Australia may deport hundreds to Pakistan
CANBERRA, Australia (CNN) -- Up to 700 would-be refugees could have their visas cancelled by the Australian government if they are found to be from Pakistan rather than Afghanistan.
The asylum-seekers are having their cases re-examined by the Department of Immigration after suspicions were raised about the authenticity of their claims for refugee status.
If they are found to be from Pakistan, then they are likely to be deported.
The most high profile of those cases is Ali Bakhtiyari, who currently is living in Australia on a temporary protection visa but whose wife and sons are being held in the Woomera detention camp in South Australia.
Bakhtiyari's two sons escaped from the Woomera camp two months ago and sought asylum at the British consulate in Melbourne, Australia.
But that asylum was denied and the boys, aged 12 and 14, were returned to Woomera amid claims by the government that Bakhtiyari himself was not a genuine Afghan refugee, but was instead a plumber from Pakistan.
Reports in Australian media Friday say Bakhtiyari himself has now admitted he came to Australia from Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said Friday his department was seeking to have Bakhtiyari's temporary protection visa cancelled.
And a further 700 cases of supposedly Afghan refugees who currently hold protection visas are now either being investigated by the department or have been identified as likely to be re-examined.
"We are considering cancellation of a large number of visas from people who claimed to be Aghan, whom we now believe are Pakistani and we have been obtaining copies of documents that go to their very registration as Pakistani citizens," Ruddock told The Age newspaper.
An Immigration Department spokesman told CNN Friday about half of the cases were under active investigation, and the other half had shown a profile that could warrant further probing.
Many of those cases being re-examined are likely to be ethnic Hazara people – a religious minority who are often persecuted for their beliefs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Friday his government "took no pleasure" from the revelations about Bakhtiyari but it did serve to temper some of the criticism leveled at the immigration department.
He said people should realize his government was not behaving unreasonably.
"My understanding of what has come out is that it supports the conclusion of the immigration authorities and supports the line that's been taken by the immigration minister," Howard told Melbourne radio listeners.
"And it's a very difficult situation, which is not an easy position ... And we are dealing with people's lives," he said.
Australia has a policy of detaining all asylum seekers -- including women and children -- while their refugee applications are processed.
At the beginning of May, 1,258 people were held in Australian mainland detention camps, of whom more than one quarter were allegedly from Afghanistan.
Iraqis and Iranians make up another 20 percent of the detainee population, according to Department of Immigration figures.
More than 1,000 others are held in Australian-run camps on the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru and in Papua New Guinea.
Nearly 8,000 asylum seekers arrived on Australian shores last year, usually on decrepit boats and ferries from Indonesia organized by people-smuggling networks.
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