Deported Australian granted visa after two years in Serbian limbo

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Sunday, March 5, 2006

An Australian resident, deported to Serbia in 2004, will return home to Sydney this week. The Immigration Department says Robert Jovicic will be given a special purpose visa and his status as a permanent resident will be reinstated.

He became a nationless man, impoverished, battling mental health problems and sleeping on the streets of Belgrade. Mr Jovicic, 39, was born in France and arrived in Australia as a two-year-old with his Serbian-born parents. Like nearly one million Australian residents eligible for Australian citizenship, Jovicic never officially became an Australian citizen.

Ex-Federal Immigration Minister, and now Attorney General, Philip Ruddock ordered Jovicic's deportation on character grounds in June 2004 - after he was jailed for committing crimes in support of a heroin addiction. Mr Jovicic says he had since kicked his drug habit.

The current Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said it was a "very hard decision" to allow Mr. Jovicic to return to Australia. "[the community] expected to be protected from non-citizens who break the law. On balance, after some anguished consideration, I decided to allow him to return," the Minister said. She said Mr Jovicic was not stateless, he had just refused to apply for Serbian citizenship.

His family say Serbia revoked his citizenship after discovering "the paperwork used by Australian authorities to deport him was invalid". They claim he has since been unable to work, access doctors, welfare or even book a hotel. His family also claims that he does not speak Serbian, and has not been permitted to work because of this. He says he is grateful his ordeal is nearing an end.

Robert Jovicic's sister says people have no reason to fear her brother's return to Australia. "People need to be reminded that he's not a drug addict any more. He stopped using a long time ago," Susanna Jovicic said. "If people fear that he's going to re-offend, I think that he's more chance of winning lotto," she said. "All he wants is his life back. I think that's the most paramount thing that people need to understand. Once he'd done his time, I know that in jail he stopped (using heroin). He came out, he started a new life."

Ms Jovicic said the family is yet to pursue compensation. "I can tell you right now, we have not had a conversation about compensation..." she said. "We just want him home." She says the first priority will be to seek medical treatment. Her brother's health problems include scoliosis, an enlarged prostate, mental illness, sand in his kidneys and the need of a catheter to urinate.

She said Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone's decision to allow his return "validates our belief that Robert was wrongly deported," she said. "I think anybody who has been deported has the legal right to return. The family will be there at the airport waiting for him and it will be quite emotional."

Minister Vanstone said in a November 2005 media release: "Mr Jovicic is not an Australian citizen: Mr Jovicic, a convicted criminal, had his Permanent Visa cancelled in October 2002 under Section 501 of the Migration Act by the former Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock... As an adult between 1984 and 2002, Mr Jovicic was convicted on charges of burglary, theft, possessing stolen property and possessing prohibited substances. In 1998 Mr Jovicic applied for Australian citizenship but was refused on the grounds that he was not of good character."

Commonwealth Ombudsman John McMillan found Senator Vanstone's department had unfairly deported people with criminal records who had lived in Australia since they were children. However, Vanstone said she supports the changes to the Migration Act which allow the Immigration Minister to "deport non citizens who break the law on character grounds and make the decision unappealable."