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The return of Hakeem al-Araibi: Human rights and the sport factor

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Hakeem al-Araibi and Socceroos coach Craig Foster address the media at Melbourne airport (Screenshot via YouTube)

While the return of Hakeem al-Araibi should be celebrated, it begs the question of whether asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island should take up sport and seek a strong sponsor, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

IT'S THE GUSHING PIECE across breakfast news segments, well timed to make Australians feel rather good about themselves. 

On Monday, the Thai Attorney General's office made it clear that it would not pursue the extradition case against Hakeem al-Araibi, making him free to return to Australia. 

Various Australian figures expressed unvarnished relief. Humanitarian clubs toasted the news. 

Much of the noise stirred up in the campaign for al-Araibi came from former Socceroo Craig Foster:

“Speaking to all the people involved, who have worked so hard over this time to try and save his life, it’s an incredible feeling.”

The release of Hakeem al-Araibi has generated understandable cheer among friends and his backers at the Pascoe Vale Football Club, where he plays “semi-professionally”. His wife is also thrilled. 

But the plights of people enduring potential rights abuses vary in terms of how they are received. The Australian response to this has been, on one level, encouraging. On another, it has been obscene and typical of cultural and political schizophrenia. In the unremitting gush over the imminent arrival of al-Araibi, there is an unmistakable sense that his protection visa mattered less than his enthusiasm for sport and competency with kicking a football around.

In 2012, al-Araibi could count himself among several athletes nabbed by the Bahraini authorities in what was termed, "pro-democracy protests". Al-Araibi subsequently fled and was convicted in absentia for vandalising a police station in 2014, notwithstanding that he was, at the time of the said incident, engaged in a televised football match. He was then given refugee status and abode in Australia in 2017. He found his feet – quite literally – at the Melbourne-based Pascoe Vale Football Club.

In November 2018, the newly married al-Araibi went on holiday to Thailand. There, he confronted a grim prospect: a request for his extradition triggered by an Interpol Red Notice sought by Bahrain. Interpol’s own guidelines in the issue of such notices are supposedly stringent, seeking to frustrate 'criminals from abusing refugee status' while, at the same time, 'providing adequate and effective safeguards to protect the rights of refugees', in accordance with the 'Refugee Convention' and cognate human rights instruments. 

Given that Bahrain’s regime has confirmed its credentials as a consistently brutal suppressor of dissidents – actual and perceived – the very promise of extradition proceedings against a confirmed, protected refugee, was alarming. 

Al-Araibi pleaded via an interview with Fairfax at the Klong Klem Remand Prison in Bangkok:

“Please Australia, keep fighting for me.  I pay taxes, I play football, I love Australia. Please don’t let them send me back to Bahrain.” 

The pieces of the puzzle behind al-Araibi’s treatment slowly became clear. The Australian-based Interpol National Central Bureau, in informing Thai counterparts that al-Araibi was the subject of an Interpol Red Notice, had essentially implicated Australian authorities. 

The Department of Home Affairs proceeded to dismiss any complicity in the ugly affair, stating that 

“any action taken in response to the Interpol Red Notice is a matter for the Thai authorities.” 

Suddenly, it became clear that certain “obligations” had to be observed (Canberra is more than happy to skirt over refugee matters when needed); besides, the system of an Interpol Red Notice “was not put in place by Australia”.

The Thai Government was then reminded by a number of Australian activists and – outrageously enough – Australian officials, that sending the footballer back to Bahrain might well breach the "non-refoulement" provisions of the UN Refugee Convention. Namely, that

'No State Party shall expel, return [refouler] or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.'

Prime Minister Scott Morrison intervened in a note to Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha claiming a personal interest in the matter and – ever mindful of electoral wishes – the Australian people, whose interest in this surpassed anything concerning matters on Nauru and Manus Island. He was also keen to advise his Thai counterpart that an Australian protection visa was gold-minted — a product of thorough research and vetting. Surely that had some weight in the matter?

The Australian reaction was unlike that behind any other refugee or asylum seeker cause. It had sport in the bargain rather than any bookish intellectual issue. It had the spirit of competition that could sell with a certain type of populism. Al-Araibi’s political or intellectual nous as a dissident was less relevant than the plight of a sportsman. 

The al-Araibi “people power” campaign, in other words, was heavily slanted, a good public relations mine for the Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and the Prime Minister. 

There was the “Victorian football community”, as Football Victoria tweeted,

'... united as one to help raise awareness and advance the campaign to #SaveHakeem.'

The campaign for al-Araibi’s return to Australia also sported former Socceroo Craig Foster, who proved effusive in thanking

“the wonderful people of Thailand for your support and to the Thai Govt for upholding international law.” 

Foster expressed his confidence that sport “can, and must, play a central role” in realising “a more humane world”. 

He was also sweepingly grand in reading much into the al-Araibi case, which he saw as a springboard for a global moral revolution: 

“This is a win for humanity, for the power of citizens of the world demanding human rights be protected, a step forward for Thailand, a challenge for Australia and the beginning of a broader fight for the values of sport.”

Leaving aside the hyperbolic mission in Foster’s epistle, the “challenge for Australia” is worth considering.  Charity begins at home — and that home has proven to be much bereft of it. For one thing, it was Morrison who oversaw, as Immigration Minister, a militarised campaign against refugees and asylum seekers that remains an immovable set piece of Australian policy. 

The record of secret transfers, rudimentary assessments, and shoddy determinations would make even some in Bahrain’s security apparatus proud. Under Morrison’s ruthless direction, the UN Refugee Convention’s injunction against refoulement was violated with cruel abandon, adding to other cases that blot the Australian human rights copybook. 

One example stands out. In 2014, Tamil refugees and those seeking asylum were returned back to a state whose military had crushed a Tamil-led insurgency lasting a generation. A set of crude returns were facilitated on the high seas, achieving the “disappearance” of a certain number of individuals Australia has never accounted for. It did not matter: the Australian Government was in the process of making good its relationship with Sri Lanka’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, as Defence Secretary, oversaw ruthless operations leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamils in 2009. 

The prize-winning Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, as he often does, could not help but point out the inconsistency in the matter. 

While happy to add his name to the al-Araibi cause, Boochani suggested how broader public opinion remained arbitrary and selective: 

“I wish public opinion would challenge the gov [sic] just as strongly on the human crisis in Manus and Nauru.” 

The implicit suggestion: take up a sport and seek a strong sponsor.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark. 

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