FactCheck Q&A: have any refugees who came to Australia gone on to be terrorists?

Clarke Jones, Australian National University

The Conversation is fact-checking claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.

Excerpt from Q&A, November 23, 2015.

I know that since 1976, there have been 70,000 asylum seekers settled in Australia who arrived by boat. Not one of them has been found to have a link to terrorism. – Tasneem Chopra, cross cultural consultant, speaking on Q&A, November 23, 2015.

Since the recent Paris terrorism attacks, Chopra and others have argued that Australians have nothing to fear from refugees arriving by boat.

But others have linked national security concerns to refugees.

Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi recently told the ABC that:

In our previous refugee intake, we’ve had examples where people who’ve been accepted as refugees have gone on to commit terrorist acts or plan terror attacks in this country.

So are Chopra and Bernardi right in making those two claims?

The answer is not entirely black and white, partly because of a lack of publicly available information. But based on my knowledge of this area, research and contacting senior police investigators, this is the best evidence available.

Boat vs plane arrivals

The first thing to remember is that the majority of asylum seekers arriving in Australia do so by plane.

It’s also true that of the handful of former refugees who went on to involve themselves in terrorist activities, most grew up in and were radicalised in Australia. Most arrived as children. They did not step off planes or boats in Australia as fully formed terrorists who somehow evaded security checks and slipped into Australia.

When asked for a source for her assertion, Chopra sent a comment from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre that said:

The statistic is based on the past 15 years of work in that sector where not one asylum seeker who arrived by boat has been charged with domestic terrorism. Man Haron Monis, the perpetrator of the Lindt Cafe seige, arrived by plane. And regarding the numbers of boat arrivals, this was drawn from stats with this parliamentary library link, indicating around 69,000 since 1976.

Boat arrivals by calendar year 1976 to 2014 and financial year 1989-90 to 2014-15.
Parliamentary Library, CC BY

I know this is not a very satisfying answer, but we can’t say with absolute certainty that no refugees who arrived by boat have been linked to terrorism. That’s because the police who have investigated the handful of terrorist plots in Australia that have been perpetrated by former asylum seekers didn’t always collect information on their mode of arrival.

It’s also true there’s no obvious, compelling evidence proving Chopra is wrong. As an expert advising the Australian government and courts on terrorism and counter-terrorism, I am not aware of any perpetrators or plotters who arrived in Australia by boat.

Some people who have arrived by boat may have gone on to break Australian laws or commit crimes, but that is obviously not the same as saying they are terrorists.

What about the Lindt Cafe seige, the Paramatta shooting and others?

It is true the man behind the 2014 Lindt cafe seige, Man Haron Monis, was a refugee who arrived in Australia from Iran. However, he did not arrive by boat – he came on a plane, just like most refugees. In fact, he arrived on a business visa.

Whether or not the Lindt Cafe seige qualifies as a terrorist act is also contested. Some experts say it was; others contend that while Monis latched onto Islamic State as his cause, there’s no compelling evidence to indicate that Monis had any confirmed links with them.

Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar, the IS-inspired 15-year-old who shot police officer Curtis Cheng outside the NSW Police Parramatta headquarters in October, was of Iraqi-Kurdish background. His family moved to Australia. No reliable evidence has emerged so far to suggest he arrived in Australia by boat.

A spokesperson for Senator Bernardi also referred The Conversation to a plot to attack the Holdsworthy Army Barracks in Sydney.

One of the plotters in that case, Saney Edow Aweys, arrived in Australia as a 15-year-old refugee, but we don’t know for sure if he came by boat or plane. The judgement in that case doesn’t say.

Senator Bernardi’s spokesperson sent another news article on Mohammad Ali Baryalei, accused of conspiring to behead an Australian in a random attack.

Baryalei’s aristocratic Afghan family came to Australia as refugees when he was a child, the ABC has reported.

Again, it’s not clear whether Baryalei arrived in Australia by boat or plane. There’s no compelling evidence suggesting it was one or the other. We do know he was a child when he arrived.

So Bernardi is also correct to say that, in general terms, there are a handful of documented cases of refugees who have settled in Australia being linked to terrorism. These refugees did not arrive as fully formed terrorists who slipped through security measures.


Let’s look at the two claims separately.

