A Refugee’s Story

I have met many different refugees over the last few years and many of their names and stories blur together. But amongst them all, a few particular people or families stick in my mind. One such person was a man called Ali Sarwari and his family. Back at the start of 2004, just after my second visit to Nauru, I wrote about their experience, which you can read in detail by clicking on this link. I think it’s worth reading, but I will repeat some of it here.

The first time I visited was in mid 2003. There were over 350 of them there at that time, and all of them had been in detention since 2001. Ali’s wife and daughter were among the many refugees I met with.

They were one of nine mothers and their children in the Nauru camp whose husbands and fathers were in Australia, recognised as refugees. But because the women and children had arrived separately to the men, their refugee claims were considered completely separately by the Immigration Department and they had all been rejected. The men living in Australia were only entitled to temporary visas and so had no family reunion rights, while their wives and children were locked up on Nauru and being regularly pressured by the Australian government to return to either Afghanistan or Iraq – the same place that the men had been found to have a legitimate fear of persecution.

It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the trauma those nine men had to endure, living freely – if insecurely – in Australia while their wives and children were locked up on Nauru and under threat of being forced back alone to an unsafe homeland, yet the Immigration Department remained intransigent in their refusal to reunite these families.

In Nauru in 2003 I met with all the women and children in this situation, as well as many of the other refugees there. For some reason, Ali’s six year old daughter Sakina stuck in mind, perhaps because I found it so hard to explain to her when she asked why she couldn’t see her father, who I had already met prior to leaving.

It’s a bit hard to explain, but every now and then when I feel there are a lot of cases and people who are seeking help, I single out one person in my mind as a sort of talisman. While I keep trying to help everyone I can, I think especially about that one person – “I will do all I can to get you out” – and at the same time hope that many others might also get pulled along in their wake.

Sakina Sarawari, Nauru 2003

Sakina was that person from that 2003 trip – helped perhaps by a photo we had of her looking out through the wire fence of the camp on Nauru.

Near the end of 2003 came the wonderful news (brought about more through the work of the UNHCR than anything I did) that New Zealand would take all of the nine families in Ali’s situation. Along with Sakina, Ali Sarwari was also memorable, as he was one of those people who stood out as clearly being capable and resourceful, as well as a genuinely lovely guy. His photo and story was run in The Age newspaper in late 2003, detailing how the only way a skilled, hard working refugee could see his family was to leave the country.

I met him in Melbourne not long before he left for New Zealand. I just recalled that he had insisted on giving a rug to both me and one of my staff, even though there were others who had achieved more for him. They were good quality persian rugs too. Ali’s carpet is the first thing I stand on each morning when I get out of bed.

On the way back home from my second Nauru visit in early 2004, I was able to go via New Zealand and visit them in their new home in Hamilton, just south of Auckland – joined by another family who had been through the same experience. It is always wonderful, when you have seen people despairing in detention, to be able to see them again when they are free.

Ali Sarwari, wife Sadiqa and daughter Sakina (from right) at their new home in Hamilton when I visited them in January 2004.

Ali had already found a new job and Sakina was just starting school. I remember well him driving me down to look at the beautiful Hamilton Gardens. We walked around there for over an hour while his wife prepared lunch at home (like most Afghani families, they were keen to offer me a meal while I was visiting). He talked about what they were hoping to do once they were fully settled and how hopeful he was that his brother Sajjed would also be able to join them soon from Nauru, as Sajjad had looked after Sakina during those two long years in detention on the isolated island, and she was missing him. It was good to hear confirmation shortly after I returned that Sajjed also received a refugee visa to New Zealand.

After more than four years of separation, having fled the Taliban, endured great danger, prolonged detention in Nauru (or seven months detention in Australian in Ali’s case) and the fear of being returned, finally the family were reunited with permanent residency in a safe and welcoming country.

As I wrote when I returned home, “the Sarwari family still have problems to deal with and difficulties to confront but they can now do so from a position of control over their lives and their options for the future. The others on Nauru deserve no less. They have suffered enough, it is time to let some joy back into their lives.”

Tonight I received a phone call with the news that Ali had been killed in a car crash near Auckland. The story is mentioned in this morning’s Age newspaper.

Sometimes you just have to wonder about this world.

This Obituary was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in February.

