Sydney, Australia – The United Nations has condemned Australia’s long-term immigration detention of an Ahwaz Iranian asylum seeker.
The United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention stated that the man’s detention was “de facto”, “indefinite” and in violation of international law.
The asylum seeker, who prefers to be called Mr. A for the safety of his family, fled Iran via Indonesia in 2010 and arrived in Australia by boat later that year. He was held in immigration detention for the next 18 months while his case was reviewed before being issued a bridging visa.
He spent the next six years as an asylum seeker in the Australian community. But in 2017 he was detained again.
“He was in a car that he was testing to buy. He was with a friend. There (were two guns) in the car,” said Alison Battisson, Mr A’s lawyer and director and founder of Human Rights for All, an Australian pro-bono law firm working with refugees and asylum seekers.
Mr A was charged with four crimes and was found not guilty of three of them. The fourth has never been convicted and has no criminal record.
But by the time Mr. A was acquitted of the alleged crimes, he was already in immigration detention. His visa had been revoked under Section 501 of the Migration Act, under which any temporary visa holder charged with a crime or otherwise of disturbed character must be detained.
Desperate for release after nearly six years of failed requests for freedom, Mr A brought his case to the UNHRC Working Group on Arbitrary Detention two years ago.
The group’s findings, handed over last month, unequivocally condemned Mr A.
The group reported that the Australian government had not given any “particular reason” for the detention, “such as an individualized likelihood of absconding, danger of crimes against others or risk of acts against national security”.
The group ruled that Mr A’s “deprivation of liberty” violated several legal instruments.
The group also “strongly condemned Mr A’s detention in Australia, not only because of the nature of the detention itself, but also because he is an Iranian dissident and because of his deteriorating mental health,” said Battisson.
Mr. A suffers from depression, which is causally related to his detention, and is unable to receive effective treatment.
“You get advice on the consequences of detention and after the advice session you go back to detention,” she said.
The UNHRC group has called for Mr A’s immediate release and for him to be “paid compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law”. It has also urged the Australian government to investigate the circumstances surrounding his arbitrary detention and “take appropriate action against those responsible for the violation of his rights”.
No penalty mechanisms
Under a long-standing and controversial policy, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat is sent to offshore detention centers for processing and told they will never be allowed to settle in Australia.
Anthony Albanese’s centre-left government, elected last year, has shown no inclination to change policy and Battisson is skeptical that the government will take any of these measures.
When it comes to boat people, Australian politicians are “arrogant enough” to pretend that international law does not apply to them, she said.
The UN has no appropriate punishment mechanisms to incite them to action.
“Almost every UN body dealing with human rights and detention has condemned what Australia is doing,” Battisson said. “But they don’t go to the Security Council to ask for sanctions.”
Mr A is now 43. He said years of incarceration “has wasted (his) life”.
“This is all torture,” he said. “Every day I have these thoughts. We wait hourly for our names to be called by immigration over loudspeaker in detention, to be released.
“I just keep thinking in my room,” he continued. “I think to myself, ‘what did we do that this happened to us?'”
Mr A is not alone. According to political activist Ian Rintoul, the cancellation of a temporary visa for character reasons is common – refugee visa or not.
“Anyone who is not a citizen of the state can have their (visa) revoked under Section 501,” he said.
The difference between temporary visa holders, such as tourists, and refugees and asylum seekers is that the former can usually go home, he explained. Refugees and asylum seekers cannot.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, defines a refugee as “anyone who is unable or unwilling to return to his country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”
“That’s why the detention is indefinite — because the government can’t remove you,” Rintoul said, adding that under the law, the government can detain a person indefinitely if they can’t remove them.
‘I can’t go back’
Mr A is no exception to this. He has not been recognized as a refugee by the Australian government – he is still an asylum seeker – but says he cannot go home.
“My country is occupied,” he said, referring to the Iranian government’s repression of the Ahwaz ethnic group. “It has been occupied by Iran for 95 years. If I go back, not only my life is in danger, but that of my whole family. I can’t go back.”
When Mr. A lived in Iran, he was a vocal member of the National Liberation Movement of Ahwaz (NLMA). He worked to raise awareness about Ahwaz’s Arab history and origins, as well as their alleged persecution by the Iranian government.
“We can’t work, we can’t speak our language, we can’t wear our clothes. Iran belittles our belief(s) and culture,” he said.
He was arrested in 2009, beaten and interrogated for three days for wearing traditional Arab clothing. The following year, the government took him into custody again for having Arab clothing in the back of his car.
Mr. A managed to escape from prison, went straight to the airport and left for Indonesia by plane in the middle of the night.
“I had an overwhelming sense of fear. At any moment I thought they would arrest me,” he said.
In the years since Mr A left Iran, members of his family were arrested several times at home and two of his friends who also worked for the NMLA were killed for trying to flee the country.
“We maintain that (Mr. A’s) risk profile is such that he is a refugee,” said Battisson.
Mr A’s case has been referred to the Australian Government and his team is awaiting a response.
A spokesman for the Australian Home Office told Al Jazeera it could not comment on individual cases but that the government was “committed to a humane and risk-based immigration detention policy”, using “detention as a last resort “.
Immigration detention was subject to “regular review,” they added.
“Those with new, credible protection claims related to changes in their country of origin or personal circumstances may seek ministerial intervention,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Mr. A remains trapped. All he wants, he said, is to live his life “like everyone else”.
“This detention affects our morale and spirit. We don’t know what to do,” said Mr. A. “I fled from the prison in Ahwaz and ended up in prison here. As a human being, I want to live my life. I am really very tired.”