I don’t look like your typical terrorist. Well, I’m not one, but I recently travelled to Syria, Iran, Oman and Iraqi Kurdistan — and under Attorney-General George Brandis’ new Foreign Fighters Bill, that could be enough to land me in jail.

The Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014, due to be debated at the end of the month in the Senate, will give law enforcers powers to query, arrest and charge people who travel to some of these countries, or proscribed zones (so-called “declared areas”) therein, without a valid reason. The laws had not passed the Senate when I returned to Australia but, if they had, I could have been charged and I would have had no defence — although I’m an Australian journalist, that wasn’t my primary reason for travel.

At a public hearing before the parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is charged with vetting the bill, a representative of the Attorney-General’s Department said: “The intent is to actively discourage people from travelling to a place that, by definition, is dangerous.” Until the law passes it has been a traveller’s choice whether to enter a dangerous place against recommendations, but the government seeks to make that choice for Australian tourists. The committee reported on October 17 and the bill is to be debated again on October 27.

The laws criminalise visits to regions or countries the government proscribes unless for reasons such as: providing humanitarian aid; engaging in United Nations work; visiting family; acting on official duties for the Commonwealth or a foreign country; appearing before a court; or working as a journalist. The accused must prove he or she went to a proscribed location for one of these reasons.

My visit to Iraq finished two weeks before Islamic State swept through the country and captured land, weapons and cash, and began killing people. I was lucky to leave when I did, but as I walked into a UNHCR refugee camp outside Dohuk, the western Iraqi town near the Syrian and Turkish borders, I saw people who would not be so lucky. I met Ahmed, a safety officer in his mid-30s working for the Syrian oil industry who had his life demolished by war. We sat on chairs outside in the brown dirt street under water towers painted in that calming white and light blue that means a total breakdown of society is being patched over by the UN. He had an education and a job. Now he lives with his brother and sister between four cinder block walls covered with a tarpaulin. He had no passport and no way to get to his wife, who is in hospital in another city. Despite the desperate situation, he treated me to boundless hospitality. His sister gave me tea and he offered me a cigarette, which I couldn’t accept, even to be polite, or I would fall apart.

“If more people in Australia saw this side of war they might change their opinion on participating in it — and might offer more of its victims asylum.”

Two weeks later, in mid-June, Iraq plunged back into chaos. Four months later, as world leaders continued to debate what to do in the stricken land, UK Prime Minister David Cameron told Westminster that the battle against IS would not be short, and could take years.

I felt like an imposter, a gawping vampire feeding on despair, but the hour I had to see inside the camp showed the darkness of war I hadn’t seen from media footage. Rather than the whiz of ghastly excitement as robed figures blow up objects and high-tech soldiers stalk dusty roads, the camp showed me how people wait endlessly, powerlessly for it to end so they can live again. If more people in Australia saw this side of war they might change their opinion on participating in it — and might offer more of its victims asylum.

The vital list of banned countries and “declared areas” has not yet been released, but it is hard to imagine Iraq won’t make the cut with its ongoing state of turmoil. When I decided to visit the country, I checked with the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Smartraveller website, in an imitation of due diligence. The website recommended against anything except the most essential travel to Iraq, but made an exception for the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where I visited. Most travellers’ reports on forums said the region was reasonably safe, but travellers must not stray out of the region. Advice from Kurdish and Yazidi locals was more blunt. “If you go to [the northern Iraqi city of] Mosul you will check into a hotel and in the night they will take you away,” one hotel worker said. Despite taking their advice, there is no evidence to say I didn’t go to Mosul.

The Islamic Council of Victoria said in its submission to the committee that the law discriminates against the Muslim community by proscribing certain Muslim countries. In response, the committee said “declared areas will only cover the most dangerous places in the world where terrorist organisations are actively engaged in hostile activity, to which the desire of people to travel to, even for ‘legitimate purposes’, will be extremely rare.”

Whether Brandis modifies his bill to take the concerns of the community into account is anyone’s guess, but the committee rejected many of the criticisms of the bill. In a small concession it agreed the bill should be changed to allow more legitimate reasons to be added later.

Senator Jacinta Collins urged the Senate: “We must ensure that, in legislating to protect ourselves against the terrorist threat, we do not ourselves destroy the very freedoms we seek to defend. Parliamentary scrutiny will be our first line of defence.”

Peter Fray

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