By Nick OlleJuly 30, 2013
Unaccompanied teenagers and young adults are among the hardest hit by the Australian government’s “abusive” treatment of “irregular maritime arrivals” seeking asylum.
He left his native Iran the day after his 17th birthday a marked man in every sense of the word.
A regular civil rights demonstrator with the pacifistic “Green Movement”, a pro-democracy group born in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 election victory, the young man now living in Melbourne matter-of-factly outlines how he’d been arrested, tortured and blacklisted.
In Australia he is among those asylum-seekers blacklisted in political rhetoric as economic refugees, and he is caught in the tortuous bureaucratic process that one advocate describes as “a disastrous social experiment to put 18-year-old kids onto the streets with no family, no money, no work and no housing”. Almost all of these young people are found, eventually, to be legitimate refugees.
On July 19, Australia signed an agreement with Papua New Guinea to shift any new refugees arriving by boat to that country. Notwithstanding the deal, there remain in Australia tens of thousands of asylum seekers already here still in a tangle of ever-tightening restrictions. The government has justified these measures by saying:
“We do not want the provision of support to be an incentive that encourages people to put their lives in the hands of people smugglers.”
The policies don’t actively discriminate according to age, but unaccompanied teenaged and young-adult asylum seekers are among the worst off. Psychiatrists say that this group is especially prone to mental-health problems including acute depression and anxiety. Having suffered trauma, these young people find themselves alone in a new country with a new language and without normal adult role models.
Those who turn 18 in Australia pass from the immigration minister’s guardianship – under which they experience the relative normality of life in community detention and going to school – to fending for themselves in the community on bridging visas.
There are no specific figures on the number of unaccompanied minors, but immigration statistics show that 65 per cent of the 7,379 “irregular maritime arrivals” (IMAs) in 2011-12 were aged 30 years or younger (Table 27).
“This is a real problem in that these kids are scared and they’ve gone to ground,” says Pamela Curr from Melbourne’s Asylum Seekers Resource Centre (ASRC).
The story of this young Iranian activist, who does not want his name used, so we’ll call him Amir, illustrates the vast limbo that remains for young asylum seekers in Australia, even as the focus of the nation’s policy moves to PNG.
IN IRAN, it wasn’t the authorities who had the adolescent Amir in their sights, at least not officially. He’d been targeted by the notorious Basij – the volunteer civilian militia set up by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and now closely aligned to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As the BBC describes it, “Aside from being used to quell civil unrest, Basijis are employed as overseers of civilian behaviour, enforcing dress codes, emergency management and the suppression of dissident gatherings.”
“I was in a dark room for 10 days and I didn’t know where I was,” Amir recalls while talking with The Global Mail. “They tortured me – they cut my hands, my back, my shoulders. I have scars all over my body.”
He says he’s “kind of embarrassed to wear short sleeves and stuff” because of his heavily lacerated body. He’s wearing black jeans and a long sleeve jacket now but later, over dinner, he sheds his outerwear, revealing a jagged spider web of slashes on his right forearm.
His English is remarkably fluent, all the more so considering that he’s learned it in less than two years. There’s the hint of an Australian twang in his accent too. He likes it when I point this out and his mouth breaks into a reluctant smile.
Amir is intelligent, charming and handsome but there is a deep melancholy in his eyes. I can’t help thinking that he’s the “oldest” 18-year-old I’ve ever met.
I ask him when he was last happy.
“I don’t know, that’s a good question. I am asking that question every day of myself – ‘When was the last time I was happy?”
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