Living in limbo on Nauru
September 2006 - Mohammad Faisal, Mohammed Sagar and David Adeang have more than just one thing in common. The three of them know the birdpoo island nation of Nauru pretty well - because they've spent years living on the island. They're also pretty sick of some things that happen on the island, and all three want at least two of them to get off the island as fast as possible.
The difference between the men starts here. Mohammad Faisal and Mohammed Sagar are two Iraqi men, who've been imprisoned on the island for almost five years, after they ran for their lives from Saddam Hussein.
The third man, David Adeang, has just announced he's going to charge Australia a world record fee for keeping the men imprisoned on the island - a fee of more than $1.2 million a year. Why? Well, he's the Foreign Minister of Nauru, and he's sick of what Australia is doing to the two poor men.
This page brings together a feature article by The Age reporter Michael Gordon, an Editorial from the same paper on the same day, and the astounding news of the announcement by the Nauruan Foreign Minister.
Other Nauru pages:
11 January 2004: Signing up for Death: the hunger strike on Nauru - The hunger strike has slowly fizzled out after more than four weeks. But if those 'unlucky ones' who are not 'selected' for re-determination stay behind on the Island, there will be another disaster in the future. Only if they receive an offer of protection status in Australia ... further disaster can be averted.
16 February 2004: Frederika Steen: Through the Nauru Looking Glass - "A significant and growing number of ordinary Australians are appalled. They act - individually and in small groups, from places around Australia, to show compassion and to compensate for what they perceive as official sadism and inhumanity. From the grassroots of Australian society we continue to challenge a Government that has eroded our international reputation for fairness and decency and called into question our values as a society."
18 March 2004: Force Feeding Hunger striking asylum seekers - Legal and ethical implications of medically enforced feeding of detained asylum seekers on hunger strike. If called upon to treat hunger strikers, [Australian] medical practitioners should be aware of their ethical and legal responsibilities, and that they should act independently of government or institutional interests.
10 November 2004: John Howard refuses protection for Australia's Highest Court - This surely must be a deliberate refusal on the part of the Howard government to protect Commonwealth legislation as vested in the High Court of Australia, and it leaves no choice but to conclude that the Australian Prime Minister is seriously in contempt of Australian law, and in contempt of The High Court.
15 December 2003: The Human Rights Day hunger strike on Nauru - "When we were in our own country we were persecuted in different ways by atrocious rulers and governments, but now when we are in the Australian-made detention centers we don't think that we have been treated better than what Taliban and other cruel Governments did to us."
Then there was one - Australia stands ashamed
Mohammed Sagar is an island on an island: as the last asylum seeker on Nauru, caught between the country he fled in 2001 and the country where he wanted to be, he is as isolated as the place where he has been held for five years.
For a year, there were two of them left on Nauru: Sagar and Muhammad Faisal, both Iraqi refugees, escaping persecution. In August last year, an ASIO assessment found both men "a risk to Australia's national security", without further explanation or recourse, and they were kept behind while 25 other refugees were allowed to enter Australia, mainly on the grounds that to remain on Nauru would be psychologically damaging. This August, Faisal, who became suicidal, was medically evacuated to Brisbane, where he remains in a perilous state. And now there is one. Sagar has the dubious distinction of being the last of 1500 unauthorised boat arrivals processed on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island still to be detained offshore. One man going nowhere. One man who describes himself as "a dead living thing".
As Michael Gordon reports in The Age today, Sagar lives a surreal existence in a cabin outside the gates of Nauru's state house processing centre. Inside are seven recently arrived Burmese refugees - the first to be sent to Nauru by Australia for four years. "I don't want to be happy," Sagar says. "I just want my life back." In effect, it has been stolen from him by the Australian Government, whose unyielding immigration policy - the so-called Pacific Solution - allows for mandatory indefinite detention on a hot, desolate and near-bankrupt island, without recourse to proper legal facilities and without thought for the human condition unless that condition becomes life-threatening. If that is the solution, how much worse is it than the problem? The truly disgraceful aspect of this entire saga is the severe mental trauma such confinement has caused or threatens to cause.
