Ahmad Alhaj, a 30-year-old refugee who is virtually stateless, is one of the refugees moved interstate from Villawood in NSW to Northam in Western Australia. Ethnically Chadian but born in Saudia Arabia, Alhaj is caught in legal limbo and faces deportation to a country he has never set foot in.
In 2012, Alhaj flew to Sydney from Saudi Arabia, his country of birth, where he had faced discrimination his whole life. “I heard that Australia was a country that upheld human rights. In Saudi Arabia, I was stripped of human dignity; even animals were treated better than me,” he told NM.
Since his arrival, he has been detained in Villawood Detention Centre. He has weathered a series of protection visa application refusals from the Department of Immigration and Border Control, the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Federal Circuit Court.
The move to Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre in WA is officially because of renovations to Villawood, but lawyers and refugee advocates say it is because of a Federal Court class action against the Federal Government. Refugees, including Alhaj, are taking the Department of Immigration to court for the disclosure of personal details in February on the department's website, due to a data security breach.
Professor Mary Crock told NM that “They’re persecuting these people who have taken legal action. It’s obviously a colorable attempt to make it harder to contact with them … It makes their lives more miserable too. Successive governments have been doing this for years, for 30 years.”
Alhaj's experience in detention compounds the persecution he and his family suffered on the basis of their race and foreigner status in Saudi Arabia.
In 2006, policy crackdowns against Chadians in Saudi Arabia meant that Alhaj was forced to travel to Sudan to receive his high school education. In Saudi Arabia he was denied the medical insurance and sanctioned employment enjoyed by Saudi nationals. As a dependent on his father’s residency permit, he was not even allowed to work in Saudi Arabia when his father reached retirement age.
Alhaj only ever managed to work illegally for a total of four months, during the busy pilgrimage season. As soon as workers with permits became available, he lost that employment.
His inferior status in Saudi Arabia was constantly impressed upon him. Alhaj told NM that a car accident with a Saudi national at fault dragged out into a humiliating court case, where the driver barely bothered to attend. Alhaj’s hospitalised father and injured mother were not compensated for their injuries.
Alhaj left Saudi Arabia and came to Australia by plane. The Refugee Review Tribunal acknowledged the conditions under which he left would see his residency status there revoked.
Although Alhaj could not return to Saudi Arabia, a legal technicality meant Australia would not grant him a protection visa. Alhaj’s parents are originally from Chad. Consequently, he too was designated as Chadian by the coincidence of his parentage.
Paperwork and parentage aside, Alhaj has no connection to Chad. Of the 200 languages spoken in Chad, he can only speak a little broken Ratana, a desert tribe language so marginal that the Tribunal could find no official record of it.
He has never visited Chad, is not in contact with distant relatives there and has no support network nor means of establishing one.
According to Amnesty, human rights violations by the military in Chad go unchallenged, and approximately 90,000 are internally displaced. UNICEF reported that malaria rates in the country doubled last year.
“I am exactly like the Bidouns of Kuwait,” Alhaj said. “They tell me I’ll get used to it [Chad]. I tell them it’s impossible. I’d rather stay here, die here or get sent to any island than go to Chad.”
Kathryn Roulstone is a member of volunteer-run organisation Supporters of Asylum Seekers Sydney (SASS) that organises visits to Villawood Detention Centre. She arranges some limited casework on behalf of refugees. She calls Alhaj “a man almost without hope”.
“Unfortunately for Ahmed, his situation is that he is virtually stateless," she told NM. "But we have not yet identified a specific area under which we can apply for complementary protection that we feel will be convincing to a very difficult department in terms of a specific and significant threat.”
Professor Crock told NM that formerly, the solution was to release such refugees into the community.
“When you can’t send people back, then people end up being in a no man’s land where they have no right to stay here but no right to go back. They actually created a visa called ‘Return Pending Visa’, which left these people with the right to be in the community but not work."
"In the past, when there was not so much political pressure around asylum these people have just been quietly allowed to stay," she said. Under current policy, however, this is an unlikely outcome for Alhaj.
“The only way to deal with it is to go to the Minister and try to get intervention on humanitarian and compassionate grounds,” Crock said.
According to Roulstone, the chances of winning the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection’s clemency are currently quite slim.
“We’ve done a few [ministerial]submissions recently and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get the Department to show any compassion for our refugees,” she said.
“It’s very grim. The success rate has been virtually zero. It’s never really been great. We are a non-political group, but since the Abbott government has been in we have found it is been more difficult [to gain ministerial interventions].”
With the freeze on issuing further protection visas until the next financial year, and the queues for other family visas extending to twenty year lengths, it would appear that only applicants who vie for business visas or 457 skilled migrant visas under the recently reopened immigration loopholes are able to garner this Government’s goodwill.
“I honestly think that carrying on with the asylum seekers is in part a distraction from what they’re doing in the migration space,” Crock said.
“The irony of our present situation is that successive governments have been concerned to improve the economic performance of our migration programs but basically have really been running massive migration programs.
"We now have visas that allow people who are willing to stump up $5 million to come in as permanent residents and stay for no more than 60 days a year under the Superior Investor Visa.”
Over in Yongah Hill, Alhaj is losing his struggle to remain optimistic.
“I feel oppressed by the system. This is injustice, 100 per cent. My security checks came clean. The authorities know where I’ve been. I came by plane, straight from Saudi Arabia. So why am I still in detention? Do I need to be a criminal with some kind of a problem in Chad for me to be released or given protection?”
In a phone call he managed to make last week from a communal phone in Yongah Hill, he informed friends that conditions at the detention centre were akin to imprisonment. His phone was confiscated along with his fellow detainees, and NM’s last attempts to reach him found his number disconnected.
"This will be the new reality for them all," said Roulstone, who was also unable to reach Alhaj all week.
"The Department is definitely taking the view that if they make it unbearable for these men they will give up and go home. Their case workers are always suggesting this course of action to them. It is unconscionable."
Ultimately for Alhaj, a refusal by the Minister to intervene in his matter will result in his deportation to Chad.