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Assistant professor Dr Laura Beth Bugg on the campaign to free refugees from Manus Island and find them a permanent home.

Australia detained him, but these Australians are trying to set him free



For more than ten years hundreds of people seeking asylum in Australia have been detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

The Australian government has made it clear that none of them will be resettled here.

But now a group of refugee advocates have a new plan to help them - involving a third country: Canada.

Today, one of those advocates, assistant professor Dr Laura Beth Bugg, on the campaign to free refugees from Manus Island and find them a permanent home.   

 

Guest: Assistant professor and co-director of Ads Up Canada, Dr Laura Beth Bugg. 

 

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

For more than ten years hundreds of people seeking asylum in Australia have been forcibly and indefinitely detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

 

The Australian government has made it clear that none of them will be resettled here.

 

But a group of refugee advocates have developed a new plan to help them, involving a third country: Canada. 

 

One of those advocates is Assistant Professor Dr Laura Beth Bugg. She’s spent the last three years trying to help an Iranian refugee who has become like a brother to her. 

 

Today - the story of Laura Beth and Ali.

 

It’s Thursday, December 16.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Laura Beth, you have been working with a group of refugees Australia has detained on Manus Island - trying to get them off that island, to your home in Canada. There is one refugee in particular who I want to ask you about - Ali. When did you first talk to him? 

 

LAURA BETH:

Yeah, so I first spoke with Ali early in 2019, and he was one of a group of men in Manus who had found out that there were people in Toronto who were interested in privately sponsoring refugees. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

I was 23 when I arrived in the Australian Refugee Centre, and now I'm 32. And every second of it I was just thinking about it, am I going to make it? Am I going to survive? 

 

LAURA BETH:

Ali really stood out for me. He was just so intelligent, thoughtful. Just his sheer determination.  

 

Archival tape – Ali:

2013 I left Iran, and then I came to Indonesia. So policy was… transferring all the arrivals by boat to offshore. That's how I end up to an offshore detention centre in Manus Island. 

 

Since that time, I've been here.

 

LAURA BETH:

You know, he said. I want to go to law school. I want to be a human rights lawyer and I want to go to university as an academic. I just really connected with this and thought all of this intelligence, and talent and thoughtfulness, is just being wasted, and I would love to get him here and see what happens to him. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

And I was lucky to have wonderful people like Laura Beth. She's been helping everyone, not only from our people… all around the world. 

 

RUBY:

And how did this project begin? How did you start trying to help these people who were seeking asylum in Australia?

 

LAURA BETH:

So I was a lecturer at the University of Sydney, and in early 2014 I began a project looking at faith based organisations who were working with unaccompanied minor asylum seekers. And I was interviewing people that had just returned from Manus and Nauru, and the stories that they were telling were just absolutely horrific. 

 

Archival tape – Four Corners:

The violence, the bashings and the killing on Manus Island are still shrouded in mystery.

 

LAURA BETH:

Physical and sexual violence. It just, you know, it really destroyed me. 

 

Archival tape – Al Jazeera: 

In the past, prisoners have sewn their lips together in protest. Last year, during unrest inside, outsiders broke in and beat one man to death.

 

LAURA BETH:

But it also was really supremely frustrating, because as an academic, I felt like I wasn't doing enough that was concrete. 

 

So shortly after that, my family moved to Toronto and I had researched the private sponsorship of refugees programme, which is this extraordinary programme unique in the world, where any five Canadian citizens or permanent residents can get together and sponsor a refugee to Canada. 

 

So as long as they raise a minimum amount of funds, which is about eighteen thousand Australian dollars - which all goes to support the refugees during their first year in Canada…  

 

So, as soon as we received our permanent residents after we'd moved to Canada, we said we really want to do this. 

 

And my husband, also, his grandmother - she was a Holocaust survivor, and she had been given refuge by Australia in 1938. So this was something that was quite important to both of us. 

 

RUBY:

So the refugee you’re trying to help right now - Ali. How long have you been trying to get him to Canada? 

 

LAURA BETH:

So it's been quite a long process, so I mean, I first started talking to Ali and, you know, sort of early 2019. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

I know Laura Beth through our friends that they introduced me to her. She advised me about this process and that's how I got in contact. 

 

LAURA BETH:

And there are different sort of, milestones along the way where you think, OK, this is wonderful, this is happening. So, when you submit the application and the Canadian government acknowledges it, that's one wonderful thing because you've raised the money, it's there. You know, it's going to go forward. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

I'm actually lucky and I was lucky to have this option that I can go to Canada on the sponsorship programme. 

