This article by Ben Doherty (The Guardian 15 January 2018), is about Said Imasi, who a United Nations body has said should be released from detention and compensated, but is still in what is potentially permanent detention. Australia’s treatment of refugees has become an international scandal and the government is refusing to listen and insists on continuing its inhuman treatment, on the back of peddling fear of an invasion. Said Imasi’s story is one more story that puts the human face on what is going on.
Said Imasi is a man without a past: a man, it seems, without a future.
He doesn’t know where he was born, or when. He has few documents to demonstrate who he is or where he comes from.
He believes, but cannot prove, he was born in Spain’s Canary Islands, to a mother from Western Sahara – a barren, contested wedge of land in north-west Africa. He knows nothing about his father.
Orphaned as a child, he was trafficked into mainland Europe where he was kept as a house slave in Belgium before escaping, living on the streets of Paris and Frankfurt, and falling in with criminal gangs in Norway.
He has lived a life on the peripheries of every society he has known and concedes that includes an existence sometimes outside of the law. He admits to travelling on false passports, he says, because it is impossible for a person without a country to gain one legitimately.
Imasi arrived in Australia – by plane and intending only to pass through – in January 2010.
Said Imasi has been held in immigration detention by Australia without allegation, charge or trial for almost eight years.
But he has been detained in this country – without allegation, charge, or trial – for nearly eight years. It has cruelled his physical health and sent him plunging into depths of suicidal depression.
Imasi is stateless – there is no country on earth that accepts him as their citizen – and his case appears to have confounded Australian authorities.
In five separate reports to parliament, the commonwealth ombudsman has urged the immigration department, in increasingly strident terms, to consider releasing him into the community. Each time Imasi has been refused.
Now, the United Nations human rights committee’s working group on arbitrary detention has told Australia its ongoing detention of Imasi is unlawful, indefinite and arbitrary and he has been denied his right to challenge his incarceration before a court.
“Seeking asylum is not a criminal act; on the contrary, seeking asylum is a universal human right,” the working group said.
It said Australia’s “extraordinary lengthy detention” of Imasi, and its failure to properly assess his case, was unjustified and unreasonable.
Imasi’s case was an “extreme example of statelessness”, the group found.
“Taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr Imasi immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law.”
The working group cannot compel the Australian government to release Imasi or make a final determination on his migration status, but it has consistently criticised Australia’s policy fallback of simply incarcerating complex migration cases without sufficient effort to resolve them. It has repeatedly said Australia’s use of indefinite unchallengeable detention was “arbitrary”, “disproportionate” and in breach of international law.
In November Australia was elected to the human rights committee, after a years-long campaign for a position on the influential UN body.
Imasi speaks to the Guardian by phone from immigration detention on Christmas Island. He speaks fluent English, his “ninth or 10th language” he says, and one learned in detention.
“I have no words to explain to you how difficult it is to cope in this system,” he says. “Every day I am crushed, every day is another life sentence. And there is nothing I can do.”
‘They told me I had no choices’
Imasi was born on or about 27 March 1989. He doesn’t know his exact birthdate, nor precisely where he was born.
He believes he is from Western Sahara. More than 40 years of conflict has failed to find a peaceable solution to the oppressed, and essentially stateless, people of that place.
But Imasi believes his mother may have travelled to the Canary Islands to give birth to him there. If that were so, he may be entitled to Spanish citizenship. But he has no way to prove it.
Imasi never knew his father, who died before he was born, and believes he spent his early life, with his mother, in refugee camps in Western Sahara or Algeria.
His mother died when he was about six years old.
After being passed between a succession of orphanages, Imasi was trafficked into mainland Europe through Las Palmas, Madrid and to Paris, where he lived on the streets. He was kept in Belgium as a houseboy – essentially a slave – for years. He never went to school.
After fleeing servitude, he fled and spent several years floating between cities, living on the streets at times, finding more stable accommodation when he could. He drifted north, across the North Sea, to Norway, arriving in 2004.
It was here where Imasi lived the most stable and peaceful period of his life.
Imasi says he fell in with a criminal gang, described in Australian government documents as a “mafia-style drug gang” operating across northern Europe. He was a young teenager, he says, and easily manipulated.
“I was very young and I became friends with people in a small gang,” he says. “We survived, we helped each other. I was just a child. I was thinking, ‘This is what life is like.’ But it was OK. In Europe nobody locks you up. You are treated like a human being. I live a straight life, like a bird in the jungle.”
Still barely a teenager, he began working as a courier for the gang.