While Faisal remains in a Brisbane hospital, Sagar is seriously questioning if his psychological state must similarly deteriorate in order for him to qualify for evacuation.
This scarcely believable state of affairs is all the more appalling precisely because mental decline seems to be the only excuse for a way out.
This carries all of the sardonic force, but none of the humour, of the circular argument of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, whereby you had to be crazy to want to fly more missions and sane if you didn't, but if you were sane you had to fly them. It is time to wonder and to worry when immigration decisions are predicated on a fragile state of mind.
Nauru itself is taking care to avoid being seen as sharing responsibility with the Australian Government for something that is, in reality, not of its doing. Although the poor island nation gains essential revenue from processing refugees for Australia, it has demonstrated its own humane concern in two ways: by creating better, "family friendly", living conditions for refugees than those that existed for the original arrivals in 2001; and its plans to charge Australia high and incremental visa fees, not for revenue, but to encourage Australia to process and resettle refugees much more quickly. This is in addition to the $1 million or more a month it costs Australia to maintain the processing centre on Nauru.
Nothing, though, seems set to resolve the plight of Mohammed Sagar, who remains marooned on a small island and no longer has the will or desire to settle in the country that has labelled him a security risk and continues to deny him entry. His options - return to Iraq; wait for a medical evacuation to Australia; go to another country; legal challenge - are too risky, stymied by his security rating or would take too long. The most likely is an independent assessment of his ASIO finding - but what hope of this in the current political climate?
Meanwhile, Sagar may take small consolation in what he stands for: he is the symbol of an intransigent government long out of touch with human rights and whose policies of mandatory detention are unjust and shameful.
Living in limbo
Photo: Asylum seeker Mohammad Faisal (left) is now in a Brisbane hospital after becoming suicidal. Mohammed Sagar increasingly sees himself as a reluctant player in a political game.
After years detained offshore, asylum seekers Mohammed Sagar and Mohammad Faisal know ASIO considers them security threats. They don't know why, or if freedom will ever come their way.
Received the adverse assessment. "There's no such thing as Sagar being a security risk - no way," she says. "Having got to know Sagar well, I don't see anything threatening. He hasn't done anything harmful on the campus. He does his best to help us."
This help has included designing an internal communications system and a website for the campus.
In the past fortnight, The Age observed Sagar as he went about solving computer problems of Australian officials helping the Nauru Government face its many challenges. In one case, above the computer he was repairing was a poster on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If he noted the irony, he didn't let on.
Over eight days, the only threat posed by Sagar was to the waistline of his visitor. Each day, he painstakingly prepared a hearty meal using Arabic spices, invariably served with Tabasco sauce.
Only once did he project a quiet confidence that there would eventually be a happy ending. Emerging from his cabin one afternoon, he recited the final lines from the drama he had been watching on TV.
Yesterday the fact was a secret.
Today it's a whisper.
Tomorrow it will rise with the sun.
Among those baffled by the security assessment is Nauru Foreign Minister David Adeang, who says neither Sagar nor Faisal caused a single problem on the tiny island. Another is Charmi Depaune, a local resident whose youngest son, Inza, 7, wept when Faisal was evacuated.
Says Adeang: "We have a real soft spot for these guys."
Another with a certain fondness for Sagar is Maarten Dormaar, who was the senior International Organisation for Migration psychiatrist at the camp when he arrived. Dormaar wrote a letter to the Immigration Department late in 2002 asking that Sagar's refugee status be reconsidered.
Dormaar explained that Sagar had been suffering from pneumonia when he was first interviewed on Manus Island and was suffering anxiety after being rejected when he had a second interview.
"I think Australia will be missing the opportunity to have a gentle, intelligent and friendly person as a refugee when not giving him reconsideration of his case," Dormaar wrote. The reply was brief. The decisions to refuse him refugee status had followed normal procedure and any future applications for cases to be reopened would be unsuccessful, he was told.
Sagar is grateful for the support of Adeang and many others, such as Susan Metcalfe, an Australian who has assisted the cause of those on Nauru since the beginning. But he says he feels as though he is sinking. "The whole day, from when you wake up until you go to bed, you are thinking about your situation, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day," he says.
"One of the worst things about being in limbo is that your mind will start opening up options and predicting things. You start thinking about everything and there is no limit to your thinking."
None of this is surprising to Professor Harry Minas. He says Sagar's capacity to think through what is in his best interests will inevitably become more impaired the longer his situation is unresolved. "He'll come up with a whole lot of possible explanations to try to make some sense of his situation. Some will seem a bit paranoid, some a bit fanciful, but I think it is remarkable how rational and reasoned he is."
Increasingly, Sagar sees himself as a reluctant player in a political game, fighting not only for himself but for those who might be in the same situation in the future. "I don't want to be part of a political game, but it seems I'm deeply involved."
So what are the options? The obvious preference of the Howard Government is that he takes his chances and returns to Iraq. He dismisses that, insisting his life would be in danger - a fact recognised by Australian officials before ASIO stepped in with its security assessment.
"Why did they recognise me as a refugee if they keep asking that question (about returning to Iraq)?" he asks.
The second option is that the Government waits until he requires a medical evacuation, though this is problematic on several counts. It implies acceptance that his mental state will deteriorate further and it would involve him going from one environment where he is subject to controls to another. This, he says, he could not accept.
"If I move, it should be to a complete, solid and permanent solution, so I just leave all of this behind. If I am going to move to another state of uncertainty, then that's the end of me.
"I know there is no perfect place in the world and I'm not looking for a perfect place. I'm looking for a place where I will be able to restart my life, an actual restart, a realistic restart."
Even if Australia offered protection without restrictions, something that would mean recognising that Sagar is not a security threat, he believes he would struggle, with every debate about asylum-seeker policy reminding him of his ordeal.
A third option - and his clear preference at this point - is that he is offered protection by some other country.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, has been pursuing this option for the past two years, without luck, and says the ASIO assessment is the main barrier. "The agency is concerned about reports of Mr Sagar's declining health and urges Australia to explore alternatives to his current situation," spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said.
Lawyer Julian Burnside is pursuing a fourth option, a legal challenge to the ASIO assessment, but this could take years, so any legal solution is likely to come too late to save Sagar's mental health. Burnside sums up the treatment of Sagar and Faisal: "It's calculated cruelty."
Over a meal of chicken drumstick soup, cooked by Sagar, we discuss a fifth option. What if ASIO had to present the case against him before a retired judge, and he was able to respond to whatever was said against him?
"That would be wonderful - that would be the best, as long as it's done by a third party, not by ASIO itself," he says. "I just need to know. What is their problem with me?"
Michael Gordon is The Age's national editor.
Nauru sets record refugee visa fee
THE Nauru Government has told Australia it will have to pay a world record visa charge of more than $1.2 million a year to keep a refugee detained on the tiny, near-bankrupt island.
Nauru Foreign Minister David Adeang says the new visa fee is intended to encourage the Federal Government to find a solution for Mohammed Sagar, 30, who was rescued during the "children overboard" episode five years ago next Tuesday.
"We are doing this for humanitarian reasons," Mr Adeang said yesterday. "We continue to be concerned that there appears to be no resolution possible so far as I'm advised by the Australian Government, not in the near future anyway."
Mr Adeang declined to confirm the cost of the visa, saying the details were still a matter of negotiation. But sources said the Nauru cabinet had struck a figure of $100,000 a month, with the intention of increasing it if Mr Sagar was not resettled soon.
Mr Sagar was found to have a well-founded fear of persecution if he returned to Iraq, but received an adverse security assessment from ASIO in August last year.
He has never been told the basis of the finding and is adamant that he has done nothing to justify being considered a security threat. He has written to the Immigration Department, asking if it intends waiting until he becomes suicidal before offering a solution.
"I don't have any point to prove other than I'm a refugee. The rest is rubbish," Mr Sagar has told The Age.