We can’t say with absolute certainty that Tasneem Chopra is correct to say that no refugees who arrived by boat have been linked to terrorism. However, there’s no obvious compelling evidence showing she is wrong.

With the current intake of the 12,000 Syrian refugees, there are tight selection processes and comprehensive screening procedures conducted before refugees enter Australia that dramatically reduce any chances of terrorists (or criminals) slipping into Australia.

Bernardi is correct. There have been a handful of asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by plane who we know have been eventually linked to terrorism.

It’s also worth noting what Chopra’s co-panellist, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said on Q&A the same evening:

… when you have a massive exodus of refugees, there may very well be a couple of insurgents that infiltrate but it’s neither here nor there. Both the terrorist attacks and the refugee influx are symptoms of the same problem but one doesn’t cause the other.

– Clarke Jones


This is a sound analysis. There is an unfortunate trend in the debates about national security and border security towards both hyperbole and generalisation. This article is careful to avoid these. It examines the publicly available material and ultimately concludes that it is impossible to say whether or not any Australian terrorists arrived in this country by boat. While this lack of certainty may be frustrating for some readers, there are two important points to be taken from this article.

The first is that extremely few – if indeed any – of the people who have arrived in Australia by boat have later had any involvement with terrorism.

Secondly, this article highlights the irrelevance (including to the police) of how terrorism suspects arrived in Australia. In my experience – both in co-authoring a book, Inside Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws and Trials, and also appearing as junior defence counsel for Saney Aweys (linked to the Holdsworthy Army barracks plot) in his trial before the Victorian Supreme Court – whether a person arrives in Australia by boat or plane has no bearing on their likelihood of later being involved in terrorism. To the best of my knowledge, the mode of arrival was not even something that we discussed with Aweys during our pre-trial interviews.

The only thing that I would add to this article about Aweys’ background is that he spent many years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia before coming to Australia and being granted a humanitarian visa.

This – in combination with the fact that his arrival coincided with the Australian government’s decision to accept a significant number of refugees from Somalia and that I have no recollection of him spending any time in immigration detention – would suggest that he did not arrive here by boat. This could be confirmed by speaking to Aweys but that is of course easier said than done, given his current detention in a maximum security gaol. – Nicola McGarrity

Have you ever seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

The Conversation

Clarke Jones, Co-Director of the Australian Intervention Support Hub (AISH), Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s another reason kids don’t belong in detention: trauma changes growing brains

Julian G. Simmons, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

A bill that would release the 112 children in immigration detention in Australia will soon go before the House of Representatives. The bill passed the Senate last week, but it could be rejected by a government-majority House.

While it’s widely accepted that detention is bad for child asylum seekers, the long-term effects of that harm are rarely spelled out. Our recently published research sheds some light on this.

So what should members of parliament consider when casting their votes?

Growing brains are vulnerable

The brain has evolved to respond effectively to stressful situations, many of which are normal challenges of everyday life. Indeed, some researchers argue that humans’ extended period of childhood and adolescence (compared to other species) has evolved to maximise our adaptability to the varied environments and social dynamics we traverse. What defines these periods, in this context, is a changing brain, a brain trying to adapt.

This adaptability, however, comes at a cost: growing brains are more vulnerable. Repeated trauma in childhood appears to change children’s enduring hormonal function and brain development, and increases the risk of developing a range of psychological disorders.

Cortisol is often referred to as the “stress” hormone. It plays a complex and wide-ranging role in the human stress and arousal response. Cortisol is also central to glucose availability, blood pressure and immune function.

Alterations in cortisol function are found in people with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but are also a risk factor for these disorders. A recent study found soldiers with lower cortisol output before going to war in Afghanistan were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms after traumatic events experienced during their deployment.

Cortisol has traditionally been measured in saliva, blood or urine, reflecting output over minutes or days. These studies have found either unusually high or low levels of cortisol in children who have experienced maltreatment. This defective regulation suggests a system initially pushed into overdrive, and then overwhelmed, becomes fatigued.

But this changing physiological picture, and our constantly varying levels of cortisol, has led to many inconsistent findings.

What did our research find?

Our new research studied the cortisol levels of 70 nine-year-old children living in and around Melbourne. We recorded these levels from scalp hair to determine their total cortisol output over months.

