One of only two journalists to have visited Nauru since it effectively closed its borders to scrutiny reconnects with one of the families released into community detention in Australia after the Let Them Stay protests. By Karl Mathiesen.

Let Them Stay asylum seekers in community detention limbo

What would this Australian woman think of him? Azad wondered beforehand. He was an “illegal” and the only Australia he knew had been brutal.

They met her at his friend’s house, just days after Azad’s release from detention. For three years he had been trapped in her country’s immigration system. But this woman was warm when she spoke to his wife, Yasaman, and their baby daughter, Hediyeh. And they needed friends.

They spoke together a long time before the woman finally asked if he knew their mutual friend because they had been detainees. Yes, he said, on Nauru.

Instead of judgement, the woman apologised, again and again. Over the coming days, many of her friends would visit Azad and Yasaman’s small government-supplied home, each carrying food or something for the baby – tokens of goodwill and guilt. Some of them drove for more than two hours to get there. Picking up his phone and finding missed calls and messages, Azad turned to his wife: “We are not alone.”

It has been a long, despairing road for the couple since they sought asylum from political oppression in Iran. They were briefly detained on Christmas Island, then spent two years on Nauru and the past year in detention on the Australian mainland, where they were brought temporarily for Yasaman to give birth.

Following the nationwide Let Them Stay protests in February, more than 100 families such as theirs – brought from Nauru to Australia for a variety of mostly medical reasons – have been released from Australian detention centres on community detention visas. Against all hope they have wriggled through the cracks of a system that vowed they would never make it this far. These were the people who were hidden behind razor wire on faraway islands. For the first time, Australians can meet them.

A hoarse and persistent cough suggests Azad’s health is poor. He hints that his state of mind is fragile but it is Yasaman who gives him the most concern. She fears the outside world and at night she follows Azad to the kitchen to make tea so she will not be alone.

“I feel like I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be normal,” she says. “We got used to living in a tiny room together, and that was all. Now it’s terrifying to live in a house with more than two rooms. I won’t go out alone. I can’t do it. This is very strange for me, back at home I used to be a very social and active person. I used to work. I used to do the shopping and everything. It’s very sad because I feel like I can’t do that anymore.”

Her physical health has suffered badly from a complicated pregnancy and the side effects of mental illness. Some of her afflictions, which cannot be detailed here for her protection, will never heal.

Hediyeh spent most of the first year of her life in a single room, her parents too scared to take her outside and expose her to the painful bites of the mosquitos that plagued the detention centre in which she was born. Now she screams at the open space of their modest suburban home. Passing cars send her into terrified wails. But her hair is thick and black and she is growing fast. Azad knows she will recover given the chance.

“We owe an appreciation to the people of Australia,” says Azad. “Because what I understand was that immigration wanted to, and they still want to, send people like me back to Nauru.”

That decision remains in the hands of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, says Daniel Webb, one of the advocates from the Human Rights Law Centre who launched a recent unsuccessful High Court challenge to the legitimacy of Australia’s offshore detention program. The law centre  lost the case in February after the government retroactively changed the law, but it helped bring Australians into the streets. Webb says the granting of community detention visas is the “first step towards compassion and the first sign of decency we’ve seen in a long time”.

But it doesn’t amount to a substantive change in policy. Although Dutton declined to answer questions, he has said previously that he has no intention of letting these families rebuild their lives in Australia. No indication of when the government plans to return them to Nauru has been provided.

Madeline Gleeson, an international refugee law expert at the University of New South Wales, says the only thing keeping these families from being deported is public pressure. Meanwhile, she says, “they are in a terrible limbo”, with this year’s election looming as a crucial moment. She adds that neither major party has foreshadowed a softening from Kevin Rudd’s 2013 pre-election policy that none who arrive by boat will ever call Australia home.

Azad was on Christmas Island during that election. He had made the crossing from Indonesia just days after Rudd’s policy shift. The “nasty game” isn’t over, he says, but taking a political hiatus. “I know story very well. The government is very nice before the election. But after that, everything is possible.”

Whichever party is victorious in the coming election has had its choices limited by last week’s ruling by Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court that the detention centre on Manus Island is unconstitutional. That centre now looks certain to close. Dutton has indicated the 905 men detained there could be relocated to Nauru.

Meanwhile, the asylum seekers on Nauru have endured their darkest fortnight. A 23-year-old Iranian man – Azad’s neighbour in detention on Nauru – died and a young Somali woman suffered grave injuries after both set themselves on fire in separate protests. Another six detainees have reportedly attempted suicide.

A key difference between 2013 and today is the appetite of a nation that has grown sick on its own brutality. Polling by Essential in February showed that public support for offshore processing had softened for the first time in several years. Previous attempts to deport families such as Azad’s back to Nauru have aroused formidable opposition, not only from activists, but churches and hospitals.

“Momentum for change is clearly building. People are realising that the status quo is unsustainable and inexcusably cruel,” says Webb.

Nauru – a place where Azad has in the past told The Saturday Paper he had thought of killing himself every day – looms large over every waking moment of the couple’s hard-won pseudo-freedom.

Yasaman says: “I can’t focus or see a future, I dread to think about it. It scares me.” They would, in theory, accept an offer of sanctuary as pledged by nearby churches. But Azad believes the government would shut off their escape.

Many conditions of their community detention are painfully bureaucratic. They are forbidden from speaking to the media, a restriction Azad says he has broken in order to help his friends who remain on Nauru. Their government-contracted caseworker must do everything for them, from calling someone to fix the sink to changing a broken lock. The understaffed service provider takes weeks to perform jobs that could be done in minutes.

The family has been promised $600 a fortnight to live on. But it took weeks for the money to materialise, forcing them to initially beg for food from a local church. Calls to their caseworker proved fruitless for weeks.

“It’s not perfect,” says Azad. “But it’s 100 per cent better than being in detention.”

Nauru’s detention centre was a place of terror for them. The government rushed to put as many people as possible on Manus Island and Nauru, beyond the aid of lawyers such as Webb. Night and day, squads of guards in riot gear would burst through doors and friends would disappear.

But when the court action and protests provided focused attention on the government’s treatment of the detainees, the deportations back to offshore centres stopped and the community releases began. Azad describes the weeks after the announcement of community detention visas as “an agony of suspense”. Dozens of families were granted the visas and flown to new homes. “And I was just watching them, saying goodbye to them,” Azad says.

Then, last month, sitting across from the couple in a detention centre interview room, an immigration officer told them he had good news. Everything had been arranged for them – a house, money and vital services. Azad only needed to agree to the conditions of their new community detention. He couldn’t sign fast enough.

Two guards accompanied the family to the airport and sat with them in the lounge, holding their boarding passes and making notes of everything they did and said. When Azad asked for his money to buy coffee, they said they were not allowed. The guards walked with them all the way to the plane, before handing them their boarding passes and the few possessions they were allowed to take with them from detention. At the last moment, they told the family they were happy for them. “And we were free,” Azad says.

On the plane, he sat with his wife and baby. “It was a combination of excitement and some sort of grief,” he says. “Maybe it wasn’t worth it. I paid a huge price for that. It took three years of my life. Some of the best years I could have. Three years of my youth.”  

When The Saturday Paper first spoke with Azad, more than a year before the events described in this story, he was living on Nauru. Then, he said he had grown to hate Australia and its people. He wondered how he could ever live here. Things are different now.

“I really love Australia. It’s a lovely country,” he says, then pauses and chuckles. “Except the government.”


Details, including the names of the subjects, have been changed in order to protect identities. Additional reporting by Rémi Chauvin.  

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2016 as "Community limbo".

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