In July 2003 Australians were told that the Pacific Solution Lombrum Processing Centre on Manus Island was no longer operational. But DIMIA left one asylum seeker - Aladdin Sisalem - to rot on the Island. Sarah Stephen, writer for Green Left Weekly, broke the story.
At Project SafeCom we assisted in spreading the word with a Media Release on 19 August. The Age engaged Andra Jackson, who called us for more information - we referred her to Sarah Stephen. Alas, the Age failed to even acknowledge the work of Green Left Weekly, but published their article on August 27. This is how the story broke in the national media and became a major news item.
Below is the growing account of Aladdin. Read on, and be disgusted.
News update May 28, 2004: Last man on Manus wins freedom - See the news here
By Sarah Stephen
From Green Left Weekly, August 20, 2003
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.
The Australian-funded detention centre on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island first opened on October 21, 2001. The first group of Iraqi asylum seekers to arrive there were dismayed to find they had been tricked into thinking they were being taken to Australia. Two years later, more lies have surrounded the closure of the remote prison.
A July 28 immigration department press release announced the wind-down of the centre, noting that it would be maintained in order to be ready to reactivate at short notice. "Of the last three residents, two adult males from Iraq have been granted refugee status and are being resettled in Australia, while the other man has been moved to Australia for medical treatment", the release stated.
But the assertion that the camp was empty from July 28 is a lie. A young Palestinian, Aladin Sisalem, has been detained on Manus Island ever since he tried to reach Australia from PNG in December.
I asked immigration minister Philip Ruddock's spin-doctor, Steve Ingram, why the Australian government had written Sisalem out of existence. Ingram told me it was because Sisalem was the responsibility of the PNG government.
Ingram began to deny that Sisalem had made any attempt to get to Australia, but I explained that I had evidence -- a copy of a letter from the Australian immigration department rejecting his asylum claim.
The camp was run, I also pointed out, by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on behalf of the Australian government. Ingram continued to deny that Australia had any responsibility for Sisalem, and told me that "you people" should be more worried about women and children in refugee camps in Africa.
The way the government has been able to wash its hands of Sisalem exemplifies the role that the offshore detention centres have played for the federal government. Asylum seekers there have been at the mercy of the immigration department, without access to Australia's courts or advice from lawyers.
The points made by Russell Skelton in the July 29 Australian apply as much to Manus Island as to the Nauru detention camp, which he said: "It suits the Howard government's callous purposes perfectly. The government has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent Australians putting faces to those locked up in Australian detention centres. It would not do for voters to think they were normal, if desperate, human beings. On Nauru this policy is easy to enforce. Quite apart from the isolation, lawyers, human rights advocates and journalists have been denied visas to Nauru."
Only one journalist was successful in reaching the Manus Island prison. In January 2002, the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Roberts posed as a tourist to get access to the island, and was able to report a history of suicide attempts, breakouts and hunger strikes by asylum seekers, as well as widespread, potentially fatal diseases, including malaria, typhoid fever and tuberculosis.
Sisalem is 24 years old. He was born in Kuwait to a Palestinian father and Egyptian mother. In a letter explaining his story to me, he wrote: "As all Arabic countries are paternal societies, I had to carry the nationality of my father, which is Palestinian-refugee."
"Since 1991, Kuwaiti policy towards Palestinian residents has been marked by arbitrary arrests and summary deportations..."
A 1994 Human Rights Watch report pointed to:
"Policies aimed at eventually expelling from Kuwait nearly all of its remaining Iraqi, Palestinian and Bedoon residents included arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, unlawful searches, heavy fines, threats, public humiliation and the denial of employment."
"Most of the Palestinians who remained in Kuwait -- fewer than 25,000, down from a pre-war high of over 350,000 -- were stateless refugees who came originally from the Gaza Strip but had not been allowed by Israel to return. They carried travel documents issued by Egypt, which refused to allow them to reside in its territory. Although these refugees had no place to go, Kuwaiti authorities denied them the right to remain in Kuwait until they found another country that would accept them. They were harassed, threatened with imprisonment, denied employment, and subjected to heavy fines for every day they stayed in Kuwait. Many exhausted their life savings to pay these fines."
"Most Palestinians were asked to leave Kuwait ... Those who could not leave because they did not have residency rights in any country, like myself, were either interned in a deportation prison, or the lucky few who managed to find a Kuwaiti sponsor and obtained a residence permit, had to put up with humiliation and insults and assaults."
Upon turning 21, Sisalem had to find a Kuwaiti citizen to sponsor him (employ him or find him a job) in order to maintain his right to residency. Widespread discrimination against Kuwaiti Palestinians made this difficult. Fed up with the abuse, Sisalem applied for Egyptian residency but was knocked back. He decided to flee and seek asylum.
"I flew to Indonesia [in November 2000] where I applied for asylum with the UNHCR in Jakarta. I waited one year for their decision or for some financial help but nothing happened ... On January 31, 2002, and after a very risky journey [through the] jungle by myself, I arrived at the Fly River in PNG."
When he arrived in the border town of Kiunga and requested asylum, Mataio Rabura, PNG's immigration director-general, asked the Kiunga police commander to send Sisalem back to the jungle, telling Sisalem to walk back to Indonesia.
Sisalem was charged with illegal entry and paid a 200 kina (A$90) fine. He was terrified by what he had seen while awaiting trial, including a man who was beaten "until his blood almost covered all the floor".
After fruitlessly waiting for 10 months for a decision on his asylum application from the PNG government, Sisalem sailed to Thursday Island and asked Australian immigration officials for asylum. He was sent back to PNG to be imprisoned in the detention centre.