We found that the number and types of traumatic events experienced earlier in childhood correlated with hair cortisol levels. These events included illness and deaths in the family, and being sick or hurt in an accident. More extreme events, such as fires, floods or being threatened or attacked, were relatively uncommon.

Traumatic experiences in childhood alter the development of brain structures during adolescence. These structures include those directly linked to cortisol production, such as the pituitary gland, as well as others linked with emotion processing and memory, such as the amygdala and hippocampus. Alterations in these structures have been identified in mental health disorders.

We have shown that adversity increases the risk of mental health disorders in adolescence. These disorders in turn further alter the way the brain develops.

Childhood adversity, particularly maltreatment, is associated with increased risk for numerous behavioural problems. These include drug use, suicide attempts, risky sexual behaviour and sexually transmitted infections. The earlier the experience of adversity in childhood, the greater the risk of poor mental health outcomes.

What does this mean for detained children?

Clearly there are differences between the environments of our Melbourne families and those of detained children. But these differences are largely matters of degree.

Children in detention are at very high risk of exposure to physical and sexual assault, family separation, environmental deprivation and forced relocation. They also commonly witness traumatic events affecting loved ones. These experiences roughly double their risk of developing mental health problems later in life.

The more traumatic events a child experiences, the more likely lasting problems will emerge. A recent German assessment of families seeking refugee status found that 86.5% had already experienced multiple traumas involving war, torture and involuntary displacement.

Children entering detention in Australia already have elevated rates of psychological problems. The trauma of detention is likely to compound these harmful effects, which may persist long after the resolution of the immigration process.

Childhood is a sensitive and vulnerable period; experiences of trauma and adversity can produce harm that endures into adulthood. This inescapable knowledge should inform policy on the release of children from detention and remind us of the care and support they will need when they are finally released.

The Conversation

Julian G. Simmons, Research Fellow in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, University of Melbourne; Meg Dennison, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Washington, and Nick Haslam, Professor of Psychology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What do the Paris attacks mean for Australia’s Syrian refugee intake?

Mark Briskey, Curtin University

The dust had barely settled on the atrocious attacks in Paris when the spectre of terrorists hiding among the refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria was raised. The attacks have caused some to question Australia’s one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees.

NSW Nationals MP Andrew Fraser called on Australia to “close our borders” in the interests of national security. Other former political figures have been sounding the clarion call of the dire consequences of Australia accepting these refugees.

The idea that there are “hidden terrorists” among the refugee intake is being raised due to the likelihood that at least one of the Paris attackers had arrived in France via a refugee channel from Greece. So, is it possible that Australia is about to be infiltrated by Islamic State-inspired militants among the refugees we are offering sanctuary to?

History provides lessons

The crisis enveloping Europe in attending to and properly caring for millions of terrified refugees fleeing the Assad regime in Syria and Islamic State (IS) is phenomenally problematic. These problems have ruptured some relationships between European Union and non-EU nations.

This represents the largest mass movement of people in Europe since the second world war. There are other great similarities between these two calamitous movements of people. The UK, for instance, was initially hostile to accepting large numbers of Jewish refugees due to a belief that they would not assimilate.

With so many people fleeing so much persecution, it beggars belief that there are people who have attached themselves to groups seeking to escape this barbarity but whose objectives are the very antithesis of those seeking sanctuary. But this is what some early information in the Paris attacks’ aftermath seems to suggest has taken place.

In this regard, it is entirely possible that a small number of IS followers have infiltrated groups seeking refuge and solace. Those guilty of evil crimes and those with evil intent hiding among the innocent is regrettably not unknown in these situations. In the second world war’s aftermath, the “ratlines” – or escape routes – of Nazis and fascists included their immersion among the refugee populations.

This has also been the case with more recent conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere. Alleged war criminals have been found living in Australia.

A difficult task ahead

The task of identifying anyone from a war zone is very challenging – even more so when the particular countries people are fleeing have either rudimentary or no form of records of the essential details of their citizens.

This is why, following the September 11 attacks, a great deal of aid came from the US trying to introduce more robust identity-capturing measures globally.

This remains an unfinished project. In many areas where refugees continue to flee, there is not a comparable form of quick computerised identity checking as in Australia. Certain agencies here can access a computer with or without a warrant to look at your records. But this is not the case in countries where discovering someone’s identity is reduced to knowing the names of the individual’s parents and the specific village, town or area from which they hail.