In October 2015 Said Imasi was awoken at 4.30am in his room at Villawood detention centre, handcuffed and flown across the country. Photograph: Daniel Munoz/Reuters
“Because I never had a family, this gang became like the family I never had,” he says. “I was living in the street, like normal, and I started doing this work, ‘take this bag’, ‘go to this city’. They gave me money, I didn’t ask questions.”
In discussion, Imasi is open in admitting that the gang’s activities were outside the law and his activities too. But, at that time he says, he felt he had no choice.
His only conviction came at 14, when he was arrested on a drugs charge and for a sex crime with a teenaged girl who was under the age of consent. Her father, when their relationship was uncovered, insisted on pressing charges. Imasi was incarcerated for three months.
But it was through juvenile detention that Imasi’s life took on a semblance of normality.
Released, Imasi was assisted to enrol in school, the first he had attended, and helped into supported accommodation. He joined an athletics club, where he showed promise as a sprinter.
“They let me out in community – they give me house, give me school,” he says. “I joined a running club and met a nice Norwegian community. I started to know a lot of people.”
His old running club – Asker Skiklubb – still has pictures of a teenaged Imasi competing from 2006 in its online archives.
“I had a normal life,” Imasi says of that brief period in his life. “I can’t ask for anything more than that. But the gang [was] always hanging over my head.
“The gang doesn’t like to lose anyone, it didn’t want to lose me.”
The group that had supported him expected unswerving loyalty, Imasi says. He says he was threatened by senior gang members and feared for his life. Having lived a life outside the law, and never knowing its protection, he says he felt he couldn’t go to the police.
“I didn’t feel safe. I got my friend’s passport and I thought, ‘I have to go somewhere I can be safe.’”
He had learned about New Zealand at school.
“I bought a one-way plane ticket.”
Australia was only ever supposed to be a stopover. But it proved one that would change the course of Imasi’s life. After his flight landed in Melbourne, Imasi allegedly tried to destroy the passport he was carrying – in the name of Yassin Youssef – because he wanted to present as arriving from Western Sahara, rather than a European country from which, he felt, a claim for protection would be less likely to succeed.
He was detained by immigration officers at Tullamarine.
After extensive questioning over his identity, history and citizenship, Imasi was released into the community while his immigration status was resolved. He lived, briefly, in the Melbourne suburb of Flemington, before he was detained, first in Melbourne, then Sydney – before being shunted backwards and forwards between detention in those two cities, often without warning or explanation, for five years.
“I said I want to go back to Europe, they said, ‘No, you’re not a citizen of any country.’ They told me I had no choices.”
Imasi’s case was explored by caseworkers from the department of immigration. He was not a citizen of Norway and had no right to return there (his protection visa there expired while he was in detention in Australia), nor had he any right to enter Abu Dhabi, through which he had transited. Repeated entreaties to other governments – the embassies of Morocco and Algeria were consulted – found no obvious solution. He had no documents that could demonstrate his connection to Western Sahara or Spain. Imasi was stateless.
Statelessness is recognised under international law and noted for the crippling effects it has on a person’s life. Without a place, people find themselves bounced from country to country, none willing to take responsibility, or offer sanctuary. Without the right to remain, healthcare, education, housing and the protection of the law are all near impossibilities.
Australia is a party to both the 1954 convention on the status of stateless persons and the 1961 convention on the reduction of statelessness. The former provides stateless people with a minimum set of human rights, the latter is designed to ensure the right of every person to a nationality.
In October 2015, Imasi was awoken at 4.30am in his room at Villawood detention centre, handcuffed and flown across the country to the remote Indian Ocean island of Christmas Island. He was given no chance to pack his few belongings and no opportunity to tell anybody where he was going.
He has been in that place ever since, occasionally allowed out on excursions on the tiny, remote island but never free: he is always in the company of guards who closely watch him.
He says he believes the Australian government has “given up” on finding a solution – any solution – for his case.
“They say my case is complicated. I say, ‘I have been here eight years, how can you not know about me? How can it take this long?’
“They blame me. But I am not accused of anything. They have never made any allegation against me.”
The refugee review tribunal considered Imasi’s case in 2010. The tribunal found he could not demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” and so could not be recognised as a refugee and granted a protection visa. But it did find he was stateless and without any country to which he could return.
The tribunal heard from Imasi that he had travelled on false and stolen travel documents, and had misrepresented himself. Imasi told the tribunal he feared being returned to Norway because the “mafia-style drug gang” – the tribunal’s characterisation – he had worked for had threatened to kill him.
Said Imasi, right, competing in a Norwegian athletics carnival as a teenager.
