Faizal* was supposed to get out in a week or two. His case manager assured him that he would soon be free – well, sort of. Over a year after arriving at Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, he would be released into community detention. He would live in, but not have the right to contribute to, the Australian community: he would be prohibited from working and would survive on a meagre stipend that would place him below the poverty line.
Faizal was ecstatic. Mobility was enough.
When I heard the news, I started making a wish list like some naïve kid at Christmas: Things to Do When Faizal is Free.
“What do you like to do for fun?” I probed.
Faizal shrugged. In his 28 years, he’d never had the time or peace of mind to contemplate fun before, he explained. Leisure time is the mark of a privileged existence. Leisure time is not a part of your reality when you have spent your entire adult life on the run.
* * *
Faizal met Nyi Nyi* when she was stranded on the side of the road, with a broken motorbike and dwindling time. Faizal lent her his bicycle so she could get to school, and walked her motorbike to the mechanic.
It was the beginning of a friendship, not a love story, but the bullies thought otherwise. Nyi Nyi was pensive, sweet and Buddhist. Faizal, on the other hand, is a Rohingya Muslim – part of a group viewed as intruders by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, and described by the United Nations as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. According to Faizal, if a Rohingya Muslim is caught in a romantic relationship with a Burmese Buddhist, the Muslim will be incarcerated for 20 years. In practice, this is a death sentence: in Faizal’s words, “if a Muslim goes to jail for even two or three years, he will die.”
One afternoon, jealous classmates and local men attacked Faizal for having a Buddhist ‘girlfriend’. They left him bloodied and borderline-comatose in the battered undergrowth, and called the police to pick up what they assumed was a dead body. The police took Faizal to hospital, but the help ended there. They had caught – it seemed – one half of an illicit love affair; they certainly had leverage. Faizal’s father was already paying bribes to send his six children to school. Now he would pay a tax on Faizal’s life.
“He paid a lot of money,” Faizal says. “Finally, [he] said, ‘If you stay they will take all the property, they will put you in jail.’” Faizal knew a plea when he heard one: go.
Faizal’s father waited until his son could feasibly have crossed the Burmese border and then, desperate to end the cycle of blackmail and bribery, told the police that Faizal was a runaway. No, I do not know where he is. No, I am not lying. Prove it? If you see my son, arrest him. If you see my son, shoot him on sight.
Faizal was 19 when he left; he has been in transit for over nine years. He can plot out the past decade with thumbtacks and a map: he fled from Myanmar to Thailand, then to Malaysia, and from there to Christmas Island, Nauru, and finally Australia. The years are a blur, but two dates stand out: 08/06/2012, and 19/07/2013.
In June 2012 a bout of violence broke out between the Buddhists and the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State, Western Myanmar. “Everything had been burnt from the jungle. My father had nothing. My family homeless.”
By this time Faizal was living an off-the-record life in Malaysia. His mother and father depended on his remittances to survive. From midnight to 8am he was a greengrocer, from midday until 8pm he was a fishmonger. The relentless hours aggravated a pre-existing back injury and in a few months he could barely walk. It was this injury that, after 15 months on Nauru – months blurred by inadequate painkillers, and skipping meals because he often could not walk from his tent to the mess hall – eventually compelled the Australian government to transfer him to Sydney for medical treatment in February 2015.
19 July 2013, the other key date structuring Faizal’s timeline, was the deadline outlined by the Rudd government’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement. Any asylum seeker subsequently arriving by boat would be processed in Papua New Guinea and, if classified as a ‘genuine refugee’, would be resettled in the relatively destitute, socially volatile island nation. Faizal arrived after the cut-off.
The Department of Immigration invoke this ruling when justifying their decision to not grant Faizal a visa, even though he is a UNHCR-approved refugee. This ruling also informed their decision regarding community detention. Last April Faizal was told that he would be out of Villawood in a couple of weeks; three months later the case manager returned to say, with no further explanation, “the minister cannot approve you going into community detention”. The subtext was, to quote the Border Force’s advertising campaign, “NO WAY – YOU WILL NOT MAKE AUSTRALIA HOME”.
* * *
Faizal struggled to answer my questions when I visited Villawood a few weeks ago. “Every time my case manager comes he says, ‘I have no news for you’. So I have no news for you, Zoe. Nothing.”
“I feel really sad. If you cannot send me back to my country, if you cannot let me stay here… what is my life?”
Faizal’s life can veer in two directions: he could be sent back to Nauru or resettled in a third country. Last time Faizal was in Nauru he tried to kill himself three times. The prospects for third country resettlement are bleak: the government has rejected New Zealand’s help, Australia spent $55 million to resettle five refugees in Cambodia, and the Manus Island camp is due to close but no concrete plans have been made to resettle the 854 people held there. For the moment, Faizal is to wait out his life in Villawood.
The Australian Government makes the experience of seeking asylum harrowing so asylum seekers will warn their families not to attempt the fruitless journey and eventually return to their countries of origin. In this context, ‘electing’ to return is the product of coercion. In many cases this amounts to Australia breaching its non-derogable non-refoulement obligation, which prohibits states from sending refugees back to face the persecution from which they are fleeing. Faizal is unique in that he quite simply cannot ‘go back to where he came from’ – the Burmese government does not recognize Rohingya as Burmese nationals, rendering them stateless. Faizal is trapped between two hostile states, looking to Australia to end the impasse.
Australia has the resources necessary to do exactly that, but elects not to. The government is waging a war of attrition, and Faizal does not even have the opportunity to surrender.
“I already [commit] suicide if my parents don’t live,” Faizal told me. “I hate my life. I am living for my parents. Just for them.”
“I am sorry,” I said. It is no secret that ‘sorry’ falls short of substance.
I gave him a hug and let him know that I would not be able to visit next Thursday, but would be back the week after.
“That’s okay, mate.” He laughed—an odd, offbeat chuckle. “I am here all the time. I am here, always.”
*Name has been changed