At the time, there were 120 asylum seekers in the camp. On the first day he arrived, he saw the PNG defence forces beating 15 young men whom the Australian government had confirmed were refugees. "Most of them stayed in the military hospital for one week because they were injured, one of them lost some teeth and others had marks on their faces and one couldn't walk good for two weeks."
In January, most of the refugees left to go to New Zealand, and in February another 15 went to Australia, leaving just a couple of people in the camp.
Sisalem's persistent requests for information about his case resulted in some harsh punishment. "They really make me feel like I did a big crime and I am a dangerous person". He explained that the PNG defence forces had hit him, with IOM approval, and put him in a hot and mosquito-ridden underground isolation cell. He was only allowed toilet access once in the two days he spent there.
Sisalem sent a letter to the PNG immigration on April 26 to withdraw his request for asylum. He explained to me that he no longer felt safe dealing with PNG authorities. When he complained about his treatment to the head of the UNHCR's PNG liaison office, Johann Siffointe, he didn't believe him. Siffointe then told the PNG government of Sisalem's claims. Sisalem believes this made his treatment worse.
Siffointe told Sisalem some months ago that it would take about three years to make a decision about his case, and that he will have to spend that time in jail unless he agreed to go back to Kuwait. Siffointe added that he didn't believe that Sisalem had been persecuted in Kuwait, and that the UNHCR office in Kuwait made sure there was no persecution there.
Sisalem has been advised that he must formally request return to Kuwait, only if he is rejected will UNHCR consider him a stateless person and take responsibility for resettling him.
The Kuwaiti embassy confirmed that Sisalem had no right to return to Kuwait. An embassy public relations officer, Mohammad, explained that Sisalem lost his residency rights after being outside the country for six months. He said: "Even if Kofi Annan asked for him to be able to return, the government would refuse."
Nevertheless, Sisalem is frightened that if he applies, the UNHCR will force the Kuwaiti authorities to accept him.
On July 26, Sisalem was met by Rabura, Australian immigration official Peter Holmes and IOM Manus Island manager Steve Hamilton. Holmes explained that when the camp closed, Sisalem would be issued with a two-month visa and left in PNG. An IOM officer took the passport Sisalem had just received from the Egyptian embassy. The PNG government has not explained why they are holding it.
Rabura told Amnesty International's refugee team in Australia that, when released, Sisalem will be again charged for entering PNG illegally. According to PNG human rights lawyer Powes Parkop, who spoke to Sisalem on August 6, this is probably intimidation because the government doesn't have a good case as Sisalem was taken to Manus Island against his will.
"What crime have I committed to deserve all this suffering?", Sisalem asked me.
"Is it acceptable to [the] world's conscience and to your conscience that I spend the rest of my life with no dignity and no respect and no protection? I am a human being and I have the right to live in safety and in dignity and in freedom. I need to belong to a country that can protect me and where I can live a normal, dignified and productive life. I am fit and healthy and have a good trade, as a very experienced car mechanic. I can work in my trade and be a productive member in a good society."
By Andra Jackson
August 27, 2003
This is the forgotten man of John Howard's Pacific solution - the last occupant of the Manus Island detention centre.
For the past month, Aladdin Maysara Salem Sisalem, 24, has wandered alone through the compound, a man with nowhere to go and no one who wants him.
While the applications of just over 1000 other asylum seekers have been processed at the Lombrum facility on the Papua New Guinea island, Mr Sisalem's plight appears to have been deemed too complicated.
Neither the Australian nor the PNG governments want to take responsibility for him.
Mr Sisalem was left behind last month when the Australian Government removed two Iraqi asylum seekers who had been granted visas and transferred a third detainee to Australia for medical treatment.
Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock announced that from July 28, the Government was closing the Manus Island centre.
It was initially set up in October 2001 to take 220 mainly Iraqi asylum seekers. In January last year, the PNG Government allowed another 800 apprehended asylum seekers to be taken to the centre, on condition that no processed asylum seekers would remain in PNG.
Mr Sisalem told The Age yesterday that he feared "I have been forgotten and therefore my life and my future could be in risk".
He is not alone on the island - there are still International Office of Migration staff, Eurest staff, some guards and four people who manage the facility - but he is lonely.
"I can spend two or three days here without talking to someone because there is not anyone inside the center to talk to," he said.
"I have small freedom of movement inside to use the internet and the gym all the day and to swim in the sea some of the day time, but I'm not allowed to move out of the centre."
He says he misses the friends he made on the island. He spends a lot of time thinking and is now no longer able to sleep "without the chemical medicine that IOM helps me with".
His days are spent pondering his uncertain future and trying to forget much of his past.
Mr Sisalem was born in Kuwait but because his father is Palestinian and his mother is Egyptian, he holds an Egyptian travel document for Palestinian refugees.
During the Iraqi war against Kuwait, Palestinians were persecuted after Yasser Arafat held a meeting with Saddam Hussein.
Mr Sisalem said he was detained for 21 days and beaten by police in 1996. Two years later he was detained again and stabbed in the arm. He went into hiding before fleeing from Kuwait.
"Unfortunately the Egyptian Authority won't allow me to enter Egypt," Mr Sisalem said.
In search of political asylum, he travelled through Indonesia before taking a perilous journey through West Papua into PNG. He initially sought asylum in PNG, but says he gave up and headed for Australia instead.
He arrived on Thursday Island in a small boat last December and asked Australian officials for asylum. Thursday Island is not among offshore areas excised for migration purposes from mainland Australia.
Mr Sisalem said he was taken to Manus Island by Australian immigration staff, who started processing his application.
"But five months ago they told me that I have to deal with the PNG authorities," he said.