“It appears that a significant reason for his troubles is that, as an undocumented person … the applicant holds poor prospects of securing permanent residency or citizenship.”
Since then, the commonwealth ombudsman has made five separate reports to parliament on Imasi’s case. Those reports – publicly published versions are anonymised – grow increasingly concerned for Imasi’s welfare and frustrated by his case’s apparent intractability.
“The ombudsman remains concerned about the effect of protracted detention on Mr [Imasi’s] health,” the most recent report from February 2016 states. “The ombudsman notes that Mr [Imasi] attended a psychiatric review on 24 October 2014. This identified a significant deterioration in his mental health and a recommendation that Mr [Imasi] be placed in community detention.
“Since August 2012 the ombudsman has recommended that consideration be given to transferring Mr [Imasi] to a less restrictive environment. The ombudsman notes with serious concern that Mr [Imasi] has remaine
d in restricted detention facilities for over five-and-a-half-years and, despite DIBP’s [Department of Immigration and Border Protection] attempts to establish Mr [Imasi’s] identity and nationality, there appears to be no clear resolution in sight.”
The Australian government said it was continuing its work to ascertain Imasi’s identity. However, Imasi’s latest protection claim, his third, was rejected by the department of immigration in December. The government has previously raised doubts Imasi is from Western Sahara and said he has been uncooperative, a claim rejected by the UN working group.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection told the Guardian “the Australian government takes its protection obligations seriously and assesses all claims for protection through the standard statutory protection visa application process.
“Statelessness alone is not a ground for engaging Australia’s international protection obligations but may be a relevant consideration in the assessment of protection claims. The immigration detention of an unlawful non-citizen is neither unlawful nor arbitrary under international law.”
The department did not comment on Imasi’s case specifically.
Detention has become harder, Imasi says, as the possibility of freedom has ebbed. Conditions, too, have grown more punitive, as the detention centre itself has become more militarised.
“This place is now run like a prison, it feels like a maximum security prison,” he says. “Everywhere you go you feel like a caged animal. They use handcuffs all the time to move people around.
“When I first came here, people were friendly, I felt safe. But now, I never feel safe, always you have to watch your back, watch who you are talking to.”
Imasi readily admits he has, at times, not coped in detention. His first years of detention were marked by aggressive behaviour and violent outbursts. But these have faded, government reports say.
“Mr [Imasi] has been proactive in managing his mental health and has not been involved in any major incidents in detention in the past 18 months that are relevant to his character, or suggestive of Mr [Imasi] being a compliance or security risk,” the ombudsman wrote.
Bouts of anger have faded to long periods of unremitting depression, including suicidal ideation. Most dispiriting, Imasi says, has been his loss of faith in a future.
“This system gives you a death sentence, every day, every night,” he says. “You don’t know who to trust. You lose your faith.”
The director principal of Human Rights For All, Alison Battisson, took Imasi’s case to the United Nations. She tells the Guardian his legal representatives are now poised to bring court action in Australia, including in the high court for a writ of habeas corpus, to secure Imasi’s release.
Battisson says his treatment had been an egregious abuse of process.
“Said’s case is emblematic of the problems faced by the world’s most vulnerable people,” she says. “Said is a stateless person who was taken from Africa as a young child and trafficked across Europe. Said has no country of origin. He has no right to live anywhere. Instead of treating Said humanely and sensibly, the Australian government has detained him for eight years. This is unacceptable.”
Battisson says Imasi has been offered jobs in the Australian community and wants to contribute to society. She says he had not been identified as a security concern by any of Australia’s intelligence and security agencies, and should be released.
“Said longs to be free,” she says. “Each day Said spends in detention pushes his dreams and ability to fulfil these dreams further out of reach.”
The Australian government has tried to resolve Imasi’s case, Battisson says, including three times asking him to apply for a protection visa, but its rigid processes are unsuited to a case as complex as Imasi’s.
She said she believes the government “long ago gave up trying to resolve his case”.
“Stateless people needlessly suffer due to Australia’s inability to effectively deal with such cases. Australia must get better at dealing with cases of statelessness.”
There are currently 37 stateless people in immigration detention in Australia. On average, most have been in detention more than two years.
Imasi says years of his life have been pointlessly squandered to nobody’s benefit in detention.
But worse is the realisation that this, potentially, is the rest of his existence as well. He faces a detention that is indefinite.
“They can send me anywhere, but I can’t stand to be locked up forever, thinking I will never get out,” he says. “This is torture.”
“They have damaged my life for eight years. I forgive them. I want only for this to end. I want to find one day I feel like I am worth something.
“I want to go free.”