Canadians pull together to help refugees living in limbo in Australia

November 13th, 2019

Efforts are afoot in Canada to sponsor 200 asylum seekers caught up in Australia’s controversial off-shore detention centres.  

Located on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and the island nation of Nauru, the centres housed thousands of refugee claimants who tried to reach Australia by boat. 

Faced with rising numbers of seaborne irregular migrants, the Australian government introduced a  zero-tolerance policy in 2013 that resulted in more than 4,000 people being diverted to Manus and Nauru for “processing” with no hope of ever reaching Australian shores.

The Toronto-based group leading the efforts to resettle 200 of these refugee claimants, Ads-Up Canada, says the asylum seekers include “vulnerable LGBT+ men and women fleeing Iran, Rohingya teenagers fleeing genocide in Myanmar and victims of domestic violence whose own families had turned against them.”

By all accounts, they found little sanctuary on Manus and Nauru. Among others, Amnesty International, the United Nations, PEN International and the Australian Human Rights Commission condemned the detention facilities for abuses such as the suspension of habeas corpus, the separation of families, indefinite detention, and inadequate medical facilities.

The mental strain of being detained on the islands with no certainty of resettlement led several detainees to attempt suicide, the BBC reported.

Private Sponsorship Program

Central to the efforts by Ads-Up in this country is Canada’s pioneering private sponsorship program, which allows groups of at least five Canadian citizens or permanent residents to sponsor a refugee living abroad and support them in their transition to life in Canada.

Under the program’s rules, each sponsorship group of five or more is required to raise $16,500 to privately sponsor and support a refugee. 

One of the first privately sponsored detainees arrived in Toronto earlier this month and he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that his years in detention were “exactly like hell.”

Amir Sahragard fled Iran in 2013 at the age of 21 with the goal of reaching Australia, only to be diverted to Manus Island. 

He compared the detention facilities there to “worse than a prison” and said detainees were beaten and robbed.

In all, Sahragard spent nearly seven years in detention, most of it on Manus island before illness forced his transfer to Port Moresby and finally Brisbane for treatment.

Stephen Watt, a Canadian organizer with Ads-Up in Toronto, told that the group has heard from hundreds of Canadians who have offered money or want to volunteer. 

Watt said Ads-Up Canada has submitted sponsorship applications for seven refugee claimants so far, and had 10 more “all ready to go.”

There’s still a lot of work do and Ads-Up Canada is need of additional funds and volunteers willing to join a resettlement team.

For refugees like Sahragard and those he left behind, the importance of these efforts cannot be overstated. 

“I still cannot believe I have freedom and that I’m now living my life in Canada,” he told CTV. 

“It’s like a dream for me — a dream come true.”

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