"How is my case one for the PNG authorities? The Australian immigration authority put me here in the first place... and they are also still jailing me here.
"The PNG authority has nothing to do with me." An Immigration Department spokeswoman said: "When the centre was wound down in late July, we transferred all of Australia's case load off Manus Island. The man in question crossed the border from PNG. He never engaged Australia's protection obligations and he was returned to PNG."
She said the Australian Government still had permission to use the centre until the end of October and the IOM still had a presence at the centre "to keep it in a secure state ready to reactivate if required".
Renagi Lohia, of the PNG High Commission in Canberra, was unable to say what his government planned to do about Mr Sisalem. The PNG Immigration Department's Mataio Rabura's said he could not confirm if PNG was considering offering Mr Sisalem asylum.
By Andra Jackson
August 28, 2003
Amnesty International has called for the immediate release of an asylum seeker left behind on his own in Australia's closed detention centre on Manus Island.
The watchdog is concerned that Australia's immigration authorities could turn away people such as the Palestinian asylum seeker, "and then mandatorily detain them in secret".
Amnesty's refugee spokesman Graeme Thom said: "We want the Australian Government to acknowledge that they are detaining him."
Mr Thom was responding to the revelation in The Age yesterday that a 24-year-old Palestinian man has been held in the centre for the past month, despite Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock's claim that it was empty.
Both the Australian and the PNG governments were refusing to accept responsibility for him.
Yesterday the United Nations acknowledged that it has been forced to step in to try to find a resettlement country.
Opposition immigration spokeswoman Nicola Roxon said: "Our question is how does he end up to be in a detention facility that Australia has otherwise negotiated to be used for people seeking to get to Australia but been placed on Manus Island?"
Amnesty also accused the department of failing to disclose the man's presence in the centre to a Senate estimates committee this year.
Mr Thom said Amnesty was not aware of any provision for mandatory detention in PNG's legislation and, if there was, there should be provision for judicial review.
The department yesterday maintained that the man, Kuwaiti-born Aladdin Maysara Salem Sisalem, was not its responsibility because "he is not part of any caseload".
A spokeswoman said: "The man does not engage Australia's protection obligations. He arrived across the Torres Strait from PNG and was immediately returned with the PNG Government's agreement."
A spokesman for the PNG's immigration department said it had processed Mr Sisalem's case and found he didn't qualify for protection.
By Andra Jackson
October 17, 2003
Time is running out for an unwanted 24-year-old man who has been detained alone for almost three months under Australia's Pacific solution refugee policy.
Aladdin Maysara Salem Sisalem was left behind at Papua New Guinea's Manus Island facility when the last of his fellow detainees were relocated in July.
Since then, the PNG Government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have been unable to find a country willing to take the stateless Palestinian.
The Lombrum immigration processing facility on Manus Island was set up by the Australian Government under its Pacific solution refugee policy. That agreement runs out on Monday and PNG Immigration Department director-general Mataio Rabura said if it is not renewed, his Government would have to determine what to do with Mr Sisalem. One option would be to keep him on Manus Island because "the facility will still be there".
Mr Sisalem has voiced his fear of being handed over to the care of the PNG Defence Force on Manus Island if the agreement lapses. He was taken to Manus Island by Australian immigration officials last December, after reaching a small Torres Strait island in what he said was a bid to seek political asylum in Australia after fleeing persecution in Kuwait.
The Australian Government rejected his asylum application on the basis that he had an application before the PNG Government - which has since been rejected.
Born in Kuwait, Mr Sisalem's father is Palestinian and his mother Egyptian. As such, he holds an Egyptian travel document for Palestinian refugees. But Egypt has refused him a visa.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said yesterday no decision has been made on the facility. But PNG's Canberra-based high commissioner Renagi Lohia said Australia had "unofficially asked" for the centre to remain open.
By Angie Latif
October 20, 2003
Aramica is a bilingual, biweekly, non sectarian, non partisan Arab American community newspaper established in April 2002, with a print readership of over 50,000, currently distributing in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania.
For almost three years, Aladdin Sisalem has been without a home, without a nation and without a life. At the age of 24, Sisalem has been stabbed in Kuwait, lived homeless on the streets of Jakarta, traveled through the jungles of West Papua and been beaten in Papua New Guinea. He has been rejected by Egypt, deemed inexistent by Israel, disregarded by Australia and is now stranded as the remaining detainee on Manus Island, forgotten by the world.
Sisalem has been held in a detention center for almost a year now. His only crime is that he was born to a Palestinian father, inheriting his refugee status. Knocking on the immigration door of several nations, he has ironically been denied refugee status each time.
"I am in Hell."
From his room, Sisalem looks through barred windows to the island outside. A tall, white fence surrounds the cell where he is being held captive. Beyond the white fence are palm trees. His room consists of drab concrete walls, a small bed in the corner and a few scattered belongings that sit on tattered shelves. He has access to a gym and the books left behind by previous detainees. He eats undercooked, frozen meals that consist of mainly vegetables, rice, beef and chicken. He takes medication in order to sleep and wears the recycled clothes that other detainees have left him. There is a guard outside his room at all times. His only window to the real world is his laptop.
"I feel like I am waiting for my last day. I am getting crazy." remarked Sisalem.
He wears a black watch only to mark how much time passes as he sits and waits.
Sisalem begins each day by checking his email in anticipation of any news that will bring about his release from the detention center.
Sisalem has been detained on this island by Australian authorities since December 2002. As of July of this year, he has been the only detainee left on the island with no hope for rescue and no prospect of resolution.
The remarkable journey that brought Sisalem to the Lombrom compound on Manus Island is a long and agonizing tale almost too horrific to be real.