In the past two weeks, many people on Nauru, including Mr Adeang, have told The Age they are baffled as to why Mr Sagar and another Iraqi, Mohammad Faisal, received adverse ASIO assessments.
Mr Faisal, 26, was evacuated to Brisbane last month because he was suicidal.
Mr Adeang said both men were well regarded by those who had contact with them on Nauru.
Nauru recently announced a new system of charging for visas for asylum seekers sent to the island by Australia for processing, with the stated aim of encouraging the swift resettlement or return of asylum seekers once their claims for refugee status have been assessed.
The charges for the seven Burmese asylum seekers who arrived last month are $2000 each for the first 90 days, with the fee increasing by $500 every subsequent 30 days.
Mr Adeang said the fee for Mr Sagar had been struck in the hope that it would prove a "circuit-breaker" in his case.
Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone declined to be drawn on the visa fee yesterday, saying it was a matter for discussion between the Australian and Nauru governments.
The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, is continuing its efforts to find a resettlement country for Mr Sagar and Mr Faisal, but says finding any solution continues to prove difficult.
Will this man lose the will to live?
The funeral service for Olympian Peter Norman on Monday raised an intriguing question. Why is it that stories about some people capture the public imagination while others that may be just as compelling do not?
John Carlos, one of the black runners who shared the dais with Norman at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, observed that the sprinter should be as well known in Australia as Steve Irwin. Such, said Carlos, was the power of his role in their famous stand on human rights.
Yet while the image of the barefoot Tommie Smith and Carlos giving that black power salute is considered one of the most influential of the 20th century, the story of Norman's role in the protest is unknown to a great many Australians.
"You guys have lost of great soldier," remarked Carlos. "Go and tell your kids the story of Peter Norman."
A similar point can be made about Mohammed Sagar, an Iraqi refugee who has been detained offshore since he was rescued five years ago yesterday in the "children overboard" episode, and David Hicks.
While Hicks' detention without trial on Guantanamo Bay has, quite rightly, prompted expressions of outrage from a cross-section of Australians, from church leaders to former prime ministers, Sagar's situation has gone largely unremarked.
Of course, Sagar has not endured anything like the conditions that have been inflicted upon Hicks for 41/2 years and he is not an Australian. But his situation should alarm Australians who believe in notions of natural justice, the rule of law, compassion and a fair go.
After suffering physically and mentally under Saddam Hussein's rule and being found by Australian officials to have a genuine fear of persecution if he returned to Iraq, he has been held against his will on the tiny, near-bankrupt island of Nauru.
When I visited him on the island late last month, he told me how he wanted to have his life back, whether it be happy or sad. "I want to be alive, that's all, because now I'm feeling like a dead living thing."
Fran Kelly on the ABC's Radio National pursued the story for three days last week, culminating with an interview with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer about the $100,000-a-month visa fee Nauru has set for Sagar, to encourage Australia to find a solution for him.
When Kelly pressed Downer on Nauru's concern for Sagar and another Iraqi who had been held there, he displayed a singular indifference to their plight, observing that "one of them, I think, has been dealt with".
This was a euphemism for the decision several weeks ago to evacuate the second Iraqi, Mohammad Faisal, to a Brisbane hospital after his despair led him to become suicidal. He is said to be recovering well and may soon be released into a form of community-based care.
There are at least two explanations for the lack of pressure on the Howard Government to address the situation of Sagar on Nauru.
The first is that Nauru is a very long way away and communications are patchy at best. Sagar is out of sight and out of mind.
The second is that he, along with Faisal, received a negative security assessment from ASIO that meant Australia no longer had any obligation to offer him protection under the United Nations refugee convention.
While a lack of sympathy for a person considered a security threat by ASIO is understandable, neither man has ever been told what he is alleged to have done to warrant the assessment, so neither has had the opportunity to defend himself.
Neither Sagar nor Faisal had the benefit of any representation when they were interviewed on Nauru.
Both complain that an interviewing officer was very aggressive during the interview. Both are adamant they represent no threat to anyone.
