On Sunday morning a man named Khodayar Amini threatened to set himself on fire during a video call with refugee advocates. The 30-year-old Afghan refugee was on the phone to the managers of the Refugee Rights Action Network when he made the threat. They then say the phone cut out and they called emergency services. Police later found a body after responding to a fire in a Dandenong parkland but will not confirm the identity until a coronial report can be delivered.
Over the last few days, Amini had been living out of his car in Dandenong, Victoria to avoid police who he was afraid were going to send him back to immigration detention. He had previously been released from the notorious Yongah Hill detention center in Western Australia after spending a little over three years in immigration detention. The last thing he wanted was to be returned either to detention or to Afghanistan where the Taliban have been waging what likely amounts to a slow-burn war against the ethnic group.
But Amini's future in Australia didn't look so bright either. He had been released into the community on a bridging visa, which a temporary immigration visa given to a person allowing the legal right to stay in Australia while they apply for something longer term, but not much else.
Bridging visas create a kind of open-air prison for refugees and asylum seekers, as a person on a bridging visa is not allowed to work or claim welfare payments, a situation that makes many new arrivals entirely dependent on charity to survive. They must also contact the Department of Immigration on a regular basis and inform them of any changes of address.
In the meantime, they must wait for their long-term visa to be approved, which can be a lengthy, drawn out process. Facing this prospect, and the fear of being deported back to certain death, Amini seems to have chosen death, though this has yet to be confirmed.
If it is him, Amini isn't the only refugee to have self-immolated in protest at the Australian system of refugee detention. Last year, 29-year-old Tamil asylum seeker Leo Seemanpillai had been living in Geelong on a bridging visa and died after self-immolating. A few days before Seemanpillai's death, another Tamil asylum seeker self-immolated, but survived.
In 2009, Pakistani refugee Shahraz Kayani self-immolated on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra after the government repeatedly refused permission for his wife and children to come to Australia because one of his daughters had cerebral palsy.
On Friday, in a wholly unconnected series of events, Australia also removed a 23-year-old rape victim from the country to head off a High Court challenge and before she had a chance to abort the pregnancy conceived in the attack.
The Somali woman, known as "Abyan," is thought to be around 14 weeks pregnant. She had been flown from Australia at a cost of $130,000 [$94,000 USD] to the Solomon Islands to head off a pending High Court injunction that would have prevented her removal from the country without being allowed to talk to her lawyer.
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Since the incident went public, there has been a constant back and forth in the Australia press between refugee advocates and the Federal government. Refugee advocates, such as Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition, say the government failed to provide Abyan the time, interpreter, and counseling she needed before the procedure. Federal Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has accused people like Rintoul of lying.
Dutton has repeatedly said that Abyan "changed her mind" about going ahead with the procedure and insists she was given access to doctors, nurses, and other medical person. Both Abyan's lawyer and advocates have repeatedly stressed that Abyan did not refuse the procedure but asked for more information, a story which seems to be corroborated by a hand-written note written by Abyan back in Nauru that gives her side of the story.
Point is, this all seems to be the new normal for Australia which has worked hard to build a refugee policy that is at once both crushing and bureaucratic. That a 30-year-old man who once came to Australia seeking protection is so broken he sees no other choice than to set himself aflame is a brutal indictment of the system that has been created. The question now is whether anyone will care enough to do anything about it.
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