Rejected by his homeland
Aladdin Maysara Salem Sisalem was born in Kuwait on January 15, 1979 to a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother. Arab nations follow paternal heritage, granting individuals their father's ethnicity. Sisalem, as the son of a Palestinian refugee, holds an Egyptian travel document issued by Egypt to Palestinian refugees but does not allow them entry into Egypt. The Egyptian Embassy was not available for comment despite several attempts to contact.
Prior to the Gulf War, about 350,000 Palestinian refugees, mainly from the Gaza Strip, were living in Kuwait. After the liberation of Kuwait, most were forced out due to a controversial meeting between Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. Palestinians became the enemy and Kuwaitis began to expel them from Kuwait. Palestinians could only remain in Kuwait if they obtained sponsorship from a citizen.
"Those who could not leave because they don't have residency rights in any country, like myself, were either interned in the deportation prison or the lucky few, who managed to find a Kuwaiti sponsor and obtained residence permit, have had to put up with humiliation and insults and assaults," claimed Sisalem.
In 1996, Sisalem was stopped by Kuwaiti police and asked about his nationality. He hesitated to respond for fear of the repercussions that other Palestinians had suffered. Accused of attempting to hide his identity, Sisalem was detained for 21 days at a Kuwaiti police station without any charges brought against him. While in custody, he was verbally assaulted and beaten repeatedly.
Two years later, Sisalem suffered a similar fate with the Kuwaiti authorities. He was detained for no other reason than his nationality. For two days, he was verbally and physically abused while in custody. After being stabbed with a knife in the arm, Sisalem was threatened that next time he would be killed if he did not leave Kuwait.
Sisalem went into hiding. He relocated to an industrial area where he worked at a mechanic workshop. Eventually, the Kuwaitis in the area learned he was Palestinian and so began another round of insults, abuse and threats. Left with no other options, Sisalem fled Kuwait.
"I could not cope with that miserable situation anymore. I had to do something. I picked up whatever was left of my pride and decided to get out of Kuwait to any destination to seek asylum," said Sisalem.
Discarded by the UN
In November 2000, Sisalem flew to Indonesia seeking asylum from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jakarta. With a 30-day visa, he began to persuade officials to grant him asylum. Spending a year living on the streets of Jakarta, Sisalem found no resolution in Indonesia.
"The first week I arrived in Indonesia, my money and my passport were stolen and I asked for help from the Indonesian police and the immigration authority, but the answer was negative. So I asked for help from the Palestinian Embassy in Jakarta but they sent me to the Egyptian Embassy because my passport is an Egyptian document. The same situation happened in the Egyptian Embassy and they sent me back to the Palestinian Embassy as I am a Palestinian national. I had this situation for almost a month running between both embassies.
"I was waiting for financial help from UNHCR. At the second interview with UNHCR, the officer wanted to see a copy of my refugee document. The next week my father sent me a copy and I went to give it to her, but another UNHCR officer told me to come the next week. This happened for two months.
"At that time I was sleeping on the streets and in front of UNHCR to attract their attention and sympathy. Then I was told that the officer had been transferred. Another officer interviewed me again and asked me to come in a month. I was living under great danger as a result of political instability in Indonesia. They informed me that my application was sent to UNHCR in Geneva and they asked me to wait. I waited for two more months but nothing happened."
Punished for nothing
Frustrated and hopeless, Sisalem left Indonesia in January 2002 to seek asylum in Papua New Guinea. Traveling alone through the jungles of West Papua, he finally arrived in PNG. Charged with illegal entry, imprisoned under filthy conditions, beaten and eventually thrown back to the dangerous streets, Sisalem found himself in a familiar pattern. After waiting ten months for a decision, a PNG immigration officer finally told him, "PNG does not accept refugees from terrorist countries." A desperate Sisalem moved on once again.
Sisalem made his way to Daru Island by plane then arranged to have a local fisherman take him to Saibai Island where he arrived on December 19, 2002. Sisalem was promptly arrested by the Australian police. The next day, he was transferred to Thursday Island, where he pled his case to immigration officials who conducted a phone interview. While there, he was given new clothes and taken to a hospital for a medical examination. From there, he was placed in jail for three days. After a quick stopover at Daru Island airport, Sisalem was sent against his will to Manus Island on December 23, 2002 - where he remains until this day. It was here that Sisalem was introduced to the "Pacific solution".
The Pacific solution was implemented after a Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, carrying Afghan asylum seekers entered Australian waters in August 2001. Australian officials refused their entry and approached Pacific countries requesting that they receive asylum seekers heading for Australian land. Two such islands have since been established as Australian funded detention centers - Manus Island and Nauru - to intercept and hold the asylum seekers until a decision is made regarding their refugee status. Essentially run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the detention camps that once peaked at 1,500 detainees now hold about 400 on Nauru and only one man on Manus Island.
For many experts, this "solution" is anything but. Washington director Mike Jendrzejczyk, of Human Rights Watch, issued a letter to the Prime Minister of PNG in October 2002 expressing blatant unhappiness with the Manus Island situation that Australian officials intended to extend the use of the detention center on Manus Island for another year.
"As you know, Human Rights Watch and other international organizations have been strongly critical of the decision by Australia to pursue a "Pacific solution" for asylum seekers. The detention of individuals on Manus Island, with little or no contact with the outside world, and without access to legal counsel or due process guarantees, is clearly arbitrary and in contradiction to the guidelines of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. We believe these detentions violate Papua New Guinea's obligations under international human rights law, as well as Australia's responsibilities under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. You may also be aware that neither Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International have been allowed access to Manus Island, following requests to visit," stated Jendrzejczyk.
Manus Island did remain open for another year.
Shortly after his arrival to Manus Island, Sisalem received more bad news.
