A leading refugee advocate has agreed with Julie Bishop’s controversial claims that Australian authorities have a tendency to fudge travel documents in the service of national security.

Marion Le, who is currently embroiled in a stoush with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship over the fate of a group of stranded Albanian asylum seekers, told Crikey that “refugees without passports are regularly issued with questionable ‘travel documents’, to force them to leave Australia. Others are told to obtain false passports or invent their nationalities to enable their deportation.”

The immigration department confirmed the existence of the documents this morning: “…an emergency travel document is a one-way travel document issued by governments around the world to facilitate the travel and re-entry of their nationals.”

Le believes that Bishop was simply recalling the tactics of the former Howard Government when she told a Fairfax journalist this week that agencies regularly doctored passports in the wake of the Israeli passport scandal that led to the expulsion of a Mossad agent from Canberra. Bishop later denying the inference under pressure from the government.

In 2001, Le wrote to then immigration minister Philip Ruddock complaining about the emergency documents, after a group of stateless Kuwaitis, or “Bidoons”, were forced to decamp to the Middle East on “Certificates of Identity” prepared for them by Australian authorities. When they returned to the region, they were either jailed or went missing.

“These were stateless people — only one of the Bidoons stayed, and they all returned to Kuwait on these documents, believing them to be passports. They were quickly incarcerated,” Le told Crikey.

This Lateline story from 2003 went further, accusing the government of using the “…same tactics as people smugglers to rid the country of failed asylum seekers”, and uncovering a scandal in which Australian Correctional Management, the US-owned firm that ran the notorious Woomera detention centre, convinced an Iraqi man to acquire a fake Syrian passport.

The program revealed that in the early 2000s, false passports were knowingly used to send detainees overseas, with airline tickets purchased by officials to shield refugees’ identities from other countries’ passport controls.

Activists from the Edmund Rice Centre later tracked down the Bidoon refugees in Syria. The head of the centre, Phil Glendenning, told the Sydney Morning Herald:

“We were not looking for what we have found…It is clear that some methods that have been used to move people from Australia sit outside normal practice and ethical standards.

“In fact, some of these methods indicate evidence of corruption within the deportation process.”

Other activists cite the infamous case of the Bhaktiari family, who were issued with Pakistani passports under pressure from the immigration department led by Amanda Vanstone. The Bhaktiaris, and their advocates, had repeatedly claimed that the family was actually from Afghanistan, where they now reside.


The department letter regarding Bhaktiari passports

The legality of temporary documents could soon be tested again, with the Department of Immigration, according to Le, preparing to issue a group of departing Albanian asylum seekers (around 15 ethnic Albanians, including two families with young children) with “similar documents to the Bidoons”.

According to recently emailed advice sent by the Department, and obtained by Crikey, the Albanian government is planning to send the group temporary travel documents, but had so far failed to do so. If they don’t materialise, Australian authorities could be forced to step in with their own emergency paperwork to ensure the Albanians can legally board a Europe-bound plane.

But Le said Albanian authorities were likely to reject the Australian documents, which are only valid to leave Australia and do not officially allow entry into Albania.

An immigration department spokesperson told Crikey:

  • Generally, people departing Australia do so on a travel document. These usually take the form of a passport or an emergency travel document. An emergency travel document is a one-way travel document issued by governments around the world to facilitate the travel and re-entry of their nationals.
  • Emergency travel documents are recognised by most airlines.
  • It is up to individual countries as to the circumstances in which they issue an emergency travel document or a passport. It is therefore a matter for the Albanian Government as to when they issue a passport or an emergency travel document.
  • The Albanian Government’s internal processes for issuing travel documents are not for this department to comment on.
  • Australia does not return people to their country of origin where that would contravene our international obligations.
  • Australia is bound by the customary international law principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. Australia’s consular obligations and entitlements under international law do not extend to monitoring the welfare of non-nationals offshore.

The spokesperson said, “for the record there have been no removals of Albanians back to Albania in 2009-10.” Le responded by saying she was referring to cases currently before the Department.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey