“The journey took two months… When I first decided to come I knew how it would be. I’ve seen a lot of terrible things in my life… For me it was very normal. I was looking forward to a future for my family, a future where I can go to school. Without fear of shots, stabbing and bomb blasts. I was very excited. It was short lived.”
Sultan’s* story is unique and horrifying.
It is a story that must be told in the wake of new government policy that threatens to disrespect Australia’s obligation to engage in international human rights treaties.
Sultan was born a Hazara Muslim in Kabul, Afghanistan in April 1994.
Before Sultan was born, his parents lived on the west side of Kabul.
“My family was inside their home when the Taliban came.”
Sultan’s father was badly injured and after a quick stint in hospital, they escaped to Afshar. Then the Taliban came again.
On the 11th of Febuary 1993, government forces entered Afshar and for 24 hours they killed, raped, set fire to homes and took young children as captives. 700 people were estimated to have been killed or to have disappeared.
Sultan’s parents escaped the day before.
“From Afshar my parents went to our native place in the Parwan Province. They were there for a year and after that they went to Kabul and I was born there in 1994.”
Sultan’s family moved many times during those years, fleeing from the incessant threat of the Taliban.
“I remember the bombs hitting a car in front of us on the way to a village three hours away from Kabul. It was full of people. There were lots of bodies along the road. There was a little girl; she was about my age at that time, alone sitting next to her dead mum. She was crying.”
Even after the American’s came, violence continued.
“My parents were worried about my future.”
“After that, my father spoke with a people smuggler and he brought me to Australia.
“I was 15.”
From Malaysia to Indonesia, Sultan lay in foetal position with no room to move.
“There was a piece of wood sticking into my back for 21 hours.
After arriving in Indonesia, the people smuggler arranged air tickets from Medan to Jakarta.
“I don’t know how they did it without a passport. In the airport the police came because they knew we were illegal. They asked ‘do you want to go to jail?’”
The policeman asked for a $2500 bribe for their freedom. “He said this in front of everyone in the airport. I had only $100 with me. He took my mobile phone, my money and he took some money from everyone and then he left us and we went to Jakarta.”
From Jakarta, Sultanboarded his final boat, destined for Australia.
On the last day, the weather turned and the conditions worsened. Food and water was long gone and the boat’s condition was deteriorating quickly.
“Everyone was tired of crying. Everyone was ready to sink.”
Eventually, after 14 days at sea, a plane spotted the boat and called for the Australian Navy.
“Then they took us to Christmas Island.”
“It was a very nice feeling when I first got there… I had my own room. I had three meals a day… They transferred me to Melbourne after 90 days. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know anything. I was thinking if I go to the mainland I’ll be free. I’ll go to school. I’ll do whatever I want.”
They transferred Sultan to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) for 11 months.
“It was like a fancy prison.”
“When we were going to eat we had to line up in a queue. Every day was the same. There was nothing to do every day. For 11 months, every day I was seeing the same people the same thing was happening. I was really bored.
“Some people were hitting themselves, hitting their heads on the walls, cutting themselves. I didn’t do that but my body was very weak and I was shaking. It was very warm at that time but I was feeling very cold.
“I saved one of my friends’ lives. He tried to hang himself. I called the security.”
After five months, Sultan’s application was rejected. They told him it was safe to go back to Afghanistan.
“If they really read my case, if they were really honest, they would never reject me.”
So Sultan applied again.
“I asked my case manager once what was happening as I always did. She said they had made a decision and we were waiting to receive it. It took 3 months to get to me. I don’t know if they were walking the decision from Sydney to Melbourne.”
“Then I was rejected a second time.”
In seven days, Sultan would return to Afghanistan.
“I heard later that no one with that particular case manager had ever been accepted.”
“Pamela Curr came to see me from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC). She got some extra time for me from Immigration and got a lawyer to work on my case. The lawyer appealed for us to the courts.”
Finally there was some positive news.
“They said Immigration had made a mistake… Finally, I came out of detention.”
During his time in detention, Sultan’s father was murdered by the Taliban. This forced him to support his family by working excessively, seven days a week.
Sultan was reunited with his mother, two brothers and sister one month ago.
Sultan now works for the Salvation Army on Manus Island where he is the bridge between clients in detention and the Australian people.
This kind of help is welcomed as government policy tightens and those in detention further lose hope.
To put this in context, when Labor were elected in 2007, Kevin Rudd altered or abolished many of the asylum seeker policies put in place by the Howard Government. Mandatory detention was one of them. The new policy introduced by Rudd dictated that people would be detained as a ‘last resort’, rather than as standard practice. In August, a milestone of 50,000 ‘illegal’ people had arrived in Australia since Labor had been in office. It was only in July that Kevin Rudd re-introduced off shore processing as boat arrivals had sky-rocketed.
But since the Liberal party came into power, Tony Abbott has said that no permanent visas will be issued to those who come here ‘illegally’. Rather, temporary Protection Visas will be issued to people classified as refugees in an effort to deter people smugglers.
This policy was first proposed by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in 1998.
Andrew Robb, the Minister for Trade and Investment has weighed into the debate, stating that turning back the boats (by removing the incentive for people smuggling) is important to prevent deaths at sea.
The new Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, insists that “people need to know not only will they not be resettled in Australia, they won’t be settling in Australia after arriving as they have been under the previous government for months.”
Thus, the Abbott government’s plan is for disruption and deterrence, detection and interception, off shore detention and then rapid return to their country of origin or resettlement in a third country other than Australia wherever possible. However Sultan’s story demonstrates that, with violence continuing worldwide and a lack of better options for refugees, prevalent corruption in neighbouring countries, and regular oversights by Immigration case managers, Abbott’s proposed procedures are proven inadequate to deal with the issue at hand.
The temporary status of asylum seekers’ residency creates a deep uncertainty and anxiety for their future.
Alison Halliday has fostered an Afghani Hazara and has seen first hand the long term emotional affects government policy has had on asylum seekers.
Her foster son Jan Ali spent two months on Christmas Island, two months in a Port August detention centre and then one year in MITA. He was just 15 years old.
In Port Augusta Jan’s mental and physical health deteriorated.
“He, and the others, had no idea that it is a bit of an Immigration Game.
“Very few asylum seekers are accepted with their first application even if they can explain all the suffering they have experienced, and it is obvious that they tick the UNHCR criteria for refugee status.”
Like Sultan, Jan was told Afghanistan was safe and that he would be returned.
“This started the roller coaster that I see in them all. Increasing anxiety, inability to sleep, and inability to eat.
“My boy Jan still suffers sleep problems and anxiety and depression, and he has a permanent visa. He is extremely anxious about the safety of his surviving family members.”
Jan’s case was reviewed by a Tribunal and only then was he accepted.
This is the Tribunal that the Liberal Government have said they will get rid of.
Halliday thinks the government needs to be spending greater amounts of money getting people processed by UNHCR in transit countries, and then sent to the countries that will take them, including Australia.
“The other thing Australia should do is dramatically increase the refugee intake. We can’t stop the world’s wars and the displacement of peoples, but we can help by taking more of these people.”
This seems unlikely with the rigid approach the government has already taken since the election.
Sultan has mixed feelings about the country he now resides in.
“Australia is a good country. But if my country didn’t have problems I would never come to Australia. I love my country. I love my people.”
The future is hopeful for Sultan.
“I would like to travel. I am planning to go to Brazil for the World Cup.”
For many, the future is much grimmer.
*Name changed at the request of the interviewee