And there is a bigger problem. There is no capacity for some outside authority, for instance a retired judge, to establish that ASIO's decision was soundly based.
Moreover, in their time on Nauru, neither man has caused any problems. On the contrary, both are highly regarded. Faisal was virtually adopted by a Nauruan family while Sagar has earned high praise for his voluntary work at the Nauru campus of the University of the South Pacific.
Indeed, while I was on Nauru he seemed to be regarded as a kind of voluntary help desk for the Nauruan Government and Australian officials working to tackle that country's considerable problems.
If there was a case to answer for some past deed or connection - and both men say there is not - their exemplary behaviour on Nauru surely should count for something.
Both men do have supporters in Australia who have been working hard on their behalf. Lawyer Julian Burnside, who characterises the treatment of both as "calculated cruelty", has launched a legal challenge to the ASIO assessments. But this is likely to be a very long process.
Susan Metcalfe, a researcher who has visited Nauru several times, has written letters to ministers pleading for some resolution and been a constant source of comfort. So have many others.
But time is running out. Recently, Sagar quit his part-time job at the university and withdrew from his studies. He likened himself to a dish that had been cooked and, instead of being removed from the stove, had been subject to even greater heat. "I'm done," he said.
It is time for some hard questions to be asked of those who have for too long considered the ASIO assessments a reason to do nothing.
The bottom line is whether the intention is to wait until Sagar, like Faisal, loses his will to live before someone decides he should be "dealt with".
Michael Gordon is national editor.
UPDATE: 6 May 2011
Detention Is A Legal Twilight Zone
Asylum seekers Mohammed Sagar and Muhammad Faisal spent years in detention after they were assessed as a security risk - and they still don't know why, writes their lawyer Elizabeth O'Shea.
Asylum seekers Mohammed Sagar and Muhammad Faisal spent years in detention after they were assessed as a security risk - and they still don't know why, writes their lawyer Elizabeth O'Shea.
Our society is developing pockets of lawlessness. There are tax havens, where the wealthy can protect their spoils from pull of the public purse strings. There are free trade zones, where capitalists enjoy the freedom of 19th century labour relations. There is Guantanamo, where the US Government stores people beyond the reach of the law. These places are the too-hard baskets for people we do not wish to deal with, for people too unpopular for us to care about.
In Australia, immigration detention is becoming a legal twilight zone; a place where the normal rules of fairness do not apply.
Both Mohammed Sagar and Muhammad Faisal left Iraq to seek asylum in Australia around 2001. Both were sent to Nauru. Both were recognised by Australia as refugees in 2005.
Before Faisal left Iraq, he was studying law. But he was not a Ba'athist, and refused to become one, which made things difficult. Tensions grew and eventually he fled at the age of 19. He spent several years alone making his way to Australia, obtaining false passports and living hand to mouth in various refugee camps and cities. He is, like many asylum seekers, resourceful and resilient.
Sagar is more reflective and thoughtful, less emotionally energetic than Faisal. He is a Shi'a, the majority in Iraq but the minority in his home region. This was the basis of his refugee status. Sagar has a wonderful grasp of the English language. When I asked why he left Iraq, his response was: "it became clearer than sunlight that if we did not run for our lives then we would vanish from the face of earth, as did many Shi'a Muslims."
Both Sagar and Faisal, like all asylum seekers, are required to undergo a security assessment before they can enter Australia. For both of them, these assessments were adverse. Neither has any idea why; they have never been told why they were a perceived threat to national security.
This put them in a significantly difficult position. They could not be returned to Iraq because they were refugees who had been found to have a well founded fear of persecution. They could not be given a visa to enter Australia because they were said to be a threat to national security. As such, they faced the very real prospect of endless detention.
Faisal spent about five years in detention, Sagar spent about six. Together they were some of the last asylum seekers left on Nauru.