 

LAURA BETH:

And then once interviews actually started, that was another huge milestone. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

They just do all the paperwork. It's just unbelievable and incredible effort that they're putting in.

 

LAURA BETH:

And then when Ali had his interview, and he felt like it went well, and then he received confirmation that he would be going to Canada. I think that was, at least for me… was a really important moment.  

 

Archival tape – Ali:

Personally, myself, I still have not informed my family because…I don't know. I just felt that I need to go and get there and then inform my family.  After things happened here, we just can't believe it! Can’t believe it until it happened!

 

LAURA BETH:

But, you know, I think for Ali, he has not actually believed that this was going to happen until he received his plane ticket from the IOM, the International Organisation for Migration, because he has been burnt so many times. You know, I remember him telling me one time there was a ship parked right off the coast of Manus and the guard said to them, “Oh, look, here they are, they're coming to get you to take you to Australia”, which was just sort of a cruel joke, right, that they were playing on them. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

Oh, how can I bring back those horrible and terrible days that I had. I can't believe it that I'm leaving, and I can't believe I made it to the point that I'm getting out alive.  

 

RUBY:

So Ali's visa is approved and he's got a flight to Toronto. What happens as he makes his way to the airport? 

 

LAURA BETH:

So Ali had his ticket. He had his Canadian travel visa. He was on the way to the airport. We thought that this was going to happen just as we'd been imagining it for the past three years. And it wasn't until he was at the gate and watching people board the plane that he found out that he would not be on it. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

Every single people came here, like ordinary people they just said “come”, and then they got their check in, and that’s it, they left…except us. And then when it came to our turn, the adviser… “sir, you need to fill this form online.”

 

LAURA BETH:

He finds out that he needs to have some sort of transit document to transit through the UK. So this had come in I think just three days before. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

We told them “sir we are refugee, we've been here for nine years…we have no idea we are not citizens of any country whatsoever.” 

 

LAURA BETH:

So this was a huge problem and there was not time for them to complete it before the plane took off. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

Because part of the requirement is asking you to scan your passport, but which passport? We have no real passport because… which passport are they talking about, we have no idea. 

 

LAURA BETH:

So Ali and the others were literally standing at the boarding gate, watching everyone board this plane and watch the plane taxi take off without them on it. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

I almost had a heart attack. How can you guys do stuff like that? This is a very big mistake. We just lost our flight just like that. 

 

LAURA BETH:

I mean, I just, I don't even have words for how, how gutted we all were. And I think for Ali, it also just confirmed everything that he thought about the process and his poor luck and what happens to people who are in PNG and just that he would never get out of there. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

And now, actually, at the moment, we are right at the airport. We have nowhere to go. We have no place to go as well as… we don't know what is coming next. 

 

RUBY:

We'll be back after this. 

 

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RUBY:

Laura Beth, Ali wasn't able to get on his flight to Canada, which obviously is a huge disappointment to him and to you. So can you tell me what happened next? What did he do? What did you do? 

 

LAURA BETH:

So after that, we were all scrambling. So everyone who's part of this partnership, we were all trying to figure out why this bureaucratic snafu had happened and ensure that it did not happen again. 

 

So the first thing was to make sure that…that Ali and the others were taken to some place Covid free because we didn't want them to then wait another week, go back to the airport, and then have someone test positive for COVID and not be able to travel. 

 

It was very difficult because they had all, you know, given away clothes that they knew they weren't going to wear anymore to friends. They had given away a lot of their possessions. They really had nowhere to sort of go back to. So we had to make sure that they had someplace to stay.

And eventually we booked Ali's flights for a week later.

 

RUBY:

That must be such a relief. 

 

LAURA BETH:

Oh my God, it is just…it was such a weight lifted off. Ali went to the airport. He tested negative for COVID. He went to the gate. But this time, he sent me pictures of him as he was walking onto the plane.

 

Archival tape – Ali:

I couldn't even sleep last night because of the excitement I had. Because I don’t know, I mean, it's like, you're getting your life and freedom back, you know, it's just this very strange feeling. I don't know how to describe it.  

 

LAURA BETH:

I mean, freedom actually looks like something. When you look at people, you can tell the difference between someone who has been held captive for eight years and someone who is sitting on a plane who knows that they are now free, like you can actually see it in their body, in their face and to see, like, a genuine smile. You know, as Ali said, I'm feeling something that I haven't felt for eight years. And I think it's happiness. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

I didn't know that I eventually could get my freedom back one day. 

