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Home > Uncategorised > Three countries, eight years: one refugee’s nightmare odyssey through Australia’

Three countries, eight years: one refugee’s nightmare odyssey through Australia’s detention system

Sunday 18 July 2021, by siawi3


Three countries, eight years: one refugee’s nightmare odyssey through Australia’s detention system

Ben Doherty


Loghman Sawari was a child when they sent him to what he calls the “prison island”.

At 17, Sawari was unlawfully sent by Australia to the adult men-only detention centre on Manus Island. He was there when the centre was attacked and his friend murdered. He endured beatings and deprivations, arrests and strip-searches. He fled to Fiji, but was illegally deported. He acceded to resettlement in Papua New Guinea and ended up sleeping on the streets.

Over eight years within Australia’s offshore regime, Sawari has watched boat mates and cell mates set free to begin lives, to attend schools or take jobs, to start families.

But he remains in detention, facing an indefinite incarceration after a flight to the United States, which has provisionally accepted him for resettlement, was cancelled in December. He has committed no crime. None is alleged against him. He does not know when or if he will ever be free.

“Why me?” he asks the Guardian from detention, now in Brisbane. “Why does the Australian government want to fight me, the poor boy who has nothing?”

‘I was very frightened’

It was Sawari’s father who urged him to flee Iran and the persecution his family and his people had faced for generations.

Sawari is a member of the Ahwazi Arab ethnic minority who are routinely persecuted and discriminated against by the Iranian government. Those who resist face, in the words of the Australian government, “a high risk of official harassment, monitoring, imprisonment and mistreatment”.

Sawari’s brothers were repeatedly arrested and tortured by government forces, returned to his family “broken” after years in detention, he says.

In 2007, his cousin was publicly hanged by the regime. Sawari still carries a picture of his defiant relative kissing the hangman’s rope in the moments
before it is slung around his neck.

In May 2013, Sawari fled. He flew to Malaysia, travelled to Indonesia (neither country is party to the Refugee convention) and then boarded an overcrowded boat for Australia.

Photos: Asylum seekers behind a fence at the Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea, in 2014. Photograph: Reuters

On 19 July 2013, the day before Sawari boarded the leaky fishing vessel the Rudd government announced a dramatic change to Australia’s migration laws, mandating that all asylum seekers who arrived by boat would be sent to the newly re-established offshore processing centres: PNG’s Manus Island for adult men; Nauru for families, women and unaccompanied children.

“The smugglers took our phones, our luggage. We didn’t know anything about the laws changing,” Sawari says. “Four days on the water. The boat was so small and there were so many people. Water started coming up into the boat. It was very very scary.”

But the vessel made it, arriving at Christmas Island on 24 July, five days after the law changed. There were 78 people on board. Sawari was the last one ashore, reflected in the boat ID he carried for years: GRL078

Despite repeatedly telling Australian authorities his age, Sawari was erroneously classified as an adult and sent to Manus Island.

’If you are going to be a good boy we will send you back. If you are a bad boy we will keep you here’

Within days – after Sawari repeatedly showed staff the Australian documents he’d been given were wrong – the mistake was realised, although it was not publicly conceded for months.

Sawari still has the Australian government letter he was sent, confirming his birthdate – 8 October 1995 – and insisting he would henceforth be “treated as a minor for the purposes of accommodation, placement and other purposes”. But instead of returning Sawari to Australia, the government forcibly removed him from the camp and placed him in isolation – with two other children – until he turned 18.

“It was one container,” Sawari says. “I will never forget it. They used to use it for isolation when someone was sick, but then it became for us. I spent all my time there. Just three of us. One Rohingya from Myanmar, and another Iranian. They don’t allow us to go out or go anywhere. They only allowed me to call my parents once every three days.”

The other two children were subsequently returned to Australia, allowed to live in the community and attend school. They have now made lives there, Sawari remains in occasional contact.

Photo: Loghman Sawari’s cousin kisses the hangman’s rope in the moments before he is publicly hanged in 2007. Loghman carries the photo with him.

Sawari says he chafed against the isolation, confined to a small room all day for his own safety.

“I asked them if they could send me to see my friends from my boat. They said, ‘No, you are still 17. You are not allowed.’ So I started not eating any food, so they sent the police. They took me to the police station to frighten me. When we arrived, they strip-searched me and they said, ‘If you are going to be a good boy we will send you back. If you are a bad boy we will keep you here.’ ”

Sawari was moved to the adult camp when he turned 18 in October 2013, and remembers the confusion of adjusting to its constricted existence: the lines for food; the rationed times for washing; the days-long wait for medical appointments to be told there was “nothing wrong” or to take Panadol.

