Safe at last: One refugee's fight for protection


Sarah Stephen

Aladdin Sisalem, a 25-year-old Palestinian born in Kuwait, has spent the last four years in search of a country that could offer him freedom from persecution. On May 31, he finally found it, as he flew into Melbourne with a visa in his bag. Behind his arrival, however, lies 18 months of uncertainty, abuse and psychological torture on the remote Manus Island detention camp in Papua New Guinea.

For 10 months, Aladdin was the only prisoner on Manus Island while the Australian government denied responsibility for him. Yet, in 2002, Sisalem reached the Torres Strait and asked for asylum. Instead of processing his application, however, the authorities took him to Manus Island, where he stayed.

By the time he received a letter granting him asylum on May 28, Sisalem had been in solitary confinement for 300 days. His arrival in Melbourne on May 31 was a big media event. Yet nine months earlier, no-one knew that Sisalem was the sole remaining occupant on Manus Island.

In July last year, then-immigration minister Philip Ruddock was so confident of Sisalem's isolation that he told the media Manus Island no longer held any asylum seekers. Then, on August 20, Green Left Weekly ran Sisalem's story — forcing Ruddock's spokesperson Steve Ingram to admit that one person remained in detention on the island. Soon after, the Melbourne Age reported on the lone refugee's plight, and the story was picked up widely.

In an interview with GLW on June 2, Sisalem emphasised: "It's because of you that I am in Australia, because you were the first [to break my story]."

Sisalem told GLW that he was a little surprised at the media interest in his ordeal. A gaggle of media greeted him when he arrived at the airport, and he has since been inundated with requests for interviews by newspapers, TV and radio. Somewhat bemused, Sisalem explained that one TV station told him they wanted to film him when he started his new job.

Sisalem's only companion during his lonely ordeal on Manus Island, a cat called Honey, was not allowed to come with him to Australia. Upon discovering this, every conceivable media outlet took up the cause of reuniting Honey with Aladdin, including right-wing radio personality John Laws.

Sisalem said he didn't expect to see all the friends and supporters who came to greet him at the airport. He told GLW: "I feel like I have family in Australia."

Sisalem is presently staying with someone from the Spare Rooms for Refugees network, but he told GLW he looks forward to finding his own place to live. He was offered two jobs within days of his arrival, one in his trade as a motor mechanic. He also plans to study to improve his English. He is even considering studying to be an aircraft mechanic.

Sisalem's health suffered badly during his detention. Despite repeated requests to see a doctor, Sisalem was denied access to medical care for eight months. He has stomach troubles, as well as problems with his teeth due to the appalling food he was given. He told GLW: "People couldn't believe that I had access to the internet 24 hours a day, but at the same time they were giving me food which had passed its use-by date."

Sisalem has always been fiercely determined to defend his rights and dignity as a human being. He is angry about the treatment he was subjected to at the hands of the Australian government. "The price I paid for safety was far too high. Maybe a psychologist could explain it better than me."

Last November, legal action was mounted on behalf of Sisalem by a team of Melbourne lawyers working pro bono. Barrister Tom Cordiner collected detailed information from Sisalem for the court case, while barristers Julian Burnside QC and Sam Hay worked with solicitor Eric Vadarlis to mount a case for Sisalem's release in the Federal Court.

When I asked Sisalem what it felt like to finally meet Burnside and the rest of the legal team, he said: "For somebody who loves freedom, it's like seeking some TV stars that you grow up loving. When some day you meet them, it feels something like that. Burnside is a hero, saving the lives of poor people, and facing whatever he needs to in order to do that."

The Federal Court judge who heard Sisalem's case ordered a period of mediation between the two parties, and the government initially stonewalled, refusing to consider granting Sisalem a visa. But at the beginning of April, the government indicated that it would rather resolve the matter quietly than have it raised in a full-blown court case which was likely to start a few months later.

In a secret agreement struck between the Australian government and Sisalem's lawyers at the beginning of April, Sisalem was visited by an immigration department official who interviewed him and allowed him to make an application for a humanitarian visa. Sisalem told GLW that the official told him that nothing was certain, but that he could "see between the lines that it would be successful". A month later, his application was approved.

It was with bitter irony that Sisalem told me he had been escorted from Manus Island to Australia by the same immigration official who had taken him to Manus Island 18 months earlier. He asked Sisalem if he was happy to be going to Australia, to which he replied: "I just wish it had happened 10 months ago."

I asked Burnside what he thought the trigger was for the government finally caving in and granting Sisalem a visa. "They knew it would go badly in court; they were embarrassed by the publicity", he said.

Asked if he thought the immigration department had reason to be uneasy about what the court case would have revealed, Burnside told GLW: "It would have shown stupidity, bloody-mindedness and decency trumped by policy. Aladdin was not part of the Pacific Solution. He was ostensibly removed to PNG under an MOU signed some years ago, but the MOU did not apply in the circumstances. There was no proper legal basis for taking him to Manus Island. Not a good look."

Based on his experience of representing refugees in the past few years, I asked Burnside how Sisalem's treatment compared with the government's treatment of other refugees. "The last 10 months of effective solitary were very bad. Overall, however, Aladdin was treated about the same as all Pacific Solution people. Nauru is probably worse than Manus Island. The Tampa people taken to Nauru were treated very badly on HMAS Manoora."

Following Sisalem's release, the government announced that the Manus detention centre would remain open, despite having no-one to detain. I asked Burnside what he thought lay behind its dogged determination to maintain the infrastructure of the Pacific Solution, even while they're rapidly emptying the detention centres. "It means that they have learned nothing. We will pursue our case for the people on Nauru to show that the Pacific Solution is illegal."

Sisalem's chances of building a new life for himself in Australia are restricted by the nature of the visa he has been issued with. Created through legislation passed in September 2001, it is called a secondary movement relocation visa (number 451) and allows him to stay in Australia for five years.

The immigration department letter delivered to Sisalem in Manus Island on May 28 stated: "this visa allows you to remain in, but not re-enter, Australia for five years... you are not able to sponsor family members to Australia."

Neither does the visa give Sisalem access to permanent residence when it expires, because the government deems that he left his country of first asylum (Papua New Guinea) where he had "effective protection", and therefore must be punished.

When Sisalem travelled through the mountain jungles of West Papua to Papua New Guinea in 2002, he was jailed for illegal entry and beaten in prison — an experience which would make anyone feel unsafe about remaining there.

The campaign for justice for Aladdin Sisalem will continue until he wins the right to stay permanently in Australia.

From Green Left Weekly, June 9, 2004.
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