These problems notwithstanding, the agencies tasked with undertaking such checks do so exhaustively. The checks can rely on everything from an allied country’s records to information from refugees themselves. The refugees have a passionate interest in ensuring their former persecutors are not among those persons provided sanctuary.

IS should not be equated with Islam – nor with the terrified Muslim refugees trying to escape the very acts that were perpetrated in Paris.

The Conversation

Mark Briskey, Senior Lecturer, National Security and International Relations, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Did ‘ending’ detention on Nauru also end the constitutional challenge to offshore processing?

Joyce Chia, Monash University and Asher Hirsch, Monash University

The Nauruan government announced earlier this week that it will remove the remaining restrictions on the liberty of the asylum seekers detained there, and process all pending claims for asylum. It initially said it would process the claims in a week, but has since backtracked from that commitment.

Many have claimed that the announcement is a strategic move to undermine a constitutional challenge to Australia’s offshore detention regime, heard by the High Court this week – although the Australian government has denied this. So does the policy change spell the end of the challenge?

While that question can only be answered after the High Court’s decision, the hearings give a hint. The short answer is that the Nauruan government’s announcements have already had a much greater effect in the High Court than on Nauru itself.

So what is this case about anyway?

The plaintiff in this case is a Bangladeshi woman who was detained on Nauru before being brought to Australia during her pregnancy. If the case fails, she, her ten-month-old baby and more than 200 people now in Australia will be sent back to Nauru or Manus Island.

The case, together with a similar one relating to Manus Island, began as a challenge to the Commonwealth’s power to spend money on offshore processing centres. This was on the basis of recent High Court cases that found that legislation was generally required to authorise the Commonwealth entering into contracts and spending money, subject to certain exceptions.

Not unusually, parliament intervened. In late June, the major parties combined to pass “emergency” authorising legislation, which applied retrospectively.

This meant the plaintiff was forced instead to argue that the emergency legislation was invalid because it did not fall within the Commonwealth’s powers to make laws set out under the Constitution. As the High Court’s questions made clear, this is a difficult argument to run. The authorising legislation appears clearly related to at least two of the broadest legislative powers of the Commonwealth – the power to regulate aliens and the power to engage in external affairs.

The plaintiff’s main argument now was that the Commonwealth, by in effect detaining asylum seekers on Nauru, went beyond its constitutional power to detain. The argument rested on two main steps.

  • First, previous cases had established certain constitutional limits on the executive’s power to detain asylum seekers in Australia. These limits included that such detention must be limited to permissible purposes and limited in time to what was reasonably practicable to effect that purpose, and that the courts must be capable of supervising the legality of that detention.

  • Second, these constitutional limits did not apply to detention on Nauru. The effect of this was that the offshore processing regime enabled Australia to do outside its borders what it could not do inside. This would in effect subvert the High Court’s role in supervising the constitutionality of executive power.

At the heart of this was an argument that the Commonwealth was to be treated as, in substance, detaining the asylum seekers. That argument rested on the evidence that the Commonwealth funded, authorised and controlled the offshore processing regime.

This is a difficult argument to run. Similar arguments failed last year before the High Court. As High Court justices pointed out this week, there is nothing in either the Migration Act or the Memorandum of Understanding that requires Nauru to detain asylum seekers.

How did Nauru’s announcement change the case?

Nauru’s announcements over the past week significantly undermined the plaintiff’s main argument. This argument rests on there being unconstitutional detention, and now there is no detention.

As a consequence, the Commonwealth argued that all of the questions (and associated remedies) in the case relating to the Commonwealth’s future conduct were no longer relevant.

The Commonwealth is also now arguing that it is not useful for the High Court to consider the legality of past detention. This is because deciding that question will not produce any real consequence for the plaintiff.

That might surprise lay observers, but Australian courts have long held that the courts should not decide cases where it can serve no useful result. While a claim for compensation could have been such a result, the case was never argued in this way – as the Commonwealth duly pointed out.

Circumventing the courts

From this week’s hearings, it certainly seems that these sudden changes to policy in Nauru have dramatically weakened this constitutional challenge – if not yet the companion challenge to the constitutionality of offshore processing on Manus Island.

Yet again, it seems, the government may have successfully outmanoeuvred legal challenges by changing the law and the facts on the ground.