Sawari was in the detention centre when it was attacked in February 2014. His fellow Iranian Reza Barati was murdered and more than 70 detainees injured. Sawari was struck in the head by a brick as attackers, including guards paid to keep the camp secure, stormed fences and beat detainees.

“I remember I was very frightened all the time. I was so young.”

Caged like an animal’

Australia uses the global standard, the 1951 Refugee convention, to recognise refugee status. A person claiming protection has to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” on at least one of five grounds. Sawari fulfilled three.

On 1 August 2014, an Australian protection officer determined he was a refugee because he faced persecution because of his race (Ahwazi Arab), his religion (Sunni Muslim) and his political opinion, having supported Ahwazi independence.

Photo: Loghman Sawari says he sought asylum in Fiji after he was left homeless and destitute by Australia and PNG. Photograph: Guardian Australia

Sawari could not be returned to Iran. Australia was legally obliged to protect him.

In 2015 he was moved from Manus’s main detention centre to the province’s secondary detention camp, the East Lorengau refugee transit centre.

The Guardian first met Sawari shortly after that, in a clandestine meeting in Manus’s main town. Dressed in a faded Chelsea football shirt, he appeared younger than his 19 years.

He was nervous at first, and spoke cautiously of his history: “I leave my country, because I come to freedom. But here is the same. I am caged like an animal.”

As Sawari became more confident, he grew angry. He repeated the word “freedom” like a mantra, as though saying it often enough could make it reality.

“I don’t want money. I don’t want [to] go [to] Australia. I want to go for a country for freedom. Freedom, only freedom. I need only freedom.”

Australia says ‘deport’, and they just do it. There was no law

A little more than a week later, Sawari was punched by a guard and told to “go back to your country” after asking for more washing powder. His badly injured wrist required a sling for weeks. He had to borrow money to buy painkillers.

The new camp offered no more hope than the old. Sawari despaired. He would become the first refugee to attempt suicide in the new camp.

The response was yet more punishment: instead of an ambulance he was dragged into a police van and driven to the claustrophobic local lock-up. When he arrived back at the camp he was warned by guards if he tried to take his life again he would spend even longer in prison.

Homeless, again

Seeking a more permanent resolution and “some control over my life”, Sawari accepted an offer in 2016 to be resettled in PNG’s second largest city, Lae. For a few months it went comparatively well. He found work at a building company, and a shared house to live in.

But a falling out with a housemate, and a dispute over pay – Sawari discovered he was being paid less than other migrant workers and PNG nationals – left him homeless, forced to sleep on the steps of the police station, before he was taken in by a local church.

Photo: Sawari, one of the youngest refugees held on Manus Island, says he was assaulted by a guard at the East Lorengau refugee transit centre in September 2015 in a fight over washing powder.

“Lae was difficult, especially when you are new, when you don’t know this place or anyone there,” he says. “When I got to know the local people, they were good to me. But Lae is not safe. Daily I saw bad things happen there.”

Fearful in Lae, Sawari tried to return to detention for safety but was refused, and was forcibly transferred to Port Moresby. Despite being held under guard, he says he felt in constant danger there, too.

A trauma worker, Janet Galbraith, wrote a submission on Sawari’s behalf to the UNHCR, urging authorities to fast-track him for resettlement in the US because his life was at risk.

“Hopelessness and living in constant fear is leading him to consider drastic action,” Galbraith wrote. “I am very concerned for him. He is exhausted and I believe he is unable to continue. I also believe he will make some decisions that will see him either lose his life or at least end up more damaged.”

Nothing changed. Port Moresby, Sawari says, grew steadily more oppressive. He fled again. Saving all he could from the meagre stipend refugees received and borrowing from anyone he could, he scraped together enough for a plane ticket and a PNG passport in his name, obtained through a contact in the PNG capital.

He flew to Suva, the capital of Fiji, where he sought to claim asylum through the UNHCR. His was the first case – several have since followed – of a refugee who sought asylum in Australia subsequently claiming to be fleeing persecution within Australia’s offshore processing policy.

A local family took him in and for a handful of days Sawari knew freedom. He walked the streets, morning and evening, unworried for his safety, unchallenged by curfews or guards.

“I have nothing to hide; I have done nothing wrong,” he told the Guardian from Suva during that time. “I have only wanted freedom. If Fiji says, ‘Yes, you can be safe here,’ I will be very happy.”

But he feared he had not escaped offshore detention entirely: “I do not feel safe from Australia or PNG. I fear they will come get me and take me back.”

So it proved.

On the Friday after he arrived in Fiji, Sawari was being driven by human rights lawyer Aman Ravindra-Singh to an appointment with Fiji’s director of immigration. Approaching Suva, their car was stopped by six police officers and Sawari was grabbed, forced into a police car and driven directly to the airport. He was marched on to a plane and flown out of the country.

It was, Ravindra-Singh said, an act of “thuggery”.

“Dark things happened ... enforcers, hoodlums, and thugs, that’s what we saw. No one could speak about the law today,” he said.

Fiji is a party to the Refugee convention. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Fiji was required under international law to properly consider Sawari’s claim for asylum: “UNHCR deeply regrets that interventions to prevent Mr Sawari’s forced return were not successful, and is profoundly concerned for his welfare.”

Sawari believes he was deported on Australia’s orders.

“Australia says ‘deport’, and they just do it. There was no law.”

Return to PNG

On his return, Sawari was held in the notorious Bomana jail on the outskirts of Port Moresby. After three months, the charges laid against him, of breaching PNG immigration laws, were abruptly dropped because of a lack of evidence.

Sawari was released back into Australia’s offshore system, now run largely out of Port Moresby, because the PNG supreme court had ruled the Manus detention centre illegal.

Under guard in a nondescript motel, Sawari’s physical and mental health deteriorated precipitously. He had impacted wisdom teeth. He made further suicide attempts, and went on a hunger strike until he was admitted to an intensive care unit.

On 5 July 2019 he was brought to Australia under the short-lived medevac laws.

Photo: Loghman Sawari in Brisbane immigration transit accommodation. He remains detained after nearly eight years.

Held for months in an apartment block converted into a detention centre at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane, Sawari says he received no mental health treatment.

It was not until February that his wisdom teeth, now severely impacted, were finally removed.

In the same month, nearly seven years after arriving in Australia, Sawari was provisionally accepted for resettlement in the US, under the deal brokered between Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull. He was sent for health checks and familiarisation courses in preparation for his departure.

On 17 December last year, Sawari was due to fly to the US. But that date came and went. In the weeks preceding his flight, he had been reported over an alleged altercation with a guard. No charges were brought for lack of evidence but in the meantime his flight was cancelled.

“I had the date, my friend in America was told I would be arriving, everything was clear,” he says. “But the government did not allow me to go to America. I am still here.”

Days in detention, Sawari says, run one into another, a mass of monotony. His memory is failing.

Even being moved from the motel to the high-wired bleakness of the Brisbane immigration transit accommodation was barely distinguishable: the same routine, the same repressions.

In March he was taken to intensive care again, severely dehydrated, after another hunger strike. A video shot by a fellow detainee showed him being wheeled from detention unconscious.

Nightmare continues

Sawari still faces indefinite detention.

“This nightmare is eight years now,” he says. “They are not giving me freedom, and they are not allowing America to take me. That is unfair.”

Sawari’s detention has been challenged in the federal circuit court: judge Rolf Driver heard his detention was unjustified because the original decision to send him to Manus Island was unlawful. Sawari told the judge: “I need a permanent safe place … I respect this country’s laws; the law should be on my side. They shouldn’t keep me in detention forever.”

Lawyers for the Australian government said there was now no barrier to his resettlement in the US. Sawari awaits a decision.

In response to a detailed series of questions, the home affairs department said it would not comment on the case.

“Australia’s border protection policies remain steadfast; persons who travel to Australia illegally by boat will not settle here,” it said. “Temporary transfer to Australia to receive medical treatment is not a pathway to settlement.”

“Transitory persons” were encouraged to finalise medical treatment to resettle in the US or another third country, return to Nauru or PNG, “or voluntarily return home”.

Sawari says the Australian government knows all it possibly could about him: he has been interviewed and screened and security checked dozens of times. He carries files of documents, he has a pile of chest X-rays. He has never been convicted of a crime, and is not accused of any.

“What more do they want from me?

“I am not safe to go back to my home country … I will face the death penalty like my relatives did. They know this. But still they are keeping me here. Eight years.”

He sees others released to live in Australia, or farewells them as they board buses for the airport and a new life in America. He says he does not want special treatment, only to be treated justly and humanely.

“Freedom is all I want. It is simple: freedom. I only ever wanted to be free.”