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  1. This is so very difficult to accept. I’m a friend of Latifa and Jawed whom you might have met and would be friends with Ali and his family. (The two women were on Nauru together) How will Ali’s wife cope, having already faced so much on her own? Those women on Nauru were exceptional. Please pass on to Ali’s wife and the rest of the family my greatest sympathies.

  2. I am so sorry to hear of Ali’s tragic death. He will though be remembered for his decency and courage – unlike those whose policies caused he and his family such unecessary suffering.

  3. There are lots of problems in Immigration, the handling of refugees being just one of them.

    But the hand-wringing and emotive bagging of the Government will not fix it.

    It is OUR government, to bag everyone and our government representatives for being indecent or cowardly is rubbish.

    Personally I support genuine refugess, but not those who attempt to reach here shall we say “unofficially”.

    As for Ali and his family, they have my sympathy for what they’ve been through and are going through.

  4. I largely agree with the first half of Geoff’s comment.

    However, I disagree that one can divide ‘genuine’ refugees from that that arrive ‘unofficially’. The method of a person’s arrival in a country has nothing to do with the genuineness of their claim to be at risk of persecution.

  5. I read of Ali’s death with despair for his wife and children after so many traumas inflicted on them first by the Taliban, then probably the Pakistan government who tortures the Hazara people we expect to stay there, and then us. Treble persecution for the crime of being Hazara seems to be awfully random and horrific.

    The High Court case s134 is the one that sealed their fates. In that case, which was poor bloody Roqia Bakhtiyari, the only wife never released for even one day, said it was OK for the government to keep families separated even though it breached the UN convention on human rights and the refugee convention.

    Fundamentally the government can legislate to lock “aliens” up in the stocks in the main streets and allow the “citizens”, whoever they are, to throw stones, tomatoes or anything else they want short of killing them and it is legal.

    It was also the case that gave the Refugee Review Tribunal to do whatever it likes, to break any law and be immune from having their decisions thrown out.

    And Ali and Sediqa and Sakina got caught up in that mess and now poor Ali is dead and Sediqa has no support which is very important in the Afghan world.

    Geoff, you are a prat. Anyone deemed to be in fear of persecution is a genuine refugee and claiming the way they travel is a reason they are not genuine is utter stupidity. Australia is a huge island with two methods of entry – planes and boats. If people cannot legally get travel documents from the people who are threatening to kill them they have to come on a boat and over 98% of them are still here.

    People carry on about the so-called boat people as if not one other generation of people had ever come to Australia on boats – what do you think your relatives did? Said “beam me up Scotty” and just arrived here?

    As for not being genuine for not having papers- Andrew will tell you there is a mountain of proof now that DIMIA smuggle innocent people out of Australia and dump them anywhere they can.

    Afghans in Pakistan after the Afghan government have issued Afghan passports. DIMIA simply cancel them and get Pakistani travel documents if it is too slow. They dump Palestinians in Thailand, Iraqis in Syria, Bedoons in Syria and Jordan and so on. All without any legal right to be there.

  6. I guess I should have said those who arrive and aren’t genuine refugees Andrew. I include in that people who have already left the country where their lives were at risk and have found safe refuge then go country shopping.

  7. Marilyn – why try to legalise this process anyway – lets just forget about any form of immigration control and jsut have one giant world with people floating at their whim. Certainly saves on bureacrats, ridiculous courst and tribunals.

  8. I never mentioned not having paper at all Marilyn. I also never mentioned any particular method of access. Do you support the parasites in Indonesia who “smuggle” people into Australia? Do you consider that a legal activity?

    The size of Australia is irrelevent… not too mention a stupid argument We are the 2nd most arid continent on the planet and in case you missed it mostly we are uninhabited due to this.

    If anyone is given a visa of anykind in Australia due to being granted refugee status if they have a family,, it’s only common sense in my opinion their family be granted visas also.

    Like I said Immigration has a lot to answer for. I could list a few things off myself. BTW if you want to see a true prat… look in a mirror.

  9. Geoff, who are the parasites who are people smugglers in Indonesia? Name one. There are no people smuggled into Australia by anyone – even the courts recognise that the boats are not a people smuggling exercise – go to sievx.com and look at the sentencing notes.

    The people catch boats and come to Australia – they don’t go forum shopping, they go to the first country that has signed the refugee convention. From here to Afghanistan that is us. As for punishing the so-called people smugglers.

