Sayed* was home. At least he thought he was.
He held the piece of paper in his hand: an invitation to an Australian citizenship ceremony.
After five years in Australia, having fled religious persecution in Afghanistan as a teenager, this was proof he finally belonged.
“I felt amazing,” Sayed says. “I felt relief. I finally found a safe place. I can establish a life here and start to live peacefully. I felt home.”
But then it all suddenly unravelled.
“The next day after getting the letter, the immigration department called and said, ‘Don’t go’. They said, ‘we need to do more research on your case’.
“I didn’t believe them. I said, ‘you’re calling me on a private number, while I have a letter from the minister asking me to go to the ceremony. Why should I believe you?’”
A week later, Sayed went to the ceremony.
“They said ‘you should not be here’, and ‘they’ve taken it away’.”
Sayed is one of a number of Afghans left in limbo because the Australian government does not recognise the validity of their identity documents, even though they have spent many years building new lives, starting families and establishing businesses in Australia.
“Whatever I did, nothing was enough, nothing was believed,” Sayed says.
Building a new life
Sayed arrived in Australia alone in June 2009. He was 17, and had never left his home city before.
A man known to his schoolteacher had arranged his travel documents and passage out of the country. Sayed made a claim for protection at Sydney airport, which was swiftly assessed and processed. After a few months in detention, he was granted a protection visa, allowing him to live in Australia permanently.
Sayed’s first months in Australia were isolated and lonely.
“I was young, and I had never been apart from my family. I had no one here, no family, no one. It was a different culture, a different people. Later I was able to blend in really well, but to start with, they were very hard times. I had a deep depression.”
Slowly, Sayed began to find his way. He enrolled in a trade school, earning qualifications as a licensed builder.
“I took a long time, and a lot of study, but I wanted work to support my family. I did the really hard work.”
Later he established his own construction business, which started small, but blossomed.
“I felt I was doing good, I was helping people build their homes. I was proud of myself, I was giving something back to Australia. I love this place, I’m really Australian now.”
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In Afghanistan, his family’s situation grew more perilous. In September 2012, his brother was murdered and his sister abducted. She has not been seen since.
In 2014, Sayed applied for citizenship. After some hurdles on the initial test, his application was approved by the department and signed off by the minister. He was invited to the ceremony in the Sydney suburb of Merrylands.
When it was suddenly cancelled, the life he had built fell apart.
“Everything collapsed,” Sayed says. “I lost everything overnight.”
He was forced to liquidate a million-dollar loan he had taken out to finance his thriving business.
Sayed then spent four years in limbo while the department repeatedly told him it was “working on your case”. In 2018, he received another letter from the department, telling him it was cancelling his citizenship application. Then it cancelled his permanent residency.
The crux of Sayed’s case was identity. Examining his citizenship claim, the Australian government said his Afghan identity document was “bogus”, although he pointed out that the department had mistranscribed the number of the document when checking it, and the correct number had been verified by the Afghan embassy in Canberra.
The government alleged that Sayed was, in fact, the brother of a man with whom he had shared an apartment in Sydney. Sayed told the department he met the man in Australia, had no family connection to him and never knew him in Afghanistan.
Sayed and the man took a DNA test to demonstrate they were not related, but the administrative appeals tribunal, which by now had carriage of his case, refused to consider that evidence.
“Whatever I did, nothing was enough, nothing was believed,” Sayed says. His time in Australia has been unblemished, he says: “Never any problems with police, nothing at all.
“They’ve taken everything away from me, everything I’d worked for, just gone. I find that really, really unfair.”
An extreme case, but not unique
Sister Aileen Crowe has advocated for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia for more than two decades. She says Sayed’s case is the most extreme she has seen.
“We have evidence, pages and pages of evidence, and it was totally ignored. No matter what we said in response to the allegations, no matter what proof was offered, nothing was accepted, it was just written off. They’d made their mind up, and they refused to listen.”
Sayed’s case is extreme, but it is an example of the problems faced by many Afghan refugees in verifying their documents.
In many parts of Afghanistan, record-keeping is sporadic at best. Births are often not registered with any central authority, birthdates are approximate, and the information recorded on identity documents inconsistent and haphazard.
Afghanistan’s formal identity documents – known as taskiras – were for decades a single handwritten page with basic biographical details and a photograph. They have been notoriously prone to forgery. Efforts to modernise the system, by digitising taskiras and including biometric data, have only partially succeeded.
The issue has only become more complicated since the fall of the democratically elected government to the Taliban last year.
Australia’s foreign affairs department has consistently said document fraud is a significant issue in Afghanistan, and “this is particularly problematic in the case of taskiras, given they are the primary document used to obtain other forms of identification”.
Yet Australia insists upon relying on these documents.
The Guardian is aware of a number of cases where Afghans have presented taskiras, verified by the government in Kabul or the embassy in Canberra, which have been rejected by the Australian government, jeopardising a person’s visa and their right to remain in the country.
The test applied at the citizenship stage is more robust than at the visa application stage. Some migration agents tell Afghan nationals to remain on a permanent residency visa rather than applying for citizenship, because of the risk their documents will be re-examined and assessed as being fraudulent.
Stephanie Lee, a senior solicitor with the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre, says proving identity can be a “pervasive issue” for Afghan nationals.
“Often, one of the first identity documents an Afghan national will receive in Afghanistan is a taskira. Unfortunately, taskiras can contain incomplete or incorrect information due to no fault of the bearer. Dates of birth are often unknown due, in part, to a lack of cultural significance for that date – so an approximate date of birth can be assigned.
“The place of birth on a taskira may also represent where a family is from, not where a person is born, as is the custom. Family members may also obtain a taskira on a child’s behalf and inadvertently provide incorrect information.”
Lee says incorrect or incomplete information often follows Afghan nationals as they then apply for other identity documents, which rely on the taskira.
“If Afghan nationals apply for protection and are asked to provide identity documents it may be unclear whether their documents are ‘bogus’. If they provide a ‘bogus’ document, they risk their protection visa being refused. If they refuse to provide the document and cannot provide any other identity document, they also risk their protection visa being refused.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs declined to comment on Sayed’s case, citing privacy concerns, but said that all non-citizens in Australia must satisfy identity, health, character and security requirements.
“Visa cancellation powers help to ensure the protection of the Australian community and the integrity of Australia’s borders and visa programs.”
The Afghanistan of 2022 - back in the hands of the unreformed and unrepentant Taliban - is far less safe than the country Sayed fled more than a decade ago.
But in his new country, the place he thought was his home, he has found no peace or certainty. On a bridging visa, and with no right to work, he lives a precarious life of enforced penury.
“I’ve had a hard life since I was born, but there are still more hard days. I have been left in limbo for a very long time.”
* Sayed’s name has been changed to protect his family members