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Mojtaba, 29, has not been able to see his Australian wife and child since visitors were banned in detention centres. He may soon be deported back to Afghanistan without the chance to say goodbye. By Abdul Karim Hekmat.

Hazara asylum seeker faces exile from his son

It was almost a month ago, on September 11, that Serco security guards arrived at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre and loaded Mojtaba into a car. The Hazara asylum seeker would make the drive from Western Sydney to Canberra handcuffed, wedged between four guards. Their destination was the Afghan embassy, where Mojtaba was compelled to sign travel documents that would send him back to Afghanistan, the country he’d fled eight years ago.

He signed the paperwork to avoid being sent to Christmas Island, which has been happening to friends at Villawood. He said people are taken at night and he is afraid of it. “Australia’s immigration system has tortured me for eight years,” he says. “Going to Christmas Island is a slow death. In Afghanistan they put a bullet in your head, but it is better to die once than to die every day.”

Mojtaba does not want to return to Afghanistan, but feels he has no options left. An officer at Villawood told him he would likely be deported within weeks. Since he has been in Australia, he has married an Australian woman and had a child, but he has not seen his wife, Marsha, or their son, Adam, since February, when restrictions were placed on visitors to detention centres.

He cannot apply for a spousal visa because he arrived by boat.

 

Mojtaba fled Afghanistan as the sole survivor in his family, and has maintained he will be killed or persecuted if he goes back. He survived a treacherous 16-day journey by boat, battling storms, heat and dehydration, before arriving on Christmas Island in June 2012. One fellow asylum seeker died on the journey. “The trauma of the boat still stays with me,” he says.

Mojtaba spent a few months detained on Christmas Island before being released into the community on a bridging visa. With no income, though, he ended up sleeping in parks and on the streets in Western Sydney.

One night, in December 2012, he met Marsha on a train. They walked around the Opera House together and went to a party at Marsha’s cousin’s home, staying up until the early hours. Soon they fell in love – Mojtaba told Marsha how he felt about her and that he was a refugee who had arrived by boat; she declared the same affection, telling him she was the daughter of a Philippine immigrant.

“Marsha saved me,” Mojtaba told me. “I had no home. She gave me shelter, she cared for me.”

In February 2013, shortly after they met, Mojtaba’s application for a protection visa was rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal.

While the tribunal accepted that he was a Hazara and would face “harm” if he returned to his village in Afghanistan, it recommended Mojtaba could “relocate elsewhere” in the country, possibly to Kabul, where the tribunal said there was “not a real chance of a real risk” to him.

Many people dispute this. Experts say the Taliban is stronger in Afghanistan than it has been in decades. Zainullah Naseri, the first Hazara to be deported back to Afghanistan by the Australian government in August 2014, was captured by the Taliban upon his return and tortured while trying to get to his home town of Jaghori.

I saw Zainullah there, disoriented, confused and shocked, saying he was “neither on Earth nor on sky”. He was still reeling from the trauma he endured at the hands of Australia’s immigration system, having been kept in solitary confinement for five days at Villawood. He was under so much pressure from the government to return home, he said, it felt as if there was “a wasp buzzing in my head”.

After the tribunal’s decision in Mojtaba’s case, he continued to live in the community with no visa. The couple defied Marsha’s family’s opposition to her being with a Muslim refugee and later had Adam together. Despite uncertainty over his visa status, Mojtaba felt hopeful about his new life. He and Marsha rented a place, bought furniture and a car with money he borrowed from his friends.

“It was the happiest moment of my life,” Mojtaba said. “I lost everything, but I had Adam and Marsha. They gave me enough hope to celebrate life.”

 

Mojtaba was out to get milk for Adam, who was not yet one, when he got a call from the Department of Immigration in September 2014. He was told he needed to attend an appointment, and that he must drive straight to their offices.

When he arrived, he was told he did not have a valid visa and would be taken to the Villawood detention centre.

“I cried and pleaded,” Mojtaba later told me. “Let me take the milk which is at the back of my car to my son. Our home is far from the shop, my wife can’t drive.”

Mojtaba was taken to the detention centre, where he was quarantined in a windowless room for eight days. “It was a torture house; a minute of it passed like a day,” Mojtaba recalled. “I could not sit; I paced the room for seven and eight hours until I collapsed.”

Marsha, who was waiting at home, found out what had happened only when Mojtaba called from Villawood, apologising for not being able to deliver the milk. It was still in the back of his car, he told her, parked in front of the Immigration office. He was later fined for leaving the vehicle there.

