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Two gay Iranians who met and fell in love on Nauru are now virtual prisoners in their own home on the island, downcast and fearful for their safety in a country where homosexuality is illegal. By Scout Boxall.

Victims of love: life as a gay refugee on Nauru

Nima in his kitchen in Nauru.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Over a crackling phone line, Nima explains why he fled Iran three years ago: “Since I was young, when my father noticed that I [was] a homosexual, he started beating me up.” He quietly recalls the abuse meted out by authorities in Iran, where homosexuality carries the death penalty: “I was tormented. I was put under torture. I was raped. I was beaten.” 

In 2013, Nima came to Christmas Island by boat. From there, he was sent to Nauru, where homosexuality is punishable by 14 years’ hard labour. 

Nima describes constant abuse inflicted upon him by camp officials and other detainees. Passing through a security checkpoint, a Nauruan guard tried to sexually assault Nima with a metal detector. Eating breakfast one morning, another asylum seeker approached him, pulled down his pants and ordered Nima to have sex with him. Other detainees swore at him, threatened to beat him or tried to force open the door of his cubicle when he was showering. 

It was here that Nima met Ashkan, another gay man from Iran. Despite the inhumane camp conditions, the two men grew closer. During the day, they ate together, washed each other’s clothes and protected each other. At night, they lay in bed and talked of their lives in Iran and their hopes for the future. 

“We are lovers; I feel that our souls have been merged together,” Nima wrote in a 2014 statement to his immigration agent. “Now that I have Ashkan in my life, I no longer feel I am wandering alone in the wilderness.” 

Under Nauru’s draconian 1899 penal code, sex between men is considered a crime “against the order of nature”. Before their release from the camp into the local community, an Australian immigration lawyer informed Nima and Ashkan that – for their own safety – they would have to hide their sexual orientation from the Nauruan government. The same lawyer presented them with a form acknowledging the criminality of their relationship and undertaking to conceal their homosexuality, which the couple refused to sign.

This incredible episode recalls a 2003 case, in which an Australian Refugee Review Tribunal initially determined that a queer couple should simply return to Bangladesh and avoid persecution by exercising “discretion”. Upon appeal, the Australian High Court found that it was unreasonable to expect gay men to live in a country where they were vulnerable to state-sanctioned homophobia. The Bangladeshi men were granted humanitarian visas and allowed to stay in Australia.

Since their resettlement in 2014, Nima and Ashkan have been victims of a series of violent, steadily escalating homophobic attacks. The couple’s relationship is common knowledge on the small island. In July last year, Nima and Ashkan were ambushed after picking up groceries. Three local men blocked their way and, after ascertaining that they were partners, beat them to the ground with wooden sticks. Vomiting and severely concussed, Ashkan was hospitalised overnight. In pictures taken after the July attack, both men have thick red welts across their torsos.

Nima and Ashkan’s legal team at the Human Rights Law Centre arranged for Tim Wilson, then human rights commissioner, to raise their case with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. They were told that the men were “safe and comfortable” in Nauru. After the July bashing, the law centre raised the issue in a letter to the minister for immigration. A month later, an immigration official replied with a letter that dismissed the attacks as merely “unpleasant behaviour”, referred the case to the Nauru Police Force and encouraged Nima and Ashkan to be “active players” in the Nauruan community.

Anna Brown, Nima and Ashkan’s lawyer, was not impressed. “Australia has a moral duty, and an obligation under international law,” she told The Saturday Paper. “It sent these men to a country where their love for one another is treated as a crime and where they face physical attacks.”

Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young has also voiced her concern for Nima and Ashkan. “These men are being subjected to this brutality because they are gay and the Australian government is happy to put them in harm’s way,” she said.

Forced into silence

Although Nauru’s 1899 penal code is rarely invoked in court, the risk of being prosecuted is enough to force gay men such as Nima and Ashkan into silence. The anti-gay laws make queer-bashing a socially acceptable act of vigilantism in Nauru – technically illegal, but tacitly condoned by an antiquated and dysfunctional justice system. After the trauma of life in Iran and in detention, the men do not trust police.

Since winning preselection in the blue-ribbon seat of Goldstein, Tim Wilson has not made a public statement in support of Nima and Ashkan’s case. In an email to The Saturday Paper, he hinted that the men should not have been sent to Nauru, but stopped short of supporting their request for resettlement in Australia. “No person should be resettled in a country where they are at a serious risk of refoulement,” he wrote. “Should this risk occur, an alternative arrangement should be found, through application to a third country for resettlement.”

In its letter to the Human Rights Law Centre in August, the immigration department urged Nima and Ashkan to consider resettlement in Cambodia. 

Crippled by poverty and corruption, Cambodia consistently produces more refugees than it accepts. Since Australia signed a resettlement agreement with Cambodia in 2014, only five refugees have opted to be sent there. Of those, three have since returned to their country of origin. 

Having exhausted their legal options, Nima and Ashkan went public with their story in early March. The Human Rights Law Centre and All Out, a global LGBT advocacy group, launched a petition in support of the men’s resettlement in Australia. It has more than 33,000 signatures. Activist group No Pride in Detention disrupted Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade to protest the couple’s resettlement in Nauru. But, despite a flurry of protests, Nima and Ashkan’s case failed to garner momentum.

At this point, they face a Kafkaesque dilemma. They can stay in Nauru, where their very existence as a couple is illegal, and attempt to survive by being “discreet”. Or they can go to Cambodia, where they are neither safe nor welcome. 

The men live in constant fear. They do not leave their house unless absolutely necessarily, so they cannot work, travel to take English classes or meaningfully interact with the refugee community. “Staying all day in the room has affected our mental state,” Nima says, having not left the one-bedroom unit in three weeks. “It has become unbearable.” At times, his anxiety is so severe that his body shakes uncontrollably.

The Human Rights Law Centre has footage of the men going about their daily life in Nauru, which was filmed on a smartphone by a shaky-handed Ashkan. Here is Nima brushing his teeth, carefully styling his hair into a topknot. Here he is making a cup of tea, adding heaped tablespoons of sugar. There’s an ironing-board leaning haphazardly against the shower door, two single beds shoved together, a simple stovetop. The unit looks like a student bedsitter, but the blinds are drawn. Nima shuffles about slowly, like a prisoner in his cell.

“We just want to live in a place with peace and love,” Nima says quietly, speaking over the phone from the same room. “We want to be able to love each other in peace.”

Nima and Ashkan’s names have been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Victims of love". Subscribe here.

Scout Boxall
is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.