INTERVIEW: Afghan refugee speaks from refugee prison

April 9, 2012
Refugee rights action outside Villawood detention centre, July last year. Photo: Peter Boyle

Ismail Mirza Jan is a 27-year-old Hazara Afghan locked up in Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre. After the Taliban killed his father in 1998, Jan fled to Britain and then Ireland in 2001.

Eventually refused asylum, Jan came to Sydney by plane in February 2010 in the hope he could find refuge. Instead, Jan had to fight off a deportation attempt in November last year. He says this saved him from retaliation and probable death in Afghanistan.

Green Left Weekly’s Rachel Evans and Zuhal Hamidi spoke to Jan inside Villawood on Easter Sunday.

You fled originally to Europe. Where did you go, how did you get to England and Ireland?

Originally I made it to Greece where I worked in orchards for six months fruit picking. It was hard work. At times it snowed. It was very cold and we had to toil all day. We all saved our money to give to people smugglers.

From Greece, I wanted to go to Italy. We got there via a lorry from Port Patras, which is a shipping port. Refugees can be killed in lorries when they are underneath them, hiding below the lorry’s hydraulic axle. When the driver moves the refugees [can] get crushed.

I went underneath the lorry but there was a lot of space, lots of gaps underneath it. There are lots of dogs and internal heat seekers in Italy checking lorries for refugees. It’s €4000 to fly to Italy by plane, or €200 to €1000 to go by lorry.

Why did you go to Europe first?

Hardly any European countries have detention centres like Australia. Germany is the only European country to have detention camps. Australia’s detention centres are very inhumane. I was in Italy and Austria, but no one detained me.

I wanted to go to Canada but came to Australia instead. From Dublin, I had a transit flight to Abu Dhabi, then to Sydney airport. At Sydney, I applied for asylum. They sent me straight to Villawood Detention Centre. They said that I — and they say this to other refugees as well – would get a bridging visa. But they didn’t give me one.

So what happened to you in Italy?

Well the lorry didn’t stop in Italy, it took me to Austria where I got off and had to walk and hitch on the motorway to Italy. Highway patrolmen picked me up and called the police. The police didn’t arrest me, they fed me and gave me water, which was good because from Port Patras it was a forty-hour trip, and I hadn’t any water or food.

From Italy I wanted to get to Germany. [But eventually] I went to Paris. There, a group of Iraqi Kurdish refugees told me: “No, no, go to London.” So I decided to join with them and make my way to London from Calais, a French port city.

Did you get there by lorry again?

No, there are many miles of water between Calais and London, and lots of ships cross it. But refugees mostly don’t cross in ships, they burrow a hole under the fence erected around the train station, jump on top of the train and ride it to London.

We practised and practised jumping off many things to get it right. We were like elite forces in training to jump on freight trains! But if you didn’t reach the train, which many of us didn’t, you would have to walk back for four hours to the campsite and try another time.

Now they have concreted the bottom of the fence, but people just climbed on top of the fence and continued to jump.

What response did you have in London?

About a kilometre out of the tunnel that was on the way to Dover, authorities stopped the freight train and told us, “come out, come out, you are safe”. They didn’t arrest us. They gave us food and water and took us to a hotel where we stayed for two to three weeks.

From there, they designated us to go to various housing locations in Britain: Manchester, London and Scotland. Your name would be next to its location the night before, but if you didn’t like the location you could take a long walk, miss your name call and wait for a better location.

In Europe they didn’t call us terrorists or queue jumpers — they didn’t lock us up — they only do that here in Australia. Australia has one of the worst detention systems.

So I was sent to Sunderland where I applied for asylum. In 2002 when I applied, 98% Afghans were refused. The 2% who were accepted were Pashtun. Within a year they said no, that my case was closed and that within two weeks I had to leave England.

Where did you go then?

I went to Dublin, but made sure I wasn’t caught. If the British police had caught me I would have been deported. So I changed my name and then spent five years in Ireland.

But I had no study rights, no ability to really work or get on with my life. My Afghan friends and I were not illegal. We had housing and could work enough, but we had no security, no life, no travel. It is a waste of a life. So we made plans to go to Canada, North America or Australia.

How did you come to Australia?

I flew here and applied for asylum straight away but they did not give me refugee status. Others who came around the same time did, but not me.

I have been in detention for two years and two months. The detention centres push you to a point of suicide. But my life is precious.

And then they tried to deport you?

Yes, first I had an interview with the immigration department and then the Refugee Review Tribunal. Then I appealed to the minister. Then they tried to deport me in November last year. I won an injunction in the Federal Court on procedural fairness — that they had not told me in detail about why they were going to deport me.

My case went to the High Court too — I get my result [between] July [and] October — I don’t know. If I get a positive result I will have to go back to the beginning — an interview with the Immigration Department, then the Refugee Review Tribunal, then the courts. This process can take about 2 to 3 years. What I did get is an ASIO security clearance.

Why did they refuse you asylum?

I was refused because they said Afghanistan was safe. I come from Wardek — a province close to Kabul. Wardek is not safe. The Taliban are strong there. My father was killed there.

Their rulings are arbitrary. Afghans who arrived two years ago or longer all got refused — the Australian government argued Afghanistan was safe. But Afghans who arrived in the last 3 to 6 months have been getting [refugee] status.

I cannot go back to Europe. I cannot try for asylum anywhere else. I cannot change my circumstances. But Australia is cruel. If I were an Australian I would come and get all the refugees out. They should not do this to us.

We are human. Hazaras have suffered a lot. I hope my example and case helps all the Hazaras. I know of tens of hundreds, thousands of Hazaras deported back to Afghanistan from England. I hope my example helps.


i know ismail in sunderland he deserve to get a refugee status i know him about 9 years i am living in ireland i was with him in sunderland i was with him in dublin he is a great guy he just looking for safety and refuge to have a normal life like every humane so i know i am a ordinary person still i request from Australian Government to do not send him back please If send him back it's like throwing him out from a flying plane on the ground, since he use to live in europ ha had no criminal record he is 111 years he is in search for a safe life. thanks. Khaliq hassani.
Please don't repatriate this man to the land of war and bloodshed which is Afghanistan....
I hope that our Australian Government gets their act together and starts taking seriously the plight of these people.

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