Afghan refugee, Arif Ruhani, shared his harrowing story with me in 2009. In April of that year there was a burning boat near Ashmore reef that reignited debate on refugee policy and responses. Then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, acknowledged that deteriorating conditions, particularly in countries like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, were causing people to flee their homelands. 

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves as human beings, what would it be like for us if we awoke to the armies of the night? What would we do if we were no longer safe due to sporadic acts of violence, murder on our doorstep? What steps would we take to try and survive the carnage? What would we do to protect those that we love? We may find answers to some of these fundamental human questions in Arif’s candid and courageous account:

Arif Ruhani’s story begins in Afghanistan in 2001 when the Taliban seized control of Oruzgan Province. This was not a unified event as Mujahedeen factions were fighting between each other  for power and populations were being murdered. His family became homeless and were displaced from village to village.

“We were trying to lead a ‘normal life’ after the Taliban came in to power and then the whole thing changed. The threat to our life was more imminent. They were killing people for no reasons, oppressing people and trying to make everyday life harder and harder. That was causing my family to choose for me to flee Afghanistan.”

The family pooled money for Arif to escape…”there was not even a single office in my area of any international government or organisation. Impossible.” His father made a deal with people smugglers on the ground in Afghanistan. Arif was then taken with a group of people to Pakistan and “from there my journey starts.”

Traveling under a false passport, he flew to Indonesia where he spent three months in hiding before boarding a small boat bound for Australia. Suitable for 20 people, but with 80 on board, the boat’s engines stopped working after 6 hours at sea. It was night and the vessel began taking on water. Two of his friends drowned before reaching land.  Arif returned to Jakarta where other Afghan asylum seekers were arrested by Indonesian police. While there, he became aware of the Tampa Affair where in 2001, 400 asylum seekers were picked up from their sinking vessel by the Norwegian container ship Tampa and then refused entry to Australia. He also learned of the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution, which saw those refugees set offshore to places including Nauru.

“We heard the news about the Pacific Solution, about the (Australian) Government trying to stop people coming by boat, but    we still had no choice. We couldn’t go   back to Afghanistan”

After a month in hiding, he boarded another small boat that was soon intercepted off Christmas Island by a large Australian Customs vessel. Women and children were taken aboard the customs ship, while Arif and many other men were detained aboard their boat for 13 days…

“This was a really difficult part of my journey coming to Australia. We were prisoners. The fishing boat was very cramped. They didn’t allow us to move freely and we were watched the whole time. We even had to wait for permission to go to the toilet…some people that spoke out were then sleep deprived. It was like torture.”

The Australian authorities tried to fix the boat to send it back to Indonesia, but it started leaking and was deemed too dangerous. The remaining passengers were transferred to the customs ship and after two days, they were detained at Christmas Island detention centre, which was still being built at the time. After two months on Christmas Island, they were transferred to Nauru, arriving on December 22, 2001. They were initially interviewed by the Australian Department of Immigration and refused refugee status. Many people were wrongly classified as Pakistani, reportedly due to inept interpreters working for the Australian Government. Arif too was initially classified as Pakistani.

Many of my friends were sent back to Afghanistan and were killed.”

So began a long period of detention on Nauru that was to last until June 2005. Over this period, Arif and other detainees had no access to telephones or the Internet; in fact, no access to the outside world. Arif estimates that there were over 100 children also in detention, ranging in age from 1 to 17 years old. One young boy was detained on Nauru, his mother had died and he was separated from his father who was in Australia under a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV). After three years, the boy was repatriated with his father.

The detention centre on Nauru was funded and administrated by a body called The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and Chubb were contracted for security. Arif said he and others were told repeatedly by Australian authorities (during the Howard years):

“If you don’t go back to Afghanistan, we will send you back by force.” 

“We were living in constant fear of being deported by force”, said Arif. Many detainees arrived on Nauru with chronic PTSD (Post Traumatic stress Disorder), while others also developed other severe psychological problems and had no access to treatment. Hunger strikes were also symptomatic of people’s acute distress.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was finally able to visit detainees an Nauru in 2004. This prompted the Australian Department of Immigration to interview individual detainees – Arif was among 29 Afghan asylum seekers whose cases were rejected. He was told by Australian officials that they had reached a new agreement with the Afghan Government whereby he and other remaining Afghan refugees would be sent back. After an agonising delay, Arif was later told that he would be accepted after all, and gained entry to Australia under a TPV, arriving in June 2005. Under the terms of these visas, refugees were denied the right to travel and there was no right of even temporary family reunion.

Arif was granted permanent residency in 2008 and lives in Perth, where he talks of the relationships he has made with local people:

“I am very thankful to them: they have helped me a lot. I will be thankful to them forever.”

Asked about his experiences and the plight of other refugees, Arif Ruhani said:

“It is very difficult to express how I feel. I would definitely say to anybody who will read this, please, please help these   people. These people are putting their lives at risk for a safe life, for peace and for freedom.”