    They have lawyers and a trial and sentence. The refugees they bring just get locked up and we throw away the keys. No lawyers, no right to merits appeal, no trial, no sentence – nothing.

    There is nothing in any law anywhere in the world that says people have to stay in the first country.

    Consider what you are really saying. Afghan Hazara are murdered in Afghanistan and Pakistan because they are shi’ite muslims. How can they stay in Pakistan when Pakistan has not signed the convention, Pakistan kills them and steals their children and have not ever granted Afghans citizenship.

    Geoff it takes a real prat not to research and get the truth instead of relying on the dodgy evidence of the department and Ruddock’s rot.

    Go and look at the refugee convention and tell me where it says people are not allowed to come to Australia.

    To make matters worse – some Afghans who managed to get legal documents and travel on a plane were deemed not to be refugees and locked up three times longer than those who can’t get them. Look at Mr Noori – he had a diplomatic passport and because of a mistaken identity, which is what happened to Roqia as well, he has been locked up for over 6 years and I can’t figure out why he was locked up at all as he had a genuine passport and entry document.

  10. tsk, tsk, tsk… marilyn

    I suggest you ask some of our refugees about people smugglers marilyn, they’ll soon tell you.
    It’s been widely reported and it’s even been on TV.. can’t remember if it was; 4 corners, Sunday, the 730 report or 60 minutes. I think all of them had something on them at one time or another.


    I guess you were asleep.

    People smuggling, like most crimes occurs because there is a demand for something. In this case people in in one country want to get to another because going to the other country has some benefit. In the case of asylum seekers moving from Indonesia to Australia, the people get a benefit from being in Australia. Firstly, their refugee claims are more likely to be successful because the Australian courts have a more generous definition of refugee than many other places. Secondly, if their claims are successful, Australia offers them a much higher standard of living than elsewhere. The welfare payments in Australia are higher than the wages in most other countries in the world. People can enjoy a higher standard of living on welfare in Australia than working full time in most other countries.

    States not signatories to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol do not have treaty obligations but still have obligations under international law regarding the treatment of refugees.

    States that are party to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol undertake to accord to refugees the legal status and minimum standards of treatment as outlined in its text.

    BTW “refugees” are not the same thing as “Asylum seekers”.

    As for your claim that; “they go to the first country that has signed the refugee convention. From here to Afghanistan that is us.” Ah hate to disapoint you but countries that share a border with landlocked Afghanistan and are signatories are;Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. That would make them the most direct and closest. By a long chalk. I’m sure there are quite a few other countries also a lot closer than us. I think even Britain is closer than us. I’m sure many of them are Muslim too.

    I could pick apart many other things you say marilyn… but I won’t. I suggest though that it is wearisome you calling me a prat all the time when it seems you are a bigger one than me. What is it with you guys and name-calling etc?

    BTW, I’m sure if you really try you can do much better research than you have in the past.

  11. Geoff that is really, really funny you telling me to do more research when you don’t have a clue what you are on about. Check again on the SIEVX site for me why don’t you.

    Let’s examine the SIEVX why dont’ we? Did Australia do one single thing to bring Quessay to justice? Nope. Were any of the actual smugglers seriously jailed in Australia? Nope.

    I have talked to hundreds of Afghans – if they go to the nice and friendly countries of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan they face the same persecution because they are shi’ite muslims. Go and have a look at the human rights records of those countries before you suggest that anyone should bother. Iran won’t give them legal status, denies them an education and sends them back to Afghanistan whenever it can because they had 2 million or more compared to our massive 4,000. The Hazara people are tortured and treated like dogs in Iran and even here for heavens sake. Read the Human Rights watch report.

    Anyway they all closed their borders to the Afghans and collaborated with the Russians to destroy the place. Jesus wept – don’t you ever actually read anything? Besides all that if the story of “forum shopping” had any basis anywhere except in Philip Ruddocks feeble brain not one refugee would ever get help and not one refugee would ever have been allowed to stay in Australia.

    Perhaps you haven’t yet found the RRT site – asylum seekers come to Australia from Russia, Israel, Pakistan, Peru, Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, all sorts of African countries, even one from the US, from Turkey, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, – they go to 140 other countries too and those countries don’t whine about forum shopping, they don’t know what it means although Europe is going to unify things. The only difference is they fly, sometimes around the world and guess what? They do it because they are allowed to. It is a right.