 

It is a very strange feeling and I actually spoke with other people. They have it, they have exactly the same. You know, emotional feeling that I have. It's like. It's very strange, and I don't know how to describe it, I'm so excited. 

 

RUBY:

And so what happens when Ali arrives in Canada? What's in place and what will life be like for him?

 

LAURA BETH:

When Ali steps off the plane, we no longer call him a refugee. We call him a newcomer. So newcomers are permanent residents, and within three years he can apply to be a citizen of Canada. 

 

So he receives full health care benefits, you know, all of the social welfare benefits that any Canadian permanent resident receives. 

 

RUBY:

And so, it's not long until you actually go to the airport yourself to meet Ali. How are you feeling about it? 

 

LAURA BETH:

I am just excited and overwhelmed. It seems a bit surreal. You know, after all of these years of literally talking to him every single day on WhatsApp. So like any relationship that evolves over time, we've really been there for each other. I was also looking back to the first time when he said, Can I call you ‘Obuchi’, which means sister in Farsi. And can you call me ‘Dadash’ which means brother. So I actually don't call him Ali. I call him Dadash.  

 

So, to actually see him in the flesh, you know, walking through the airport, I just, I can't even imagine what that's going to be like. So you know, I keep imagining what that's going to be like for him when the wheels lift up and he takes off and he finally knows that he's free. 

 

Sorry…. *cry* I can't imagine what that's going to be like for him, and I cannot wait to welcome him here with open arms.

 

Archival tape – Laura Beth:

So today is the day that Ali arrives. I have been cooking all afternoon making Persian chicken and rice, and I wanted it to smell like home when he walks in the door. I cannot believe that, that after so many years, I'm going to see him walk through that airport gate.

 

Archival tape – Laura Beth:

So Dadash, how are you feeling today? 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

First, I have to say so, so thanks, thanks to you. I can’t really… I could never imagine that I can be here today. I am still processing everything I can't even imagine… I could never imagine that, one day I could have my freedom. Like, I'm so happy. I'm so, so excited and so happy that I'm here. People are so lovely in this country, and I'm so lucky to be in this country today. 

 

Archival tape – Laura Beth:

I mean, the moment for me when it was just really special was when you were able to call your parents. 

 

Archival tape – Ali:

I, you know, I have… Well, like I told you, I didn't tell them because my mom usually thinks a lot. And so last night, when we were together and called them, they were like, shocked and… 

 

Archival tape – Laura Beth:

I was standing there next to you

 

Archival tape – Ali:

“Ali! Where are you now?” 

I said, “I'm in Canada!” and “really?”

“Yeah really! You see Laura is there, you can see her right now”

And then... “Oh, really!?”

 

And that's why they were really shocked and they were like, they couldn't believe… they never knew that we were coming here. 

 

Archival tape – Laura Beth:

I just can't believe you're sitting here at my kitchen table and I love you, dadash. I'm so glad you're here. I'm so glad you're here.

 

Archival tape – Ali: 

Thank you so much. Thank you so much. 

 

RUBY:

Ali is one of seven refugees who has been resettled in Canada as part of Operation NotForgotten, with support from the Refugee Council of Australia. 

 

There are currently more than one thousand, four hundred people still indefinitely detained in Australia’s offshore processing system.

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today…

 

NSW health officials are anticipating the state could record up to 25,000 cases of Covid-19 a day, by the end January.

 

The state recorded a daily Covid-19 case increase of 70 percent yesterday with 1360 new COVID-19 cases and one death.

 

And in Victoria, mandatory vaccination requirements have now been scrapped in certain settings. 

 

People are no longer required to provide proof of vaccination status in retail settings and places of worship. Vaccination requirements remain for hospitality venues as well as health and beauty services. 

 

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Elle Marsh, Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Anu Hasbold and Alex Gow.

 

Our senior producer is Ruby Schwartz, and our technical producer is Atticus Bastow.

 

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. 

 

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. 

 

Tomorrow we’re releasing a special episode of 7am - it’s a look back at some of the biggest stories of the year called ‘The sound of 2021’

 

I’m Ruby Jones, and thanks for listening to 7am this year - it’s been another huge news year and another tough one for many of us. I hope that everyone can find a bit of time to relax this summer. Have a safe and happy holidays, and see you next year. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am

Guest

Laura Beth Bugg Assistant professor and co-director of Ads Up Canada