A dangerously ill refugee held within Australia’s immigration detention regime for eight years has secured an interim order from the United Nations human rights committee urging the Australian government to release him into the community.
Kaveh, a refugee from a Middle Eastern country, is currently in a Melbourne hospital, emaciated and suffering a range of complex physical and mental health issues. Standing at 176cm tall, he weighs just 47kg.
“I can’t stand another day in detention,” Kaveh said from hospital. “I am a sick person, I can’t heal in detention. I need freedom to heal. I need your kind support. My health and condition will only improve once I have freedom.”
The United Nations human rights committee, an independent panel of international human rights experts, wrote to the Australian government in July requesting Kaveh be placed “in community detention while his case is under consideration by the committee”. The committee’s decision on Kaveh’s ongoing detention is likely to come next year.
Kaveh, who fled persecution in his homeland and whose family remains in significant danger, arrived in Australia by boat in 2013. He spent six years held offshore by Australia, first in the Manus Island detention centre – later found to be illegal – and then in Port Moresby.
His claim for refugee protection has been formally recognised: Australia is legally obliged to protect him. The Guardian is not reporting his surname, nor displaying his picture, out of concern for his family’s safety in his home country.
Kaveh was moved to Australia in August 2019 under the now-repealed medevac laws for urgent medical treatment. While most of those he was detained alongside have been released into the Australian community, Kaveh was held in immigration detention in Melbourne until he was moved to hospital, where he remains in detention.
He was one of a number of refugees and asylum seekers in the Melbourne detention centre who commenced a hunger strike in June. Kaveh suffers severe gastrointestinal complications which make it hard for him to eat: even after abandoning the hunger strike after more than 30 days, and being hospitalised, he has barely been able to eat and remains dangerously underweight.
An interim measure request from the United Nations human rights committee, signed by special rapporteurs Helene Tigroudja and Arif Bulkan, has urged the Australian government to release him into community detention while Kaveh’s ongoing detention is assessed.
The Australian government has not responded to the UN committee’s order.
A spokesperson for the Australian Border Force said it could not comment on individual cases, but that “transitory persons” brought to Australia from a regional processing country were only in Australia temporarily and “are managed in detention or the community according to their individual circumstances, until they are able to depart Australia”.
The spokesperson said that portfolio ministers had “personal intervention powers … that allow them to make a residence determination, placing a person in community detention, if they think it is in the public interest to do so”.
But those powers are non-compellable, that is, ministers are not required to exercise them, nor are ministers bound by any time restrictions “and it is for portfolio ministers to define what is in the public interest”.
“Australia’s border protection policies remain steadfast,” the spokesperson said. “Persons who travel to Australia illegally by boat will not settle here. Temporary transfer to Australia to receive medical treatment is not a pathway to settlement.”
Alison Battisson, director principal at Human Rights for All, which is representing Kaveh, said his situation was unique, and critical.
“His weight is dangerously low, but he is not on hunger strike. Instead, he has merely given up on living. His body is rejecting food,” Battisson said. “As such, there is an immediate risk to his life and his long-term health. This is the level of despair and illness that Australia’s offshore detention regime has driven people to.”
Battisson said there was currently no domestic mechanism to urgently seek a refugee’s release. If Kaveh was not granted community detention, she said, he faced the very real risk of long-term medical issues or dying.
“We were left with no choice than to involve the United Nations,” Battisson said. “The Australian government should be very concerned that they could cause another death due to offshore processing and lack of care and compassion for people medically evacuated to Australia.”
Battisson said it was “insulting” that the Australian government had failed to respond to the human rights committee in Geneva.
“Australia’s lack of response makes a mockery of Australia’s engagement with the United Nations. Australia portrays itself as a good international citizen, but does not respect UN processes enough to even respond.”