“I was shocked how cruel they were; they did not let him even bring milk for my baby,” Marsha said. “I was crying almost every day. The sudden separation took a huge toll on me.”

She had to get counselling and, unable to pay the rent, moved in with a cousin. To visit Mojtaba in Villawood, Marsha had to travel for two hours with Adam in a pram, changing buses and trains. She brought Afghan food, such as Kabuli pulau (lamb stuffed with rice and raisin), because the detention centre food, Mojtaba told her, “tasted like straw”. They talked, laughed and shared food, but at the end of the day, her partner would disappear behind a clanking security door and Marsha had to travel another two hours back home.

In July 2015, the couple got married inside the detention centre. Other refugees played music, using buckets as drums. For a year, Marsha tried every possible way to get Mojtaba released, even writing to Malcolm Turnbull after he became prime minister. In the letter, she wrote about her difficulty as a single mother, about the incarceration of her husband without any crime having been committed. She wrote about the agony of visiting Villawood almost every day for a year, how it wore her down. She pleaded for the prime minister to intervene, and in September 2015 he did. Mojtaba was released onto a bridging visa, which meant he had no right to work and no access to Medicare. But he was with his family again.

 

I met Marsha, Mojtaba and Adam in late 2015. Although they were struggling financially, they were overjoyed at being reunited. “I am so happy to see him come home,” Marsha said, “to live like a normal family.” Adam clung to Mojtaba’s hand.

In April 2016, the family moved to Camden, into the home of a man who met Mojtaba and Marsha when he visited Villawood in 2015. After learning they were on the verge of becoming homeless, he provided them with a room and groceries. They ended up living in his home for three years, often sharing meals together and good times.

But the long stretches in detention had affected Mojtaba. When he was held in Villawood detention centre between 2014 and 2015, psychologists warned that his mental health was being harmed by ongoing detention and uncertainty over his visa. They highlighted his history of trauma, including in Afghanistan, on the boat and in detention.

A psychologist from the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors stated in 2015 that Mojtaba was clinically symptomatic for post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. They recommended he be released into the community. He’d already had a “severe case of depression, anxiety, insomnia and panic symptoms”, another psychologist had noted in 2013, following the rejection of his refugee application.

Mojtaba plunged into further depression and developed anxiety when his visa expired in September 2016 and was not renewed. He managed to get another visa in 2018, but it was only valid for three months.

In April last year he was taken back to Villawood for breaching his “code of behaviour” – a measure introduced by Scott Morrison when he was minister for Immigration, which allows for visas to be revoked for offences including traffic violations and disorderly conduct.

If this happens, the asylum seeker is confined to detention, with no legal avenues to reverse the minister’s decision. In Mojtaba’s case, he had been charged with drink-driving and public nuisance, although he had been given an 18-month good behaviour bond by a court.

Scott Cosgriff, a senior solicitor at the Human Rights Law Centre, says Mojtaba’s experience is a common problem for asylum seekers. “If the charge is dropped by the police or if the person is found innocent, they don’t necessarily get the visa back,” says Cosgriff. “They stay in detention.”

Since Mojtaba was redetained, his mental health has further deteriorated. He sleeps “just an hour or two” at night with the help of sleeping tablets and antidepressants. The separation from his family and their dog, Buddy, has damaged him.

“When I was taken to Villawood detention centre, my dog did not eat for a week and wandered around looking for me,” Mojtaba says. “He found a sweaty shirt, slept on it for a week and whimpered.” Mojtaba says “his heart burns” when he thinks about it.

 

On Tuesday, Adam turned seven. He had hoped his father would come home to celebrate. Mojtaba had missed Adam’s previous birthday because he was in detention. Marsha has hidden her husband’s impending deportation from their son. “I don’t want to break his heart,” she told me.

As I filed this story, I received a call from Mojtaba. Australian Border Force had cancelled the plan to return him to Afghanistan, saying they can’t send escorts to accompany him on the flight, due to the pandemic. But the stay is only temporary – a delay until international travel resumes. Mojtaba wishes at least that he could be released in the meantime. “If they can’t send me back, give me a visa,” he said. “I want to be reunited with my son and wife. Why should my son suffer like this?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2020 as "Hazara asylum seeker faces exile from his son".

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Abdul Karim Hekmat was a finalist for the 2018 Walkley Freelance Journalist of the Year.