    Chad had 200,000 people descend on them from Darfur on foot and donkeys without documents and handled them better than we handled a mere 10,000 in 8 years. Pakistan has had up to 6 million Afghans over the years but hardly any Hazara because they kill them.

    Hazara are Asian – they are shi’ites and are the cockroaches of the region. And we lock them up like animals.

    Really Geoff, don’t accuse me of not doing my research. I worked with the lawyers, politicians, journalists and others for nearly 5 years pro bono as a researcher. into refugee rights and issues.

    Ask Andrew.

  12. I know who you are Marilyn… that doesn’t make you, politically unbiased, emotionally well-balanced or right.

    I thought you said there were no such things as people smugglers? Try to be consistant at least.

    I don’t feel inclined to waste everyone’s time discussing sievx here. Abu Quassey was tried in Egypt, not Australia. Not bad for someone who doesn’t exist. The Government offered to take SIEVX survivors to Egypt to testify in the trial against Abu Quassey and it was covering the costs of the travel etc and according to Ghassan Nakhoul (SBS), some accepted the offer. Like I said earlier, ask the refugees about people smugglers.

    So have you petitioned the Indonesian government about the endemic corruption that led to people being forced aboard the vessel in the first place? No? That is what happened in this case isn’t it?

    I know who I blame for all those deaths, and it’s not my government.

    I gather you are saying the UNHCR Refugee Charter is a complete waste of time since the signatories I mentioned who border Afghanistan are apparently not safe for Afghanis.

    BTW Britain is still closer than Australia… so what’s wrong with Britain or any other European signatories?

    The fact that Andrew would take your advice on anything makes me wonder if the Democrats will ever get back to being a force of any kind in politics.

  13. Geoff if the Afghans had a clue where they could go to get out of Afghanistan I feel sure they would have asked a bloody travel agent.

    I didn’t say Quessay didn’t exist and I am so tired of people who want to torture refugees thinking I am fair game for cheap shots when I am not the story.

    I am certainly non-partisan and unbiased as I regularly criticise the ALP just as much if not more than the government of the day because they legislated this rot.

    As for the refugee convention not being suitable in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – what on earth are you talking about? If Afghans are persecuted there and they are, the people of those nations are persecuted, why would they go there for permanent protection? The borders were closed. Dont’ you read.

  14. You’re unbiased… oh puhlease Marilyn… you lean so far left your right legs off the ground and your left ear is touching it..

    As for the rest… honestly where does anyof it hold water?

    You said people smugglers didn’t exist.

    As for the travel agent… gee, someone knows where Australia is, otherwise how do they get here?

    Yes the ALP brought in mandatory detention. A policy shown to be supported by most Australians.

    My point re the UN and it’s conventions still holds…. It seems it is YOU who either don’t read or have selective vision Marilyn… there are many signatories closer than Australia.

  15. Well this should be in the Immigration topic, but it seems bringing about further discussion on Imigration is taboo.

    So since this article is on Refugee health and immigration, I’ll settle for here…

    an article from the Daily Telegraph…

    $2m cost of HIV refugees


    March 10, 2006

    NSW taxpayers are footing a $2 million annual bill for HIV treatment for 170 new overseas arrivals, some of whom weren’t screened for the infection before entry.

    A NSW Health report obtained by The Daily Telegraph has revealed the temporary residents were deemed ineligible for Medicare, shifting the cost to the NSW public system.

    Many discovered they were infected only after they arrived in Australia – meaning they were not tested by the Immigration Department.

    The Federal Government has sent mixed messages about whether having HIV is a barrier to being allowed an immigration visa.

    Departmental health requirement regulations state that HIV cases would be assessed “on the same grounds as any other pre-existing medical condition . . . the main factor to be taken into account is the cost of the condition to the Australian community”.

    The Federal Government claims it does not discriminate against HIV-infected applicants.

    NSW Health Minister John Hatzistergos said the Federal Government had been asked to help with a Commonwealth responsibility that was being shifted to the NSW public health system.

    “Some of these people may have been undiagnosed . . . and some may still be undiagnosed,” Mr Hatzistergos said.

    “Those undiagnosed are potentially a greater public health risk if they are not treated.

    “If these people are not being screened or tested . . . it is of concern.”

