Last Man Standing

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After more than five years in limbo, Mohammed Sagar, the last remaining Iraqi refugee on Nauru, will soon be a free man. In an unexpected but very welcome decision, a Scandinavian country (which has asked not to be named) has offered Sagar a place in their refugee resettlement program.

When the news came through last week, no one was more happily surprised than me. Over the past three years I have come to know Sagar well while researching my PhD on off-shore detention in Nauru. I have advocated intensely for both he and fellow Iraqi detainee, Mohammed Faisal, and tried to help them keep going until a solution could be found.

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For most of the past year, Sagar’s situation had seemed almost impossible to improve and his future looked bleak. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) had made several unsuccessful attempts to find a resettlement country and I was concerned that Sagar, whom Australian authorities had assessed to be a genuine refugee, may have been stranded in Nauru for many more months or years to come.

In November 2005, when 25 of the remaining asylum seekers in Nauru were resettled in Australia, Sagar and Faisal were left behind due to adverse security assessments from ASIO. Faisal was eventually evacuated to Australia in August this year after becoming suicidal. This left Sagar to face an uncertain future alone on Nauru.

The news of Sagar’s impending resettlement has again thrown into doubt the credibility of ASIO’s original assessments. Neither of the men have been told the basis for their adverse security assessments and both have always maintained that they pose no risk to any person or country. The country where Sagar will soon be resettled obviously agrees.

Last month, lawyers for Sagar and Faisal won the right to access information about their security assessments in the Federal Court. Judge Ross Sunberg found that:

The primary difficulty that each of the applicants faces in bringing his claim is that he has not seen his adverse security assessment and alleges that he does not know the facts or reasoning by which the Director-General made the adverse security assessment. Without this material, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the applicants to make out their claim that the adverse security assessments were not made in accordance with law.

But the victory was short-lived, with a Federal Government appeal coming down in ASIO’s favour last week.

Thanks to Scratch

That decision came as yet another blow for Sagar who had endured more than five years of disappointments. Even if Sagar does eventually win the case,   ASIO  can continue to cite ‘national security’ as a reason not to make public any certified material contained in the documents. It is difficult to understand the grounds for the Government’s continued denial of justice to people like Sagar. How is justice served by the Government refusing them access to their only means of defending themselves?

Sagar and his family suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. In 2001, in an attempt to find a peaceful life, he tried to make it to Australia with more than 200 other asylum seekers on an Indonesian fishing boat named the Olong. The boat became well known for accusations made by the Australian Government that children had been thrown overboard. These accusations later proved to be false and the then Defence Minister, Peter Reith, was revealed to have deliberately misled the Australian public ‘concerning a matter of intense political interest during an election period.’

The Australian Navy initially took Sagar to Christmas Island with his fellow asylum seekers, then to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and finally to Nauru where he has remained since 2002. During his time in Nauru, Sagar has impressed numerous people in the Nauruan Government and university where he has shown great diligence in his work and study. Back in 2002 he worked as a volunteer interpreter for the camp psychiatrist.

On my numerous trips to Nauru, I have talked to many people who have clearly been baffled by the Australian Government’s decisions relating to both Sagar and Faisal. I have come to know both men very well over the past few years and my experience suggests that ASIO simply got it wrong in both cases.

While Sagar will soon begin a new life in a new country, Mohammed Faisal remains in hospital in Australia. After more than five years in detention, he is now too vulnerable to begin a new life in another country. His support is here in Australia, he has the love of the many ordinary Australian people he has met since his arrival, and it is our responsibility to ensure that this caring and sensitive young man does not suffer unnecessarily any further.

Surely, the Australian Government can now find the compassion to allow him to live a normal life among us and perhaps even find the humility to admit that, sometimes, mistakes are made.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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