration sharing personal information with Syrian authorities to procure travel documents is further endangering the lives of the Syrian refugees.

The Director of Human Rights Advocacy at Humanitarian Research Partners, Ben Pynt, who lodged the FOI request, explained “there is an absolute certainty that these people will be harmed or killed upon their return, and the government’s reaction is to push them to go home without even listening to their claims for asylum.”

This bitterly contrasts with the Australian immigration minister Scott Morrison’s recent recognition and increased commitment to the “humanitarian crisis” in Syria, which has come under fire for the hypocrisy of his formal statements and the email disclosures.

In the formal announcement Morrison stated, “With the continued violence in Iraq and Syria, the Australian government is dedicated to ensuring its humanitarian programme reaches those who need it most.” Morrison refused to answer questions from The Guardian as to whether the return went ahead or if the Syrians are still detained on Manus Island.

The memory of the failed Gillard/Rudd Malaysia “solution” and our history of Australia’s incompetence with regards to immigration makes it is clear that the problem isn’t limited to a single political party. However, Morrison and his department must be held accountable for the alleged atrocities –many of these hidden from the Australian public– committed against persecuted people attempting to seek refuge in Australia.

Daniel Webb, the director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre said that any coercion on the part of the government would breach international law. “The government tries to spin its asylum-seeker policies as a humanitarian crusade to save lives at sea. But if it honestly cared about saving lives it wouldn’t be coercing Syrians to return to the risk of death.”

While UNHCR estimates the refugee population in the region surrounding Syria will soon become the largest refugee population in the world, Australians should realise the true meaning of a refugee “crisis.”

I sincerely hope the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres confront our national conscience:

“No effort should be spared to forge peace. And no effort spared to ease the suffering of the innocent people caught up in the conflict…What kind of a world is this where Syrians fleeing this violent conflict have to risk their lives to reach safety, and when they finally make it, they are not welcomed or even turned away at borders?”

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