Nayser Ahmed, his wife and their two children fled together.
As members of the violently persecuted Rohingya ethnic minority, their homeland, Myanmar, would never be safe.
The family ran together, they planned to come to Australia together.
“We were in Indonesia on our way to take the ship to Australia,” says Nayser. “We were all supposed to get in a car and go to the boat, but there weren’t enough seats in the car. I told my family to go ahead and I would be behind them. But another car never came. “
A week after the arrival of Nayser’s family in July 2013, Australian government policy changed: all newcomers would be sent abroad.
“By the time I got to Christmas Island, my wife and children were already in the Australian community.”
Arrested in Australia, Nayser told authorities that his family lived in Australia.
“I just assumed that I would meet with them. But at the gate they told me I was going to Manus.
“I felt numb. My heart and brain stopped working. I couldn’t muster the strength to say a word. It was completely frozen.
“I spent more than five years on Manus Island, away from my family. All I want in this life is to be with my children and my family ”.
After half a decade in the Manus Island Detention Center, an internment that Papua New Guinea courts finally deemed illegal, Nayser was finally reunited with his family. But the lost years, he says, he will never return, and the long years of separation have made their subsequent reunification difficult.
“At home, I was the head of the family. Every day I shared meals with my family, accompanied my children to school, we celebrated special religious holidays together. Being separated has brought great stress to my family. It is not good for my children to be without a father figure.
“Two of my children were very young when we were separated. They have grown up without a father for important years of their childhood.
Nayser Ahmed’s story has ended with him carrying his children again, but many may never get that chance.
Thousands of refugees, including members of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority, remain stranded and separated by Australia’s uncompromising policies to prevent refugees from being reunited with their families.
Ali *, also a member of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority, was forced to flee the country shortly after the birth of his second child.
“The situation in my home country had become unbearable and I had no choice but to flee for my life. I left my young daughter and son, my wife and my extended family behind, to find a safe place for all of us. “
Ali came to Australia and now lives safely in the community, working in a pharmacy. But he is alone.
Because he has a temporary protection visa, Ali is prohibited from even requesting to reunite with his wife and children.
“I am here, my body is here, but my mind and my heart are not here. They are always with my family.
“I have two children. I always think about their life, their future and how I can protect and support them while I am away from them.”
The situation in Myanmar is getting worse almost daily. In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were expelled from their country by an unswerving genocide carried out by the Myanmar military. In February of this year, that army took control of the government.
Ali’s family has fled Myanmar for a crowded refugee camp on the border in neighboring Bangladesh. “They are suffering,” he says, “and their future eludes them day by day.
“It is difficult to explain, but it is simple to understand. Imagine if you were separated from your children and safe while they were in a dangerous refugee camp. Not for a day, a week, or a month. But years. “
The deliberate cruelty of Australia
A new report from the Human Rights Law Center, Together in safety, argues that the Australian government “has engaged in a strategic, deliberate and coercive campaign to separate refugees in Australia from their families.”
“The cruel campaign not only violates international law by using separation as a tool to punish and dissuade people from seeking safety, violating the right to family life, the rights of the child and the prohibition of torture, but it excludes to Australia. in tune with the international community, where countries like Canada and France actively seek to reunite refugee families. “
The report says Australia separates and keeps family members apart by continually deprioritizing applications from permanent residents who arrived in Australia by boat, banning family reunification for refugees on temporary protection visas, and using detention in the foreigner to keep family members apart.
The lead attorney for the Center for Human Rights, Josephine Langbien, said the Australian government was cruelly choosing to separate families.
“This report tells the stories of mothers who have partners and children in refugee camps abroad, but cannot get them to safety in Australia. Parents who have missed their babies’ first steps and first words because the Australian government refused to allow them to be released from overseas detention.
“There are thousands of people in Australia who are indefinitely separated from their loved ones, because the Australian government has made a deliberate decision to use family separation to try to prevent people from exercising their right to seek safety.”
The issue of family separation caused by Australian policies has been consistently raised with the government.
In 2016, the the federal court ruled The immigration department’s policy of putting the citizenship applications of people arriving by boat “in a drawer” and ignoring them, which hindered possible family reunions, was not legal.
Two years later, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees “urged the Australian government to uphold the fundamental principle of family unityand allow family members to be together ”. UNHCR said that the deliberate and prolonged separation of family members is a violation of a fundamental human right and seriously harms children.
A series of questions about family separation posed by The Guardian to the Department of the Interior has not been answered.
Australian Department of the Interior officials should follow Ministerial Directorate 80, which dictates that all visa applications for family members of people who arrived by boat must be given the “lowest processing priority.”
Because new applications for family visas are constantly being submitted, “lower priority” applications are, in effect, never considered. There is a possible exemption to this practice in “pressing circumstances,” says Directorate 80, but this is not defined and has almost never been applied.
The Australian government, signed the “New York Declaration” for refugees and migrants in 2016, which pledged to “consider expanding existing humanitarian admission programs … [including] flexible arrangements to help family reunification ”.
But migration experts argue that there has been no effort to improve family reunion for ship arrivals.
Psychiatrist Beth O’Connor spent a year working in Nauru with Doctors Without Borders and says long-term indefinite family separation contributed to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.
“There were families who had been separated for more than five years and parents who had never met their children, who had given up hope that they would ever be allowed to reunite.
“Every birthday, anniversary or milestone deepened his sadness.”
In Sydney, still haunted by the uncertainty of when, if ever, he will see his family again, Ali says he is grateful for the protection and acceptance that the people of Australia offer him.
“I think if the Australian people knew what happened to me and how I have been separated from my family for so many years, they would understand my situation.”
Everyone has a family, he says, so that everyone can understand.
“All I want is to hug my children and my wife again, and be safe together as a family.”
* Ali’s name has been changed to protect the safety of his family.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism