REPORTER: Olivia Rousset
I’m flying to remote Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Along with Nauru, it’s one of the two processing centres set up for asylum seekers under the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution.
Deliberately placed far from human rights workers, lawyers and the media, for a long time it was almost impossible for an outsider to visit here.
PNG GUIDE: This is the gate, be aware of that gun pointing at you on the right. Good morning. SBS.
PNG OFFICER: OK, we’ll have to direct you down to the commander officer and we go down there and you will see him and talk to him. I will come with you.
Since September 2001, asylum seekers have been brought to the Lombrum Naval Base, where they’re guarded by the PNG military at Australia’s request. But now there is only one person left here, a 25-year-old Palestinian refugee from Kuwait – Aladdin Sisalem.
REPORTER: Hello, Aladdin. Olivia, nice to meet you.
Aladdin has been here for 15 months, he’s been alone for the past seven. I am his second visitor in that time.
ALADDIN SISALEM: All that I can do now is remember things. Remember that some people were with me here and just to forget that I am living here alone.
Aladdin’s solitary confinement has cost the Australian taxpayer about $5 million dollars so far. The detention centre can house around 1,000 asylum seekers. It has gym, a mess area, a children’s playground, and even a makeshift mosque. But most of Aladdin’s day is spent in his room, plotting his escape on the computer.
ALADDIN SISALEM: The Internet is the only window I can look out from this detention centre. So I spend all my day inside the room. Finding research for information, trying to find help outside, that’s all that I can do here.
When Aladdin first arrived, there were about 150 people here.
ALADDIN SISALEM: They are in Auckland now. This is in Auckland as well, New Zealand.
Of all the asylum seekers brought to Manus, Aladdin was the only one to have actually made it to Australia. But he was also the only one left behind when his friends departed.
ALADDIN SISALEM: This is when the first group of New Zealand was going.
REPORTER: How did you feel when they left? Did you think that you would go soon?
ALADDIN SISALEM: I just felt happy for them. I just wished that some day I would leave like them.
The guards are discouraged from talking to the sole inmate here so his only company is a stray cat – Honey.
ALADDIN SISALEM: Hi, Honey. Give me your hand.
Aladdin’s prolonged incarceration has had a heavy impact on his state of mind. He used to take five different pills daily, until the psychiatrist and the doctor left along with the rest of the asylum seekers.
ALADDIN SISALEM: I told them don’t stop this medicine because they tried to stop it.
Now a guard gives him just one anti-anxiety tablet each afternoon. Even so, he’s still plagued by thoughts of suicide.
ALADDIN SISALEM: I don’t see the government planning for any end for my situation. Only just to maybe they want me to end it myself. And I can’t. I don’t have the courage to do that. And I won’t do it. And I need my rights to live. And I want to live. I don’t want to be forgotten here until I make my own decision. I don’t want that. I can’t do it.
ERIC VADARLIS, ALADDIN’S LAWYER: There is no doubt in my mind that Aladdin is really stuck between a hard place and a rock. He’s not in a place of his own choosing, he came here because he believes that Australia was a free country, you know, signatory to the convention on refugees, obligated to give refuse to those people seeking asylum and unfortunately he was wrong because we’re a hard-arsed country here.
Eric Vadarlis is a prominent Melbourne solicitor who’s taken on Aladdin’s cause. He says that in 27 years of practising law, he’s never seen a case like this.
ERIC VADARLIS: He is a classic refugee. He’s a classic person for whom the convention was created back in 1947. Classic. And yet, he comes here, he’s stateless, he’s a Palestinian, he’s got no travel documents, he really can’t be anywhere. I mean, he can’t go to Mars, and yet they put him on Manus Island.
How Aladdin ended up on Manus Island is an extraordinary story. He was born in Kuwait but as the son of a Palestinian refugee he didn’t have automatic right to residency. Unable to work legally and harassed by the police, he left three years ago after getting a tourist visa to Indonesia. When he arrived in Jakarta he applied for asylum with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR. But after a year of living on the streets and no progress with his application, he set off for Papua New Guinea.
ALADDIN SISALEM: I come with the ship from Java, Indonesia…
Aladdin got a ship to Indonesian West Papua and travelled through dense jungle to the border with PNG.
ALADDIN SISALEM: This is the closest point between Indonesia and PNG and I arrive at about here.
After trekking for two weeks through the rainforest with no food, he arrived in Kiunga, Papua New Guinea. When he requested asylum he was told to walk back through the jungle to West Papua. Aladdin refused to go. He was jailed for illegal entry and says he was beaten in prison.
ALADDIN SISALEM: I spent seven months in Port Moresby trying with the immigration department…
When he was told that PNG doesn’t take asylum seekers from terrorist countries, he finally decided to try his luck in Australia.
ALADDIN SISALEM: So I flew from Port Moresby to Daru Island, this one here, Daru Island, PNG, Daru island. You see the border, it is close. And this is Saibai Island, Australia’s Saibai Island. It’s not far from the PNG border.
A fisherman took Aladdin to Australia’s Saiwai Island in the Torres Strait. At this critical moment he says he approached local immigration officers and asked for asylum. He was then flown to Thursday Island where officials in Canberra interviewed him by telephone. Aladdin thought his 2-year journey was finally over.
ALADDIN SISALEM: And in the morning they come, the immigration officers, the same ones they come and took me to the airport. I said “What’s happening? Where we going?” They said “We’re going to Manus Island.” I said “Why?” They said “It’s Australian centre, immigration centre. We’ll put you there and process your case.”
Aladdin waited here in the detention centre for nearly two months to hear about the processing of his case. But no-one approached him about it.
ALADDIN SISALEM: I see them come and talk to the other asylum seekers, told them about their situation but nobody tell me about my case. So I feel confused. And they told me – the immigration officer said to me – the same one who interviewed me for my asylum claim – he said to me “We don’t have an asylum application for you.” Now I start to understand the situation. I start to find it’s getting serious.
As a signatory to the UN refugee convention, Australia is obliged to grant asylum to anyone who lands in the migration zone, if they ask for it, and are found to be a refugee. Since arriving on Manus, Aladdin has been granted refugee status by the UNHCR. So what about Australia’s obligation to him, given that he sought asylum in Australian territory? The Government says he didn’t ask for the right form.
ALADDIN SISALEM: I didn’t want Australia to ask for tourist visa. I mean, I didn’t risk my life to enter some remote Australian remote island because I want – I am economy migrant or something like this. I needed help. I went there and first thing I asked, I asked for asylum. I was interviewed. I mean, if Australian immigration does not consider me as an asylum seeker why they ask me about the harms I suffered in Kuwait and the persecution? Why they ask me about that, if they don’t want to process my application for asylum?
REPORTER: Minister, can you tell me what someone’s required to do once they land within the Australian migration zone to ensure that a visa application for asylum is under way?
SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE, MINISTER FOR IMMIGRATION: Well, look, if someone wants some advice on how to make an asylum claim they should get it from the Immigration Department.
REPORTER: But if someone – if a refugee, say, lands within the migration zone of Australia, what do they need to do?
SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: As I say, if someone wants some advice on the legal requirements for making a claim, they can get that from the Immigration Department.
REPORTER: But if there’s someone who has –
SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: You’ve asked me that twice and I’ve given the same answer twice. I know why you’ve asked me that twice and I’m going to give you the same answer every time.
ERIC VARDARLIS: There’s no special way for a person to claim asylum. I mean logic helps because this guy landed on Saibai Island, in northern most part of Australia on his own and he’s a Palestinian and he sought asylum. I mean he says “I sought asylum” they said “No, you didn’t because you didn’t fill out the form.”
When Aladdin did submit a written claim for asylum he received this letter from the Department of Immigration.
DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION, LETTER: Dear Mr Sisalem, Australia does not have an obligation to extend protection to a person who is outside Australia. You are currently in Papua New Guinea and have applied for asylum there. Papua New Guinea is a signatory to the UN convention relating to the status of refugees.
ERIC VADARLIS: When this hit my desk the first time around I looked at it and I thought somebody must have ticked the wrong box for this man to be in the position he’s in today. I thought it was a simple misunderstanding that it would be sorted out fairly quickly.
Eric Vadarlis will be representing Aladdin in a Federal Court case next month, attempting to prove Aladdin is Australia’s responsibility.
