An arbitrary law against the settlement of boat arrivals means a mother and daughter face deportation, a decade after arriving, while her husband and son are made citizens. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The Australian refugee laws splitting families
The family* are together for now, in a Sydney rental – mother, father and their two adult children. But, Ashtad says, it feels as if a large axe hangs above their heads. While they may live together, the four are cleaved by their immigration status. Father and son are now Australian citizens; mother and daughter have been on a string of bridging visas, in community detention, for almost a decade, and the Australian government wants them deported. New Zealand is the option.
Ashtad and his family – mother Maryam, father Farshid, and sister Aliyeh – are from Tehran. Sometime around 2000, Maryam converted to Christianity – the rest of the family later did the same. Under Iranian sharia, this conversion is both a sin and a crime, punishable by floggings or prison. Maryam, the most devout, practised her faith secretly.
In 2013, Maryam and Aliyeh’s car was stopped at a checkpoint operated by Iran’s Guidance Patrol – the so-called morality police and vice squad that enforces sharia. It is the same squad whose fatal treatment of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last September – she died in custody after being arrested for wearing an “improper” hijab – lit months of protests and lethal retaliation from Iranian authorities.
Fatefully for Maryam and Aliyeh, the Guidance Patrol officers found a Bible in their car. “There were underground churches then,” Ashtad tells The Saturday Paper. “Pastors were being arrested for offering Bible studies. It was a very, very sensitive time.”
Maryam and Aliyeh decided, quickly, to flee. The destination was Australia, to which they arrived, by boat, from Indonesia. At the time, Ashtad was studying medicine in the Philippines. Farshid remained in Tehran.
Their boat was intercepted by Australian authorities and shepherded to Christmas Island, where mother and daughter were processed on July 25, 2013. This date is significant. Less than a week before, on July 19, then prime minister Kevin Rudd announced: “As of today, asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia.”
The new rules would not apply to those already detained on Manus Island or Nauru, or those in Australian detention centres – a cohort that would largely become eligible for temporary protection visas when they were reinstated the following year by the Abbott government, or for other, more permanent pathways.
Maryam and Aliyeh were told they would never be settled in Australia, and would spend six months in the Christmas Island detention centre; they were transferred to the Nauruan camps in early 2014. The Saturday Paper has seen several of Maryam’s psychiatric reports, which describe the grave deterioration of her mental health. After 13 months in Nauru, and several suicide attempts, she was transferred to an Australian hospital for treatment – including more than a dozen courses of electroconvulsive therapy. Her daughter was permitted to join her.
After her release from hospital, Maryam and Aliyeh were sent to Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre – an environment that once again, according to psychiatric reports, worsened Maryam’s health. While she suffered from chronic depression in Iran – she had lost her first husband in a car accident while their daughter was only a month old – the medics had no doubt that the detention centre was compounding Maryam’s agonies and requested her release to community detention. By now she was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations of her late husband. There was another suicide attempt. Sometimes, in counselling sessions, she would clutch a teddy bear. “She is in a compound with other females who moved to detention centre for deportation due to their criminal history,” one psychiatric note reads. “She is very anxious and unsettled in her current environment. The anxiety about safety of her and her daughter has put her at risk of relapse of depression.”
Another note from 2016 reads: “This is a tough environment for a vulnerable woman. I strongly recommend community detention … People who suffer from recurrent major depression require medication, appropriate psychological intervention and a safe and stress-free environment. The risk of relapse with increasing risk of suicide is high when appropriate treatment stops and stressors continues. [Maryam] and her daughter are currently exposed to violence and bully[ing].”
In 2019, both Ashtad and his father arrived in Australia by plane. Their application for refugee status was eventually approved and, this year, both men were granted Australian citizenship. Ashtad currently works as a medical doctor.
Sanmati Verma is a specialist immigration lawyer with the Human Rights Law Centre in Melbourne and is familiar with the family’s story. She notes that Maryam and Aliyeh are part of a doomed cohort of people. “There are people who fall on either side of quite fatal date lines,” she says. “For instance, we have one family that arrived in two boats, on either side of that date line – two members of the family were transferred to Nauru, and the other three remained in Australia and were subject to the ‘fast track’ assessment process, and ultimately received temporary protection. Those three members are about to receive permanent visas, while the two others who were transferred to Nauru are barred from applying for visas. There is no sense in this at all.
