Dozens of men held in hotels as part of Australia’s controversial offshore immigration policy have been freed.
An Afghan refugee held in Australian immigration detention for eight years has gone to court to try and secure the emergency evacuation of his family as the Taliban advances across Afghanistan.
The refugee, who for his family’s safety can only be identified as FGS20, a pseudonym used in court proceedings, worked alongside coalition forces in Afghanistan.
He fled the country in 2013 to try to bring his family to safety but imprisoned in Australia, he has only been able to watch as the situation back home deteriorates and his family comes under attack for the work he did.
Since he arrived in Australia, 15 close family members have been sought out and murdered by the Taliban, including his brother, he says.
“Now the Taliban are coming for my wife and children,” he told Al Jazeera. “The only ones I have left.”
FGS20 has four children and has not seen them or his wife since he left for Australia nine years ago.
One of his children was evacuated to France at the end of July but his wife and three other children remain in Kabul, the capital.
With the Taliban advancing across Afghanistan, their window for escape is closing and FGS20 has now launched a desperate bid to get Australia to help.
In July 2021, FGS20 took the Australian government to court, arguing that Australia had prevented him from rescuing his family and the government has a duty of care to bring them to Australia.
“The Australian Government has failed him by preventing him from saving his family,” FGS20’s lawyers Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran and Daniel Taylor of Sydney West Legal and Migration, told Al Jazeera. “They owe it to his family to rescue them and give them protection.”
Even though FGS20 is recognised as a refugee he remains in detention and does not have the right to bring his family to Australia because he himself does not have a visa through which to sponsor them.
And while his wife and children all have passports, without a valid visa of their own, they will not be allowed onto a plane. Flights themselves are becoming harder to find.
“Because he has been in detention [and unable to work], neither does he have any money to [get] them out,” Taylor said.
FGS20 would need at least 100,000 Australian dollars ($73,558) to pay for his family’s passage.
“For eight years I [have been] asking the Australian government [to] please help me,” FGS20 said. “They are not listening to me, they keep me in detention, they took my power … I can’t do anything – what can I do?”
Race against time
Under Australia’s immigration law, anyone without citizenship or valid documentation who tries to arrive in the country by sea is detained, with a small number of exceptions.
When FGS20 first arrived by boat on Christmas Island, an Australian territory off the south coast of the Indonesian island of Java, he was taken to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG), then home to one of Australia’s notorious offshore detention camps.
“It was like jail, like Guantanamo jail,” he said.
“[No-one is] allowed to see … what happens inside”
In January 2015, he was formally recognised as a refugee but he was kept in PNG for four more years.
The “hellish” conditions endured by those held on the island even after the detention centre closed in 2017 have been condemned by a range of international human rights groups.
Throughout his time on Manus, FGS20 had limited contact with his family, which caused him intense worry, he says.
Before he was given refugee status he was only allowed two short calls per week and one internet session. Even afterwards, his calls were limited to one per week, under one of the many arbitrary regulations underpinning Australia’s immigration detention system.
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs defended the system.
“Transferees accommodated at the Manus Regional Processing Centre (RPC) were provided with scheduled phone calls at all times, which were managed by the Garrison and Welfare provider through a booking system,” the spokesperson said. “Transferees were able to request ad hoc emergency phone calls through their Welfare Officer. Transferees accommodated within the RPC were able to purchase credit utilising their Individual Allowance Points or at their own cost. Refugees located at the East Lorengau Refugee Transit Centre were provided with a mobile phone and cash allowance so they could purchase phone credit.”
In July 2019, FGS20 was brought from PNG to Australia under the Medevac Bill, a short-lived piece of medical evacuation legislation that was repealed later that year and detained in four different locations in Australia itself.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the situation continued to deteriorate.
Twice last year, FGS20 made requests to be returned to PNG where he thought it would be possible to apply to take his family out of Afghanistan and to work to earn enough money to pay for their passage or approach the US Embassy for assistance.
His lawyers say that the government did nothing to facilitate the requests.
FGS20 says he himself has had no indication as to when he will be released and wants to know why he is being detained at all.
“I [asked] immigration “Am I a refugee now?” They said ‘Yes, you’re a refugee’,” he said.
“I said ‘If Australia doesn’t want me, send me to … another country, why do you keep me here?’ But they don’t listen.”
In May this year, coalition forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan and the Taliban began a sweeping offensive.
Six provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban in less than a week.
In July, the United States announced it would evacuate thousands of Afghans interpreters and translators who had worked for US forces, along with their immediate family members. The first 200 arrived in the US at the end of last month.
Last week, FGS20’s lawyers made an application on behalf of his family for a Subclass 203 Emergency Rescue visa. No indication has been given as to whether or not anything has, or will, be done.
When contacted for comment on this article, the spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said: “As this matter is currently before the court, it would be inappropriate to comment on the specific details of the case. The Department of Home Affairs and Australian Border Force (ABF) are committed to the welfare of detainees within Australia’s Immigration Detention Network.”
On Friday, FGS20 lawyers lodged a request to the court, seeking an order for an urgent decision on his family’s visa application.
FGS20 was too stressed to sleep last night. If the government does not move, he will lose his family, he says.
And yet still, he waits, held prisoner inside Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), where he has been held since April.
“If my family dies, I will die in here,” he said.
“If I don’t have my family, I don’t need my life.”