For the asylum seekers on Nauru, other facts on the ground remain much the same. They are still unsafe, separated from their families and unable to leave Nauru for a real life.

The Conversation

Joyce Chia, Lecturer (Sessional), Monash University and Asher Hirsch, Tutor, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turnbull needs to add a dose of humanity into tough asylum policy

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull confronts a classic “wicked problem” in how to deal with the nearly 1600 asylum seekers who are stuck in terrible conditions on Nauru and Manus Island.

A “wicked problem” is one that is “highly resistant to resolution”. In this case, Turnbull has – if he chooses to take it up – the policy challenge of finding a humane outcome for the detainees while maintaining a convincing “tough on borders” stand vis-a-vis the people smugglers.

This would also involve a political challenge. Hardline conservatives in his party, still appalled by the leadership coup, will use the asylum-seeker issue as one marker by which to judge Turnbull. From the other perspective, so will some moderate Liberals in the party and small-l liberals in voterland.

The present unacceptable state of affairs has most recently been highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau. He announced he was postponing his September 27-October 9 visit to Australia “due to the lack of full co-operation from the government regarding protection concerns and access to detention centres”.

Crépeau said the new Border Force Act, which threatens detention centre staff who disclose protected information with two years in jail, “would have an impact on my visit as it serves to discourage people from fully disclosing information relevant to my mandate”.

He had asked the government for a written guarantee that no-one he met would be at risk of “any intimidation or sanctions” under that act. The government was not prepared to give the guarantee required by his official terms of reference.

Crépeau said that since March he had repeatedly requested that the Australian government facilitate his access to its offshore processing centres, without success.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton responded that the government had “accommodated to the fullest extent possible the requests of the office of the Special Rapporteur”. Access to centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru “is the responsibility of these sovereign nations and needs to be addressed with their governments”, Dutton added.

The most recent numbers (late August) showed 936 males detained on Manus and 653 detainees in Nauru (446 men, 114 women and 93 children). Processing has been painfully slow.

Under the Abbott government it was thought acceptable to let these people languish, apparently indefinitely.

Hopefully Turnbull will take a different view. He hinted at this last week when asked by Sky’s David Speers about the people “stuck” offshore. “I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru as you do, and as I would think almost all, all, Australians do,” he said.

When some saw this as a potential softening of policy, however, he quickly reiterated that these people would never come to Australia.

Turnbull should address several steps if he is going to deal with the plight of the people on Nauru and Manus.

First, the government should do whatever is required to give the Special Rapporteur proper access to people and places. Ensuring protection for those who speak with the Rapporteur and access to centres is the easiest part of dealing with the wicked problem.

Second, there should be more Australian oversight in the centres. Claims that the sovereignty of PNG and Nauru would be compromised do not hold water – Australia is paying the bills.

Third, the government should find a way of having the people in the detention centres processed more quickly. The processing is done by the Nauru and PNG authorities, so the Australian government says “ask them” in response to questions about delays – a convenient but not convincing answer.

Fourth, those determined to be refugees need to be resettled satisfactorily, bearing in mind that the government won’t allow them to come to Australia.

From the reporting we have seen – most recently at the weekend from The Age’s Michael Gordon, who visited Manus – the conditions of the small number whose refugee claims have been upheld and who are out of the detention centres are appalling.

The government promised large amounts of funding for Cambodia to take people. Only a handful of refugees went.

Other third-country destinations are needed. But what hope of finding them, when the world is awash with great human tides of asylum seekers? Are any countries interested in “people swap” deals?

Fifth, any attempt by people smugglers to take advantage of a more humane policy towards the Manus and Nauru people by trying to restart the trade would need to be stared down. Both sides of politics now endorse turnbacks and there is no reason to think this would not continue to be effective as a deterrent.

Sixth, the Border Force Act should be amended, to allow those working in detention centres proper rights to provide information publicly in appropriate circumstances. The Australian Medical Association has been campaigning against the legislation and its voice should be heeded – it has a professional not a commercial interest in the issue.

In his last days as prime minister, Tony Abbott had Australia make a generous gesture to 12,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict. That actually was easier than solving the problem of the people stranded in PNG and Nauru. But the fate of those close at hand and under our watch is equally important and increasingly urgent.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Europe on Syria