“[Ashtad’s] mother and his sister, like others in that cohort, fell on the wrong side of an arbitrary date line, the result of which was that they had to be transferred to Nauru. And then once they were transferred back, they were subject again to an inflexible, unbending bar on making any further visa application. Even now, when history has moved on and the family has deep connections with Australia. [Ashtad’s] family are just one example.”
In September last year, Maryam received a letter from the federal government. It was bluntly worded. “The Australian Government is strong against people smuggling and irregular maritime ventures,” it said. “It will not allow any person who entered Australia by boat without a valid visa and is subject to regional processing to settle in Australia. The Australian Government’s policy will not change and it affects you.
“The announced temporary protection visa changes do not relate to you, as you are not eligible for a temporary or permanent protection visa in Australia. Settlement in Australia is not an option for you.
“I understand that you did not engage with the United States in regards to its resettlement offer and have not yet expressed interest in New Zealand resettlement. While temporarily in Australia you are either unable to work or study while in community detention, or while on a bridging visa must work and cannot study and do not know if your visa will be extended after six months. This does not provide you with any certainty or a settlement pathway. Resettlement in New Zealand does.”
The reader might note the aggressive narrowing of this letter – its refusal to acknowledge that Maryam is not a solitary woman but a sick wife and mother whose children and husband of 38 years are with her and who has lived here, in one way or another, for almost a decade.
In response, the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors – a non-profit organisation that works with refugees – appealed to the federal government on behalf of the family. “It is clear that the possibility of [Maryam’s] being resettled from Australia has already resulted in the deterioration of her mental health,” the letter read. “Her actual resettlement would remove her from her current mental health support and from her family whom her counsellor identifies as protective factors of her suicidal tendency. As noted in the attached report, ‘she is scared that separation from her family members would induce her desperation, unbearable emotional pain and suicidal intention’.
“Given the acute risks to [Maryam’s] mental health, resettlement to a third country is not appropriate at this time, and we encourage the Department to consider the option of allowing [Maryam] to remain in Australia with her family permanently.”
The government has not changed its decision. Sanmati Verma says that while the immigration minister’s powers are problematically expansive – a legacy of the Abbott government – there are “beneficial” powers that can be exercised. “[Ashtad’s family] are in the invidious bind, having to decide whether to uproot themselves and resettle in New Zealand,” she says. “That is the only solution on offer. And if we just step back and think about it, we have people here on our shores, who Australia should be responsible to, many of whom were made sick by what was done to them in Australian-sponsored facilities, who are being pushed off to New Zealand. And now people have to decide whether or not to fundamentally uproot their lives, because that’s the only opportunity that’s available to them. And this government has shown no indication of flexibility, even in circumstances where there are deep family and community links to Australia.
“Imagine the pain of having, as a child, a visa status that you couldn’t communicate to your parents – how absolutely isolating and profoundly dividing that would be for a family. If that’s not a compassionate circumstance, I don’t know what is. And I don’t know why a power would have been created by a legislature if it’s exercise would be withheld in cases like that.”
I asked Ashtad about his citizenship ceremony, held in Parramatta this year. Was it bittersweet? “No,” he says, emotionally. “It was a shameful day for me. My dad didn’t attend. All of us were feeling shameful for our mum. She is supposed to be Australian citizen long, long, long ago. It was very painful for my father. She still has no rights after 11 years, and those who are here four years are citizens now. In front of my mum, I felt shameful. At the entrance they give you the flag, and they gave one to my mother, and she said she didn’t want that because she wasn’t welcome. My mum was there taking photo next to me and next to the flag of Australia. It felt fake. How should I accept what they say about fairness and equality?”
Last month, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong announced further sanctions against Iran. “We’ve expanded the sanctions framework for Iran, and now the government is utilising this to target those who oppress women and girls in Iran,” she said. “Australia stands in solidarity with the people of Iran, especially the courageous women and girls who continue to demonstrate immense bravery in the face of ongoing repression.”
Ashtad read these comments and they angered him. He thought they were hypocritical. “My mum is one of these ladies from Iran,” he says. “My question to the minister is: why are you torturing this asylum seeker for 11 years?”
* Names have been changed.
Lifeline 13 11 14.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Irrational date line".
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