"The Australian Immigration Authority informed me that they have no asylum application from me, and I will have to deal with the PNG authorities because I am in PNG. This was shocking news to me."
Manus Island detention center is rumored to close by the end of October 2003, according to Australian officials.
The Australian immigration department issued a press release on July 28 announcing that the Manus Island detention center would be closing but that it would remain equipped in the event there is a need to re-activate quickly.
Sisalem fears that his life will be in danger when the detention center is handed back to the PNG authorities and the international organizations pull out of Manus Island. Having already had a previous experience of horror with PNG officials, he feels that he will again suffer the same fate at their hands.
Although his parents remain in Kuwait, Sisalem's father has not left his apartment in 13 years fearing the repercussions. "He is afraid and he is dreaming that Kuwait Authority will show him mercy some day," remarks Sisalem about his father.
His mother remains steadfast in her efforts to help her son. Sisalem also has an aunt who resides in Staten Island. Fathiya Sisalem has been reaching out to the media to tell the agonizing story of her nephew.
Sisalem has been abandoned by the world. Israel's no right of return policy does not allow him entry despite his Palestinian heritage and refugee status. Egypt has rejected his applications for asylum for 13 years. Kuwait will not accept him back because he has been absent from the country for over six months - which is automatic loss of residence. Indonesia left him homeless and abandoned. PNG does not accept refugees from "terrorist" countries and Australia has repeatedly denied assistance because he is on PNG soil - although they put him there.
"I'm living alone in the detention center without any light of hope. My emotional and psychological situation is getting worse. What crime have I committed to deserve all this indignation and suffering most of my life? I am being denied refugee status when in fact I was born as a refugee. I am a human being and I have the right to live in safety and in dignity and in freedom. I need to belong to a country that can protect me and where I can live a normal, dignified and productive life," pleads the desperate, hopeless, only man left on Manus Island.
So Sisalem continues to wear his black watch, waiting and watching as his time slips away.
By Sarah Stephen
Green Left Weekly
October 22, 2003
Since the end of July, 24-year-old Palestinian asylum seeker Aladdin Sisalem has been the only prisoner in the Australian government's Lombrum detention centre on Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea. He has very little human contact, yet thanks to the peculiar luxury of internet access, he is in regular email contact with a network of supporters around the world and his plight is receiving international coverage.
Green Left Weekly recounted Sisalem's story on August 20. Articles followed in the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on August 27. Sisalem also had his story printed in the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Asharq al Awsat in early September, and in a New York-based Arab-American newspaper, Aramica, in October.
Dozens of Australians who read about Sisalem in Green Left Weekly have been writing regularly to him. Having now spent almost three months as the only prisoner in the small Lombrum detention centre, this contact with people sympathetic to his suffering has kept him sane.
Many of those corresponding with Sisalem have also written letters to the mass media, politicians and lawyers, trying to enlist support for the his case. Replying to one such letter, Liberal Senator Ian Campbell insisted, "Mr Sisalem's case has nothing to do with Australia".
On September 10, federal Labor MP Tanya Plibersek asked a series of questions in parliament, including: "Did Aladdin Sisalem request asylum on Thursday Island; if so, what was the legal basis for sending him to Papua New Guinea."
The immigration minister has yet to answer this and other questions and, due to the ministerial reshuffle, they may never be answered. Nevertheless, it has put the government on notice that Sisalem's situation is widely known.
In response to questions from Angie Latif, author of the Aramica article, a public affairs officer for the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), Leah Slattery, stated that Sisalem "is not the responsibility of the Australian government", and that "he was detected in the Torres Strait in December 2002 attempting to enter Australia unlawfully and was interviewed by DIMIA officials. He did not make an application for a protection visa at that time and was returned to PNG."
Australian law provides that an unlawful entrant can be removed from Australia when the following has been satisfied: 1) the detaining DIMIA officer tells the entrant about the ability to apply for a visa, and 2) the entrant does not apply for a visa within two days.
Sisalem did request asylum when he spoke to DIMIA officials, but he was never provided with information about how to apply for a visa, what forms he was required to complete, nor was he given access to legal advisors while in detention in Australia. Having reached Australia's migration zone and requested asylum, Sisalem should not have been removed from Australian soil.
Far from the scrutiny of lawyers, refugee advocates and the media, and emboldened by the government's success in keeping asylum seekers out of Australia, Thursday Island immigration officials violated Australia's immigration laws.
Legal action is being considered in Australia to try to find a solution for Sisalem before the Lombrum detention centre closes at the end of October.
Sisalem's long struggle to find a country that would offer him asylum began in November 2000. He fled from Kuwait to Indonesia, where he applied for help from the UN High Commission for Refugees. After a year of waiting, living on Jakarta's streets, and with no information from the UNHCR about his case, Sisalem set off on foot through the remote highlands of West Papua. He arrived in PNG in January 2002 and requested asylum.
Sisalem hoped that, as a signatory to the refugee convention, PNG would offer him safety. Instead, he was jailed and charged with illegal entry. He had to pay a fine to be released. In December, an officer of the PNG immigration office told Sisalem that PNG does not accept refugees from 'terrorist countries' and that his application would be declined. Sisalem decided to try to get to Australia.
Sisalem described his dangerous and frightening journey to Green Left Weekly, which began on December 19 on Daru Island, in PNG's south. A friendly villager was willing to take him to Saibai Island, which is part of Australia. "He wanted to arrive on Saibai at night because he was afraid of the Australian police", Sisalem explained.
The boat trip took five hours, and they encountered rough seas. The villager dropped Sisalem off some distance from the Saibai township and he had to walk 4 kilometres through deep mud. He almost changed his mind and went back to the boat.
