In my recent two-month travels across Australia, my most painful experience was the meetings with the refugees. People from all backgrounds and legal statuses, long after release from offshore camps, are still grappling with the Australian asylum system.
One of them is Shahed. We met at the end of my event at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. We spent years together at the Manus Island camp, yet I didn’t recognise him. He wore a well-ironed suit and looked like a top executive of some company. He had gained weight. His hair was long and his face round. In his appearance, nothing was left of the scrawny, sunburnt man I met at Manus.
I have been following Shahed’s story for 10 years. Following is perhaps the wrong word, as his life is inextricable from mine. In the camp in 2016, we were on beds across from each other, sharing a room with 50 other men. Most of them, like Shahed, were fathers. Shahed had a wife and a four-year-old son. He left Iran in 2013 for Indonesia. There he took a boat for Australia, hoping that he would be able to settle and bring his family over. He was apprehended at sea and taken to Manus.
He somehow smuggled a phone into the camp to stay in touch with his family. He even sent presents to Iran, through people who worked on the island. Like other fathers, he thought about nothing but the next time he would get to see his family. But days piled up and turned into months and years and nothing changed. Infinite detention took its toll. He went to the camp doctor and got strong pills so that he could sleep. In 2019 we were separated when, thanks to the medivac bill that allowed critically ill refugees access to the Australian mainland for medical care, he left the camp for Australia.
During my recent stay in Australia, we met several times, took long walks and drove around Melbourne. Shahed has a job and friends. It looks as though he has overcome enormous odds and set up a normal life, but it looks that way only because he has learnt to hide the deep scars he is carrying. He does it so well, even the colleagues who spend all day with him are unaware of his feelings.
To many, including those actively advocating for the rights of the refugees, release from camp means the end of a nightmare. Only when you take a deeper look into their lives do you realise that the camp is still there, that they carry the camp within them into freedom. Someone like Shahed is free, but he feels that, as he puts it, his feet haven’t touched the ground yet.
Once released, refugees have to deal not only with the psychological matter of having internalised the camp. The system continues to harass refugees and keep them in a precarious position. Once in a while, Shahed receives an official letter recommending that he return to his country because he has no future in Australia. He occasionally receives a call from his lawyer or the immigration office, seemingly only to check on him, but for Shahed it is a constant reminder that his freedom is not complete, that he has been transferred from the offshore, visible camp into an invisible one.
The shadow of the law follows refugees everywhere. In multiple cases, refugees have been taken back to the camp simply for violating the speed limit. This constant control generates an invisible and effective violence, which is difficult to explain to those who have never experienced it.
Free refugees don’t live a free life. What they have is a life in limbo, a nebulous, in-between state with a past so violent they drive it into their subconscious in order to survive, and a future so uncertain they refuse to plan for it. This is quite similar to the mindset one develops within the camp. The refugee remains detained, only the location has changed from the camp to streets and cafes and parties.
On my last day in Australia, the government finally decided to grant permanent residency to 19,000 asylum seekers who live on the Australian mainland. While this is a welcome change, more than 12,000 refugees, including Shahed, were not included.
This is another feature of the Australian immigration system. It has turned randomness into a principle, thereby intensifying the sense of life in limbo for refugees. Every new policy that is announced excludes thousands of eligible people, who don’t understand why. That was the case from the very beginning, when they were taking people from boats to camps. Even the people who came to Australia on the same boat had different fates. Some ended up offshore and some were taken to the mainland, and no one ever clarified the criteria for those decisions.
Mysteriously, the situation of the refugees who came to the mainland from the offshore camps is more complicated than that of people who applied for asylum from the mainland. They don’t even know whether they get to stay in Australia, or whether they will instead be transferred to another country, such as the United States or Canada or New Zealand.
If that happens to Shahed, he will have to wait a few more years in a different country to see his family. The child he left behind in Iran is now 10 years old. Who knows how old his son will be when this nightmare is over?
Translated by Amir Ahmadi Arian.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 11, 2023 as "The invisible camp".
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