Coming of age in immigration limbo

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?”


Pamela Curr
Campaign Coordinator
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
12 Batman st West Melbourne 3003
ph 03 9326 6066 / 0417517075

“AUSTRALIA. Built by boatpeople.”

One thought on “Coming of age in immigration limbo

  1. Australia: found guilty of violations of international law - indefinite detention refugees says:

    Michael Gordon
    Political editor, The Age
    [thnx mervyn]

    Australia has been found guilty of almost 150 violations of international law over the indefinite detention of 46 refugees in one of the most damning assessments of human rights in this country by a United Nations committee.

    The federal government has been ordered to release the refugees, who have been in detention for more than four years, ”under individually appropriate conditions” and provide them with rehabilitation and compensation.

    Consistent with Australia’s treaty obligations, the government has been given 180 days to assure the committee that it has acted on the recommendations and taken steps to prevent ”similar violations in future.’

    The UN’s Human Rights Committee concluded that the continued detention of the asylum seekers, most of them Sri Lankan Tamils, was ‘cumulatively inflicting serious psychological harm’ and in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

    The committee’s investigation followed a complaint lodged on behalf of the refugees in August 2011 by Ben Saul, of the Sydney Centre for International Law, who said the finding proved the ”grave lawlessness” of Australian refugee policies.

    ”It is a major embarrassment for Australia, which is a member of the Security Council and often criticises human rights in other countries. Australia should do the right thing by respecting its international obligations and treating the refugees decently,” Professor Saul told Fairfax Media. Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has undertaken to ”carefully consider” the committee’s views and respond within the six-month time frame.

    ”The government is actively exploring solutions for persons who are owed protection obligations and are the subject of an adverse security assessment,” his office said.

    The committee, made up of 18 human rights experts, found that, whatever justification there may have been for an initial detention, the government had not demonstrated on an individual basis that the continuous indefinite detention of the refugees was justified.

    ”The state party [government] has not demonstrated that other, less intrusive, measures could not have achieved the same end of compliance with the state party’s need to respond to the security risk that the adult authors [refugees] are said to represent,” it said.

    It also found that those held were ”not informed of the specific risk attributed to each of them” and that meant they were unable to mount a legal challenge to their indefinite detention.

    While the committee has consistently found fault with Australia’s system of mandatory immigration detention, Professor Saul said, this finding went much further. ”It is the largest complaint ever upheld against Australia,” he said.

    The UN body traditionally allowed governments wide discretion where national security was concerned, but found 46 cases of illegal detention, 46 cases of no effective judicial remedies for illegal detention and 46 cases of inhuman or degrading treatment in detention, he said.

    It is believed that at least four of the 46 have since been granted visas after their cases were reviewed. The UN committee is considering a similar complaint from another five refugees.

    ”For the committee to come out and make such stark findings is a pretty firm indication of just how seriously the committee regards these breaches,” Professor Saul said.

    Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, of the Greens, called on the government to move quickly to release the refugees. ”It is heartbreaking that this cruel policy has meant a young mother and her children have been locked up illegally,” she said.

    While the Coalition has signalled that it will continue to take a hard line against refugees deemed threats to security, Mr Dreyfus has conceded the need to explore alternatives to indefinite detention of those deemed security threats.

    ”I don’t think it’s enough to say you can do it, so we will, which has been the approach of successive governments,” he said. ”I think we’ve got to think through what we are doing to other human beings and think through what principles we are bringing to bear, at all times keeping the security of Australia paramount.”

    A spokesman for the Tamil Refugee Council, Trevor Grant, said the UN committee had vindicated the strong belief that indefinite detention was intolerable in a just society.


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