Australia reviews failed bid for asylum over 'ooga-booga' note

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 June, 2006, 12:00am


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The word 'ooga-booga', usually associated with dark-skinned savages in old Hollywood movies, has taken centre stage in a Myanmese dissident's claim for asylum in Australia.

A government-appointed body rejected her application, but concerns were raised when a written ruling was delivered with 'ooga-booga' typed next to the heading 'Definition of a Refugee'.

The official responsible claims she inserted the 'nonsense' word to test a malfunctioning computer spellchecker, then forgot to omit it from the final version.

Overturning her decision, federal magistrate Grant Riethmuller cited reviews of Peter Jackson's movie King Kong to show that 'ooga-booga' appeared 'to have overtones of mysticism and racism in its more modern uses'.

'I am of the view that a fair-minded observer appraised of the facts and circumstances of the ooga-booga comment would entertain a reasonable apprehension of bias,' said the judge.

The case is the latest in a long line of gaffes to have embroiled the immigration system in Australia, where the government's tough detention policies have attracted international criticism.

The Myanmese asylum seeker feared her pro-democracy activism would put her at risk of persecution if she returned home.

After the immigration minister rejected her bid for a temporary protection visa, her appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal was also unsuccessful.

But tribunal member Wendy Boddison's inclusion of 'ooga-booga' formed the basis of an appeal to the Federal Magistrates Court.

Tribunal lawyers argued it was not racist, noting 'ooga-booga' was the name of an Australian clothing firm. It is also a clothing store in Los Angeles and a video game.

But Mr Riethmuller was unimpressed, quoting reviews of the King Kong remake, which attracted criticism for its depiction of South Sea island natives.

The magistrate also cited a successful racism suit in the US in which a black employee complained of enduring 'ooga-booga' taunts by another worker.

Mr Riethmuller sent the case back to the tribunal to be heard by different members.

'The issues are potentially those of life and death for the applicant,' he said. 'It is essential that the public and those involved in the proceedings have confidence in the integrity and impartiality of such proceedings.'