    The $2 million bill is for treatment alone – it does not include other health costs.

    The report also warned that people who had not been screened before entry and were still undiagnosed in the community were a risk of spreading other diseases, such as tuberculosis.

    Now I noted way back in the early 90’s that TB a disease we had beaten in this country has since raised it’s ugly head again and this is almost completely due to IMMIGRATION policy.

  16. marylin. did you ever go to christmas island and ask the locals about ppl smugglers.and how some refugee,s demand their rites as they stepped of a boat that could have not made the trip unassisted .i have!

  17. The fact that Andrew would take [Marilyn Shepherd’s] advice on anything makes me wonder if the Democrats will ever get back to being a force of any kind in politics.

    Judging by the Tasmanian and South Australian election results, the answer is ‘no’. South Aus is (or was) the Democrats’ strongest state, but from the latest projections it seems they won’t get any members elected there at all. Nor the Greens, for that matter.

    The most politically correct minor parties copped a hiding. Looks like people are starting to catch on to the truth behind their rhetoric.

  18. Evil Pundit. Well may you say the Democrats are on their way out. I tend to agree with you. However it really goes back to one reason. Its the support of the gay right marraiges or “whatever.” The Democrats are however the only party for years to have pushed for some common decency towards animal Welfare not discounting the green efforts either. Dont count them out just yet because while family first has rocked in with their good Christian vaules they have a long way to go. It looks to me like good old labour are rolling over on the democrats in favour of family first. It has taken many requests to Senater Feilding since the day of his election until now to finally get a meeting with him to discuss Animal Welfare. Its really very exciting to have a party that represents all of the churches in our country. For the first time the public can look to these great Church leaders for some common decency towards Animal cruelty in this country.
    Your right the Australian public are catching on.
    Should the great leader feel that its not of interest to them we WILL inform the public. A short TV commercial to outline the difference between the Democrats and the Good Church leaders ought to assist the public greatly. Things have a way of turning around EP . Ask John Howard because he is loosing votes over this issue as well. What do you think all these silly eat meat adds are for which costs the tax payer as well. Its called Damage control and the Democrats can largely claim fame for a lot of that. So long as the vegan groups are not the only ones representing this cause i know they will return with the force of all mighty god behind them sooner or later. I have already stared working on our tV add however i hope against hope tha family first do the right thing,. Much to my amuzment I listened to the QLD Rep of Family first tell me how it all works as far as he is concerned. First he said he put his family first before anybody else in this world followed by his grand children. Then he said came his last family ie parents brothers and sisters on so on. He said it was important to teach kids that they were the most important in the family and their own familys needs were to come before anybody else or anything else? gee I dont know about anybody else but I was brought up to beleive love thy neighbour and all that stuff. The Democrats on the other hand teach that all are equal EP. Leaving aside the gay issue which i did not have a problem with really until i saw how much it hurt the party .I would say that The Democrats are leaps ahead morally and with a little bit of help they will be right back up there. I dont even know if they give preferences to the greens but they should because labour dont have the brains to get in out of the rain. They are pretty basic people putting it nicley. Well if You are reading this Senater Fielding before our meeting please know the appointment is to get your offcial word that your party and all the Churches Wont help stop Animal cruelty. Once I have that Its on. The greens and the Democrats will then carry on to do your job with God on their side. So EP Dont count them out yet because we have a party silly enough to put their hand up as Christian leaders and i suspect support Animal cruelty. The public wont like that. They wont like that one little bit EP.

  19. M Red Crab is telling the truth. My friend was head of a AFP force and some of them you would not want here either. Its a sad story about the people you and Andrew were talikning about M. Its to his creidt and yours that you care. Its nice that Andrew saw the family in nZ to. There is not one Ausie who would not find that a sad story either. We are a giving lot M.
    More than other countries. We are good people and should be proud of our people by large. I guess the best way to see all get a better go is to really look into the process of checking them out.
    The government would be in deep S if they allowed the wrong ones here. Their first job is to protect you and your family M. Its a difficult problem but your post where you suggested no checks no anything is silly.
    Not all of them are nice and have you not heard of the word disease? Keep up your good work for your interest in others is a good thing and should be encouraged.But Dont go overboard.

  20. The day any Government or party gets elected or tossed out on the issue of animal cruelty is the day we may as well gvie it away

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