No help from the helpline: ABC uncovers new ‘bureaucratic bungles’ in Hakeem Al-Araibi case

By Stephen Easton

Friday October 11, 2019

The ABC has uncovered new details of how Australian authorities contributed to refugee Hakeem Al-Araibi almost being shipped back to his persecutors in the kingdom of Bahrain, soon after arriving in Thailand for a holiday.

The kingdom tried to abuse the INTERPOL system by marking Al-Araibi as an international fugitive. And it almost worked thanks to what the ABC reporters call “bureaucratic bungles inside the Department of Home Affairs” combined with “dysfunction and a breakdown in communications within the department and the agencies that were meant to help protect him”.

Some of the story emerged in February when a Senate committee grilled the top brass from the Australian Federal Police and Australian Border Force and officials from the Department of Home Affairs.

Investigative reporters Steve Cannane and Clare Blumer have now put together a clear timeline with new facts extracted though FOI. They found out the Canberra INTERPOL office, run by the AFP, tipped off its counterparts in Bahrain about Al-Araibi’s travel plans as well as those in Thailand.

The AFP will not change its policy of automatically doing this, even for regimes known to abuse the system in the hope of snatching up dissidents and political enemies from around the world. Al-Araibi was reportedly “stunned” when he recently saw the cheery email sent from an office in Canberra.

An AFP officer responsible for international fugitives also initially thought he had left Australia on a Bahraini passport, and was told by Bahraini police it was a fraudulent one. Amid the confusion, someone in Home Affairs queried whether Al-Araibi’s protection visa should be cancelled on the basis of the INTERPOL notice issued by Bahrain, the country from whom he was granted protection by Australia.

Immigration advice misunderstood

Al-Araibi maintains he called an immigration helpline “two to three times in the months leading up to his trip to make sure it was safe to visit Thailand with his wife” as he told The Guardian prior to the Senate hearing.

It seems he was told his Australian visa allowed him to travel to Thailand, but it is doubtful he was assured it was safe to travel there.

As ABF commissioner Michael Outram and Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo both told the Senate committee, the department does not provide that kind of travel advice to anyone. Pezzullo undertook to confirm this via a question on notice, and the answer states:

“The Department of Home Affairs has conducted a thorough search of all records and found no evidence to verify the media claims that Mr al-Araibi received assurances or advice from the Department or the Australian Border Force (ABF) regarding his visit to Thailand. The Department and the ABF functions do not include any overseas travel advisory services.”

“I asked them about travelling overseas — whether it would be safe for me because I have a problem in Bahrain,” Al-Araibi told the ABC. “They said: ‘Yes, you are allowed to travel everywhere, except Bahrain’.”

This sounds like a proforma response relaying the standard conditions of a protection visa: it does not prevent the refugee travelling anywhere except the country they fled, without special approval. If refugees travel overseas, they do so at their own risk, but it does not appear the immigration call centre made this clear to Al-Araibi or made it clear the department could not provide any advice to help him decide whether to go.

When it comes to abuse of the INTERPOL system by authoritarian regimes, it seems Australian authorities could do more to let refugees know if they are being so obviously targeted through this particular channel, even if that would not guarantee their safety outside Australia’s borders.

It’s also clear that both ABF and AFP officers misunderstood the situation for days and it took a considerable amount of time for the relevant offices to get on the same page and understand all the relevant facts. For some of that time, some Australian officials were working against Al-Araibi’s interests.

Outram said the problems were caused in part due to outdated systems, and human error in manual processes — particularly the one crucial email that sat unnoticed for days after its author had peculiarly gone on leave between 9 and 10am on a Friday morning after working for a brief period.

Pezzullo used the case as an opportunity to call for legislative change to authorise the “mass exchange of information through automated means” in the Home Affairs portfolio, arguing it would have “certainly mitigated this circumstance”.

“I would much prefer to have statutes which are not so prescriptive and prohibitive as to the mass sharing of data and information,” he told Greens senator Nick McKim.

Outram said the main mistake was a failure to send a crucial email, and agreed this led to the AFP’s INTERPOL unit in Canberra telling its Thai counterpart Al-Araibi was on the way. Nobody told the senators the AFP also told Bahrain’s police.

Outram refused to accept responsibility for the actual arrest in Thailand, however, arguing Bahrain’s police could have directly asked Thai authorities to detain him through channels other than INTERPOL. He said it would be “speculative” to accept the full blame.

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