"I was really scared and I don't know how I closed my eyes and started walking. The mud was drowning me ... and I had to use my hands as well. I was thirsty and I wanted to drink. I couldn't feel any energy left in my body to keep walking. I was close to giving up sometimes ... but the mud was taking me down and I had to keep going."
When he found somewhere to rest, Sisalem came face to face with a salt-water crocodile and had to use his remaining energy to run away.
After about five hours Sisalem arrived in the Saibai township. He was given water to wash and was taken to the police station. Sisalem explained to the police officer and the Saibai immigration officer that he was seeking asylum. The next day, he was taken by helicopter to Thursday Island by the manager of that island's immigration office. With the assistance of a translator, he was interviewed over the phone by an immigration officer in Canberra.
Sisalem was given some new clothes to replace his muddy ones and was taken to the hospital, where they checked his health and blood pressure. He was then taken to the Thursday Island police station where he was kept for two nights.
"I was close to dying when I was on my way to Australia to ask for help", Sisalem told Green Left Weekly.
"I believed that I would find the angels there to help me. I swear I did not have any other choice."
On December 22, two Australian Federal Police officers interviewed Sisalem for around one-and-a-half hours. He was shocked and disgusted when they asked him if he was a terrorist, or if he knew people who carried out terrorist acts.
"I don't care about September 11 or even Apollo 11; also the Gulf War wasn't my fault and I won't let anyone in this world make me believe that all this was my fault - they are a sick people who think like that", Sisalem told Green Left Weekly.
On December 23, two Thursday Island immigration officers took him to the airport. As they walked Sisalem towards a small plane, Sisalem stopped and asked the senior immigration officer where they were going. The officer replied:
"Manus Island detention centre to process your asylum application".
"Why in another country, why not in Australia?".
The officer's answer was ultimately untrue:
"It is an Australian processing centre, but in another country. They will process your application there. One day your problems will be over and you will send me a letter to thank me."
Sisalem didn't want to board the plane, however the immigration officers were far stronger than he and pushed him on. He was taken to Daru Island, where he was met by Peter Holmes and an Australian Protective Services officer. A bigger plane took them to Manus Island, where he remains.
"I do not understand how the Australian government can jail me alone all this time without any mercy", Sisalem told Green Left Weekly.
"I put my life in the hands of the Australian authorities and I have to accept whatever they do to me, but they will be guilty if something happens to me."
Papua New Guinea
Fri-Sun 7-9 November 2003
A lone Middle Eastern asylum seeker detained since last December at the "closed" Lombrum processing centre on Manus Island has decried authorities' failure to inform him about his future.
Aladdin S Sisalem - whom Australian media reports say is from Palestine - was flown to the Manus processing centre in December last year after he was caught trying to seek asylum in Australia on Thursday Island.
The Lombrum detention centre on Manus Island was set up towards the end of 2001 as a result of an agreement between the governments of Papua New Guinea and Australia on October 11, 2001 to accommodate and assess the claims of asylum seekers wishing to enter Australia.
The agreement expired at the end of last month and most asylum seekers originally from the Middle East left the facility for Australia, New Zealand or a third country in January and February this year.
Mr Sisalem, in response to an e-mail sent to him by the Post-Courier on Wednesday, sent a reply e-mail yesterday saying he was still detained at the Lombrum detention centre on Manus Island.
He said the centre should have been closed at the end of last month but it was still open and run by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
"I have been detained here since December last year. Since July, I have been kept alone in the detention centre without any information about my case. My emotional and psychological situation is getting worse," Mr Sisalem said.
The Post-Courier made an attempt yesterday to contact IOM official and Lombrum processing centre manager Jonathan Skinner to confirm that Mr Sisalem was detained at the centre.
But Mr Skinner refused to comment.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) PNG liaison officer Johann Siffointe had left Port Moresby and could not be contacted.
The Australian High Commission did not respond to questions sent to it yesterday in relation to Mr Sisalem's plight.
A Papua New Guinea Defence Force officer at the Lombrum patrol boat base said the processing centre run by IOM had one male asylum seeker left.
He said IOM officials, in a brief to the defence hierarchy, said they could not process Mr Sisalem's documents because he did not meet their requirements.
February 26, 2004
Aladdin Sisalem says he is a genuine refugee but the Australian Government says he isn't its responsibility. Meanwhile it pays $23,000 a day for the 26-year-old Palestinian to be detained alone on Manus Island. Andra Jackson reports.
Dusk was falling when the fishing boat nudged through the mud and mangroves that form the shoreline of Saibai Island, one of Australia's northernmost islands in the Torres Strait, and Aladdin Sisalem climbed out of the boat and waded through crocodile-infested mangroves to firmer ground.
After a two-year ordeal that had taken him to the Indonesian province of West Papua, and to Papua New Guinea, he had finally reached Australia. He remembers that it was eerily quiet when he landed and he was unsure of which way to go.
"I landed about four kilometres from the island township, so I had to walk and swim for few hours through the mud to reach the town. The crossing from Daru Island was very rough," he says.
Despite landing well inside the Australian migration zone, Sisalem's bid for asylum was to prove unexpectedly elusive. What he had not counted on was the Australian immigration authorities, who seemed primed to thwart those aboard unauthorised boat arrivals from making refugee claims.
Sisalem, 26, set out for Australia from Kuwait on November 15, 2000, after being arrested, beaten and eventually expelled by Kuwaiti authorities during another crackdown on Palestinians in the aftermath of the Gulf War. The Kuwaitis bitterly resented Yasser Arafat's links with Saddam Hussein and were taking it out on the Palestinians living in exile in Kuwait.
