BY SARAH STEPHEN
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 GLW 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 GLW, 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 GLW. "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 GLW.
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". Sisalem asked, "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 GLW. "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."
From Green Left Weekly, October 22, 2003.
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