Kevin Andrews wanted Christian migrants

FORMER immigration minister Kevin Andrews instructed his department to lift the intake of Christian refugees from the Middle East in response to what he saw as a pro-Muslim bias created by corrupt local case officers.

Mr Andrews was so concerned about the extent of corruption in Middle Eastern posts – despite the allegations being investigated and dismissed by his own department – that he wrote to then prime minister John Howard advocating a $200 million plan to replace local employees with Australian staff in 10 “sensitive” countries, including Jordan, Iran and Egypt.

Opposition immigration spokesman Chris Ellison said yesterday this remained Coalition policy.

“We do not want discrimination or bias occurring … and that’s why I believe it is appropriate that our sensitive overseas posts, such as those in the Middle East, are staffed by Australians,” Senator Ellison said.

A Department of Immigration spokesman said there were no substantiated cases of anti-Christian discrimination in Australian embassies and no plans to replace “Islamic locally engaged staff” with Australian officials.

An investigation by The Weekend Australian has discovered Mr Andrews was petitioned by the Australian Christian Lobby to address alleged religious discrimination against Iraqis. Before losing office in the November 2007 election, he ordered the number of Christian Iraqi refugees to be increased by 1400 for 2007-08, almost doubling the previous year’s Iraqi total of 1639.

“Put it this way, it was made very clear to the immigration department that more Christian refugees were wanted,” a Howard government source said.

In his letter to Mr Howard in August last year, Mr Andrews, a devout Catholic, proposed significant changes to the refugee selection process.

In the letter, seen by The Weekend Australian, Mr Andrews accused the case workers in Australian embassies of fraud and bribery when processing migration applications.

Such posts are predominantly staffed by local workers.
He said this raised “considerable security risks”.

“The other significant reason for changing the staffing composition of overseas posts is to prevent discrimination at the ‘front office’ of the posts,” Mr Andrews wrote.

“Since becoming Minister, I have received a large number of representations from people alleging systematic and co-ordinated discrimination against particular persons based on race and religion at certain sensitive posts. In particular, this allegedly involves the active blocking and impediment of the lodgement of applications at the front office.

“At worst, potential applicants are simply being told not to lodge an application. The majority of such claims have been made in respect to posts in the Middle East and Central Asia. For these reasons, I think it would be timely to revise the staffing arrangements for immigration posts that can be classified as ‘sensitive’ and to staff these posts exclusively with Australian departmental officers.”

Mr Andrews names 10 countries – Pakistan, India, United Arab Emirates, China, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Russia and Egypt – in which the posts should be staffed exclusively with Australian departmental officers.

The non-Muslim countries named by Mr Andrews are understood to be less riddled by religious discrimination and more so by corruption, a source told The Weekend Australian.

“Conflicts of interest, regardless of whether they’re religious-based or corruption-based, are one package,” the source said.

“And if you deal with it like that, that takes you beyond Muslim countries.”

It is understood that Mr Howard told Mr Andrews his proposal would be considered for the next budget if the Coalition were to be re-elected into power in November 2007. The proposal was estimated to cost $204million to implement.

There is no provision within Australian immigration laws to select refugees on the basis of religion. A former Howard government source said Mr Andrews wanted to save Christian Iraqis from persecution by Shia and Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East.

“With the intake from the Middle East the department was told that we want to focus on Iraqi Christians,” the source said. “The department basically said they couldn’t do that because that would be discriminating on race and religion.”

The official explanation given last August by Mr Andrews for boosting Iraqi refugees numbers was that the altered intake was in response to an international conference run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees four months earlier seeking to help Iraqis forced out of their country.

Mr Andrews strongly pursued Catholic causes throughout his parliamentary career. He successfully campaigned to abolish the Northern Territory’s euthanasia law in 1996 and voiced his opposition to therapeutic cloning and abortion drug RU486.

In the lead-up to last year’s election, he was accused of “dog whistle” politics after cutting back the African refugee intake from 50 per cent to 30 per cent of the total 13,000 places under the refugee program on the grounds they were not integrating well into Australian society.

At the same time, Mr Andrews increased the refugee intake from Middle East and Asian countries to 70 per cent of the total quota.

Australian Christian Lobby national chief of staff Lyle Shelton said his organisation was regularly in discussions with Mr Andrews about the religious discrimination against Christian Iraqi refugees.

“We made representations to the previous minister about this,” he said

“We are concerned about persecution of minority groups regardless of their religion, but in the Iraqi situation they happen to be Christian.”

Gamil Helmy, a spokesman for the Australian Coptic Association, a Christian group, said religious discrimination against Iraqi refugees in Middle East-based immigration posts was forcing some families to relocate to other host countries to reapply for visas. “It should be investigated,” he said.

Assyrian Federation of Australia co-ordinator Emmanuel Michael said he first raised the issue of religious discrimination against Iraqi refugees in the late 1990s with then immigration minister Philip Ruddock.

He praised Mr Andrews’s proposal for replacing local staff with Australians at some overseas immigration posts.

“We should have our own Australian people and not locals from there so that they don’t discriminate,” he said. “This would help solve problems.”