But Sisalem's journey would have an unlikely twist. After making it to Australia, he would be deported to PNG's Manus Island and a life of indefinite exile. Even though he had made it to Saibai, he would be removed on a technicality: he had not asked immigration officials for the correct forms to lodge his application for refugee status.
Off-duty immigration officer on Saibai, Leonard Waia, remembers the night Sisalem staggered into the remote township of about 300 people. "I was there when he arrived. He was covered in mud. He was very tired, he could hardly say anything. He had just walked a bloody big march."
From Saiba, Sisalem was transferred to Thursday Island by helicopter to be formally interviewed by other Australian immigration officers. According to his signed affidavit lodged with the Federal Court on December 8, 2003, Sisalem says he asked during the interview for protection as a refugee. Even so, he says, he was jailed for three days while officials and federal police interrogated him further.
At one point, he says he was also interviewed by telephone by an immigration official based in Canberra. Again, he says he repeated his request for asylum, saying he had fled Kuwait because he had a genuine and well-founded fear of persecution.
But before he knew it, he was deported back to PNG. After being assured by Australian authorities that they would process his claim for asylum, on December 23 he was flown from Thursday Island to Manus Island. He has been stuck there ever since, held as a virtual prisoner of the PNG Government in a facility run and paid for by Australia. As yet, no country is prepared to accept him as a refugee.
Two months after arriving on Manus his request for asylum was rejected by Canberra. Amazingly, one of the two grounds for rejection was the fact that he was no longer on Australian soil; the second, that he also had an unfinalised claim for protection before the PNG Government, although Sisalem disputes this.
Sisalem's removal from Australia is now the subject of a Federal Court action. Through his lawyer, Eric Vadarlis, Sisalem alleges that his removal was illegal and that he should be returned to Australia to be properly processed. The Government is vigorously opposing the application and the case remains undecided. Thus, Sisalem has the extraordinary and unwanted distinction of being Australia's most expensive asylum seeker. In the past 26 weeks, Australian taxpayers have paid $4.3 million to keep open the facility on Manus Island where he is being held.
Sisalem spends his days in a barbed wire compound that once accommodated hundreds of asylum seekers under Canberra's Pacific Solution. Even though all the other asylum seekers have been relocated, the Government prefers to pay millions of dollars to keep Sisalem on Manus Island than to allow him to set foot again on Australian soil.
According to Australia's Immigration Department he is not Australia's responsibility, even though they pay the bills. "He is PNG's responsibility," a department spokesman says.
Sisalem lives in an international "no man's land". Last August, Mataio Rabura, the head of the PNG Immigration Department, rejected him as an asylum seeker while conceding that PNG had ultimate responsibility for his fate. "We are not sure what to do about him," Rabura says.
Even though Sisalem has been rejected by Australia and PNG, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has recently interviewed him on Manus and declared him to be a refugee.
"As a stateless Palestinian, he is a person of concern to us," a UNHCR spokeswoman in Canberra says.
While the UNHCR searches for a country willing to take him, Sisalem hopes that his Federal Court action might provide an escape from Manus Island where he says life is like "waiting for his last day".
Melbourne refugee lawyer Eric Vadarlis filed an application with the court that the Immigration Department be required to consider Sisalem's asylum application made between December 20 and 23, 2002. The court application names four DIMIA officers as understanding that Sisalem was seeking protection in Australia. It says they failed to give him a form 866 to make a valid and appropriate application for a protection visa.
The application claims two of the officers (Doug Walker and Jim Williams) "decided to remove the applicant from Australia before he could lodge a valid protection visa application".
It further alleges that the then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock was aware of Sisalem's situation, but allowed him to be flown from Australian to PNG where he could no longer make a valid claim. Mr Ruddock has declined to comment.
That case remains undecided after Justice Peter Gray in December ordered both parties to mediation, which is continuing. Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone told Parliament earlier this month that while Sisalem had indicated that he wished to seek asylum while in Australia, "he did not make an application for a protection visa. He was correctly returned to Papua New Guinea, where his claim was heard, and incidentally rejected."
Shrugging off the cost of keeping Sisalem on Manus Island, she claimed offshore processing centres like Manus are needed to deter people attempting to enter Australia illegally. "It is money well spent," she said.
Meanwhile, Sisalem remains stranded, a lone prisoner in an island jail. He told The Age this week via email that detention was driving him mad. Nights of broken sleep give way to days full of fear of being forgotten. He roams the empty compound that was once filled with chatter and animated conversation. From his window he can glimpse the nearby ocean and the palm trees along the beach. A swim once a day provides relief from the tropical heat. He also worries about getting malaria, as Manus Island falls in the danger zone.
He maintains that he is a victim of circumstances. He says he left PNG for Australia when it was clear that PNG authorities were not prepared to treat his claim for asylum seriously. After waiting a year for PNG to reply to his protection application, he says he was told by Immigration Officer Cayce Kapus that his application stood no chance because "PNG would not accept refugees from terrorist countries".
The son of a Palestinian music teacher, Sisalem says he fled Kuwait four years ago to escape persecution at the hands of the Kuwait police. To remain in Kuwait, Palestinians had to obtain the sponsorship of Kuwaiti citizens. Those who failed to find a sponsor were abused and interned, Sisalem says.
Before he fled Kuwait, Sisalem says he worked illegally as a mechanic until 1998 when Kuwaiti police detained him for a second time. They beat him and told him to leave the country. He took a flight to Jakarta, where after waiting a year for the UNHCR to consider his case, he launched himself on a perilous journey through the jungles of Papua (formerly Irian Jaya) to the PNG border.
"I was trying to save myself from the hands of the Indonesian military and the West Papuan fighters who wanted to kill me," he recalls.