Eventually, Sagar was resettled in Sweden in 2007. After a brief interview with the Swedish intelligence agency, he was found to be no threat to their national security. Faisal, struggling psychologically, became gravely unwell and was evacuated to Australia for treatment in a Brisbane mental health facility. There he underwent a new security assessment which was not adverse. Without any explanation, the threat to national security had seemingly vanished.
In other words, neither decision by ASIO was vindicated upon review, even when that review had been conducted by the organisation itself.
An application for judicial review of the decision was filed to shed some light on why Faisal and Sagar were given these adverse security assessments. Judicial review is where the court determines whether an executive authority, in this case ASIO, has exercised their powers validly. Maurice Blackburn's legal team, led by Julian Burnside QC, put evidence before the court about the history of the men, that they had never been involved in any political parties or in any activities that might constitute a threat to national security. This was uncontested by ASIO. No evidence was put before the judge about why these men were given adverse security assessments.
The Federal Court found that neither Faisal nor Sagar were entitled to see the assessments and therefore they could not make any arguments about their contents. They were fighting with one hand tied behind their back and were therefore unable to show that ASIO had acted outside of its powers.
Accordingly, without any information before it about merits of the decisions that these two refugees were a threat to national security, the Federal Court accepted that no error by ASIO could be proven.
These two men found themselves in a Kafka-esque pocket of lawlessness. This is a very serious issue for our system of law: what we are seeing is basically indeterminate detention authorised by an executive arm of government without any avenues to review the merits of that decision. In less legal language, if you are not an Australian citizen, a decision by an ASIO spook can leave you in detention possibly for the rest of your life and there is very little you can do about it.
For both of these men, this decision breaks their hearts. Many refugees find it difficult to come to terms with the treatment they receive when they come here. They seek help, they are in need and, in the case of Iraq, the troubles they have fled are uncomfortably causally proximate to us. But as we are supposedly protecting freedom in Iraq, Iraqi refugees in Australia cannot expect similar treatment.
Sagar and Faisal are not the only ones in this position. In fact, there are nearly two dozen other refugees who have been given adverse security assessments. This should not be surprising, given that refugees are, by definition, persecuted and this can involve activities that are likely to be of interest to national security agencies.
But the fact that assessments are not properly reviewable is surprising because of the effect of these assessments on people's lives. All of these refugees are currently held in detention, with no current prospect of release. Many have been separated from their families. Indeed, there is an entire family with such assessments, with a toddler who has spent half of his short life inside detention and his sibling who was born inside.
The recent riots on Christmas Island and elsewhere related to the inordinate delays in processing security assessments by ASIO. With exponential increases in its budget over the last decade, ASIO is now a middle sized government department. Yet the average waiting time for a security assessment, according to the Federal Attorney-General, is 59 days. There are whispers of waits as long as nine months. Such uncertainty is inevitably a recipe for restlessness.
There are plenty of practical ways around this problem that are uncontroversial. This includes giving the courts greater powers to review these decisions to ensure there are no mistakes. That would mean letting refugees see their adverse security assessments. Every person should be able to know the allegations made against them and have the right to defend themselves before an open court. It could also mean releasing these people from detention if they receive an adverse security assessment and monitoring them as required while the assessment remains.
These are hardly radical suggestions. But in the climate we are in, it feels as though we are demanding the impossible. Without transparency and accountability over ASIO's decisions, we allow the needs of national security agencies to trump the human rights of refugees. The human cost of this is high.
Meanwhile, Sagar tries to carry on with his life in snowy Sweden. He provides welcome counsel to Faisal, who has floundered since the decision. He is in pieces that he seems incapable of fitting back together. He has not seen his mother in 13 years. Half of his 20s -- the decade when he should have been out enjoying himself, studying, falling in love -- disappeared in Nauru. Since coming to Brisbane, he applied for and was granted Australian citizenship. But he feels like a stranger in this land, spiritually homeless.
Slowly he seems to be improving. He told me recently that he is thinking of getting a dog. A shepherd named Oliver. A trifle perplexed by the choice of name, he explains to me that the name is from the Dickens novel. Faisal feels a connection to the small orphan lost in a frightening world.