ERIC VADARLIS: I think we need to go back a step and work out how Aladdin got there. Aladdin didn’t get there because he bought a ticket to Manus Island. He was taken there by the Australian Government, specifically taken and dumped there. Now whose problem is he? So, you know, is the Australian Government into the slave trade? Do they pick people up and just take them off to Manus Island and drop them there and say they are someone else’s problem?
In fact this is precisely what the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs claims.
SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, you’ve asked me this a couple of times, I’ve indicated to you Mr Sisalem is not the responsibility of the Australian Government.
REPORTER: It just doesn’t seem very clear that the PNG Government says that as far as they’re concerned the detention centre is Australian property, it’s virtually Australia. You’ve got a guy who entered the migration zone here and was flown by Australian authorities to Manus Island detention centre where he’s being looked after by people who are paid by the Australian Government, how can he not be Australia’s responsibility?
SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, as I’ve indicated to you he’s not the Australian Government’s responsibility. I understand that’s agreed. I’m not privy…
With Aladdin’s court case pending, Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone refuses to discuss his case in detail. While Aladdin sits alone, the locals enjoy a Sunday soccer match just outside the fence of the detention centre. As no-one can visit him, they know nothing about him.
GIRL (Translation): We’ve heard that he’s married to a Papua New Guinean woman so he comes out, he walks around…
In fact, Aladdin hasn’t left the centre since early February when he was taken out for a couple of hours escorted by guards. He no longer wants to go outside, he’s afraid that Australia is pressuring PNG to give him asylum and based on prior experiences, he’s terrified he’ll be killed.
ERIC VADARLIS: I think Aladdin is very scared at the moment. He really doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s all a bit beyond him. And frankly I don’t blame him. He’s been imprisoned by the PNG system, so really he wouldn’t have very much faith in the process and I don’t blame him.
Aladdin says the manager of the camp knows he’s in danger.
ALADDIN SISALEM: He told me, he agreed with me that if I left PNG authorities my body would be in the jungle and he said “That’s why I don’t want you out of here.” But he’s still pushing me to get out.
The Papua New Guinean Foreign Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu wants to close the gates when the lease comes up at the end of this year.
SIR RABBIE NAMALIU, PNG FOREIGN MINISTER: Well, our feeling is that the detention centre has probably served its purpose. There’s only one soul left at the centre, and if that is going to be the case, we feel there is no point in continuing with the centre.
For the time being, Australia is happy to keep the camp open with Aladdin as its sole occupant, at a cost of $23,000 a day.
ALADDIN SISALEM: There is not any reason to keep me on my own here, OK. What between them and Australia and the PNG government, this is their own business, their own work. Myself, I need my right for freedom and safety.
ERIC VADARLIS: The way things look he’s going to be there forever, in a sort of Gilligan Island’s scenario. We’re just going to sit out and wait. So there’s a human being involved and he ought to be processed in accordance with the law and promptly.
REPORTER: There’s someone who for seven months has been alone and has only had two visitors in that time and is slowly going mad from that experience. Do you feel sorry for him as a genuine refugee who’s tried for two years to get asylum in Indonesia, then Papua New Guinea and then Australia and has found himself sort of in this detention centre all on his own not knowing what’s going on?
SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: With respect, I might have some different information from that which you have and no, I cannot say that I have any sorry for Mr Sisalem’s position.
REPORTER: You don’t feel sorry for a stateless refugee?
SENATOR AMANDA VANSTONE: You’ve just asked me a question and I’ve answered it.
Aladdin is allowed only two phone calls each month. He’s calling his family in Kuwait where they live as refugees.
ALADDIN SISALEM (Translation): The whole world is talking about it, but it’s no use.
His father hasn’t left the house in 15 years and recently had a stroke brought about by the stress of Aladdin’s perilous journey.
ALADDIN SISALEM (Translation): Look after my father, all right? Look after my father.
REPORTER: Do they worry about you?
ALADDIN SISALEM: They just feel helpless. They feel helpless. They have their own problems to worry about. They have a lot. So actually, I am the one who worries about them.
REPORTER: What do they say to you?
ALADDIN SISALEM: Don’t give up.