Britain turns away refugee boys who trekked 600 miles across Australia to claim asylum

Click to follow
The Independent Online

British Consular officials arrived at work in Melbourne yesterday to find a pair of unexpected visitors on their doorstep: two Afghan boys clutching small backpacks and a vision of Britain as a haven for refugees.

British Consular officials arrived at work in Melbourne yesterday to find a pair of unexpected visitors on their doorstep: two Afghan boys clutching small backpacks and a vision of Britain as a haven for refugees.

The brothers, aged 12 and 13, had been on the run for three weeks after escaping from Woomera detention centre in the South Australian desert. Having spent 18 months behind barbed wire, they were hopeful of a more humane reception from Britain. The boys, both wearing baseball caps, politely requested asylum.

In the ensuing frenzy of telephone calls between Melbourne, Canberra and London, a diplomatic incident appeared to be on the cards.

Consular officials said the pair could stay until their applications had been heard, and prepared to organise camp beds. Furious Australian ministers declared that they were not refugees. Police assembled in the foyer of the modern office tower that houses the consulate on an elegant street in the heart of Melbourne.

It was a sensitive and legally complex case. The boys' father, Ali Baktiyari, had been given a temporary visa and was living in Sydney, but their mother and three sisters remained in Woomera. The elder brother had twice slashed his wrists in detention. It seemed lengthy deliberations would be required to determine their fate.

Apparently not. Scarcely had morning broken in London than the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, decided Britain would not even consider the applications. The boys were handed over to police, who led them weeping from the 17th floor consulate. Last night they were back behind bars, in Maribyrnong detention centre on the outskirts of Melbourne.

Worse lies ahead: the boys will be returned to Woomera and the entire family faces deportation. For in a bizarre twist, the Australian Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, asserted yesterday that they were actually from Pakistan.

That was why the family's claim for refugee status had already been rejected, Mr Ruddock said. He added that Mr Baktiyari – who had earlier rejoiced on hearing that his sons were safe – had misled immigration officials and his visa would be revoked.

While the boys' lawyers insisted they were from Afghanistan, mystery surrounds their movements since they fled Woomera during a mass break-out last month. Melbourne lies more than 600 miles away, across unforgiving desert terrain.

It seems probable that they were looked after by refugee activists who instigated the escape by demolishing a section of fence. It was the activists, presumably, who advised them to throw themselves on the mercy of the British – apparently unaware of Tony Blair's tough new line on asylum-seekers.

In a taped interview passed to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, one of the boys said: "It's very horrible for children in the centre. Everyone gets crazy. I am very happy to be free. I want to go to school and learn English."

It was a day of rare drama for the Melbourne consulate. At one point, well-meaning officials took the brothers downstairs for a sandwich – and then hustled them back into the lifts when they realised that they had inadvertently removed them from the safety of British territory.

The Home Office said the boys had no grounds to seek asylum in Britain, since they already had a claim lodged in another country – Australia – that was signatory to the UN convention on refugees.

The brothers' lawyer, Eric Vadarlis, accused Britain of endorsing Australia's "barbaric and inhumane" policy of detaining children who had sought asylum. "The system stinks," he said.

Mr Vadarlis – who took the government to court last year after it refused to allow a shipload of Afghan refugees to land in Australia – said the boys had pleaded in tears with the British deputy consul general, Robert Court, to have the decision reversed.

"They said they didn't want to go back to jail," he said. "They were very disturbed."

Comments