Once across the Fly River he asked for PNG's protection. After being interviewed by the director of the Office of Immigration and Citizenship and supplying a requested letter from the United Nations Displaced Persons office in Port Moresby confirming he was an asylum seeker, he says he was arrested as an illegal, jailed and beaten.
UNHCR's Canberra office promised assistance, but he was tried and sentenced to two months' jail or a fine of 200 kina (a little under $A100). He paid the fine. After being told his protection application stood no chance, he bought a map of Australia's coastline. As the legal battle over his future drags on, Sisalem despairs. "I don't think I can survive in this position for longer. To live alone as prisoner in this detention centre without any reason or end for my detention is the worst part of being kept here for me," he says.
A guard sits outside his door day and night. Sisalem says the IOM staff and the guards ignore his pleas for them to sit down and talk during meals. Exchanges are mainly limited to formal complaints about the quality of food and the lack of proper medical attention.
Meals offer no enjoyable distraction. When the IOM cooks left in July, local people took over the kitchen. He complains that the menu consists of rice and chicken, usually undercooked.
IOM's scaling down of its staff since July included the departure of its doctors, which has left him without his previously precribed anti-depression medication. A painful broken tooth from a gym fall has gone unattended.
Recently the Xanax tablets prescribed to get him through the nights were abruptly withheld, "causing me more physical and mental troubles". Densis Nihill, IOM's Regional Director says from Canberra: "His conditions are quite good. The staff eat the same food and the food menu is designed by a nutritionist". Nihill says a Defence Force doctor is available when required.
To add to Sisalem's isolation, he is not allowed visitors. A Queensland man who tried to visit him was turned by at the gate by PNG naval guards. Sisalem's only contact with the outside world is through the internet, the two phone calls a month he is allowed, and from letters. With no one to talk to he says the computer has become his "companion".
He says he starts each day eagerly scanning emails for any news that might promise his release. He communicates with asylum seeker support networks, hoping they will ask the questions he cannot ask of politicians. It is through email to this newspaper that he told his story.
"I believe IOM is trying to push me step by step under the PNG military's custody," he says. Because of his experience in March 2003, when PNG Defence Force sergeants seized him from the compound and put him in a jail after a court found him not guilty of threatening IOM officers, Sisalem lives "in horror" of being left in the hands of the PNG military authorities.
The jail was "under the ground, very hot and full of mosquitoes". He says in a sworn statement that he was in prison for two nights. Meanwhile, he lives in the hope that court action in Australia may provide some way out of his island prison, which the Washington-based group Human Rights Watch says violates Australia's responsibilities under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. The group, and Amnesty International, has been refused access to the camp.
Last week, the PNG Government tried to break the impasse over Sisalem's continued detention with an unusual offer to allow him to "come and go" from the compound. This is not practical, given that it is in the middle of a high-security naval base, beyond which is dense rainforest.
Sisalem is refusing to leave the detention centre because he fears that to do so would amount to an invitation to DIMIA to wash its hands of any responsibility for his situation by arguing he is no longer in detention.
Eric Vadarlis describes Sisalem's treatment as "outrageous". "It is an inhumane and degrading way to treat a human being in need, a refugee. UNHCR have said he is a refugee.
"At this stage he could be there forever, wasting his life away at a very great cost to the Australian taxpayer - $23,000 a day."
By Andra Jackson
May 29, 2004
For 10 months, Aladdin Sisalem has been the sole inmate of the Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea.
Yesterday the stateless, Kuwait-born Palestinian won his freedom. An email message from the Australian Immigration Department informed him: "You have been granted a visa and you will be here next week."
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone said the decision was made after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had found Mr Sisalem to be a refugee and asked that he be resettled in Australia.
Last night Mr Sisalem told The Age by email:
"Actually, I don't know how to explain my feeling after I was given another chance in life. I feel very tired because of the time that I spent here.
"Most of what I'm feeling now is that I'm grateful for all the help that I have been receiving from many good people in Australia."
His solicitor, Eric Vadarlis, who had launched a Federal Court action to compel the department to process Mr Sisalem's application for asylum, said it was fantastic news.
"It is a victory for common sense. The poor man gets to get on with his life and the Australian public gets to save $23,000 a day."
Mr Sisalem landed by boat on the Torres Strait island of Saiba on December 21, 2002, and sought Australia's protection. He was sent to Manus Island and later became its sole detainee.
The department had estimated that it cost $23,000 a day to keep Mr Sisalem on the remote PNG island.
However, Senator Vanstone's spokesman confirmed that the centre, which cost $4.3 million to run over a six-month period, would remain open although it will soon be empty.
"We said at budget time that we remain committed to the offshore processing because it is working," he said.
It is believed Mr Sisalem has been granted a humanitarian visa, which is valid for a longer period than a three-year temporary protection visa.
The minister's spokesman said Mr Sisalem's visa status meant he would have the right to work here and access to Medicare and special benefits entitlements.
Senator Vanstone had previously said Mr Sisalem would not be let into Australia because he was the responsibility of PNG, where he had first applied for asylum.
Her department had also maintained that Mr Sisalem did not qualify for Australia's protection because he had not asked for the "right form" to request asylum when in Australia.
Mr Vadarlis said he expected Mr Sisalem to arrive in Melbourne early next week.
Mr Sisalem has made an increasing number of complaints about the conditions under which he has been held on the island. They include concerns about deteriorating food and lack of access to proper medical care. He also claimed he had been bashed by guards at the centre, which is run by the International Organisation for Migration.
Last night a centre staff member refused to put through a phone call to Mr Sisalem despite his new status, saying "Aladdin doesn't get phone calls."