Hussien Al Najafi became an Australian permanent resident in 2012 after arriving as a refugee. But as he doesn’t have any documentation and is effectively ‘stateless’, he's been unable to fulfil his dream of becoming an Australian citizen.
Obtaining citizenship is usually a straightforward process for anyone who is already a permanent resident.
Under Australia’s current model, most permanent residents can apply for citizenship after four years in the country. But while it may be an easy path for some, it isn’t for others.
Hussien Al Najafi is a 33-years-old refugee who has spent the past 10 years on Australia soil.
Despite obtaining permanent residency in 2012, he faces a tough road ahead in his attempts to become an Australian citizen.
He identifies as an Iraqi, despite not holding any official documentation to prove so, which effectively makes him ‘stateless’.
“My father and mother moved from Iraq to Iran in 1979, and I was born there without any official papers,” he told SBS Arabic24.
“We are part of a group expelled from their country for ethnic or sectarian reasons and became refugees in Iran, some of us went to Europe and some to the US.”
During the late 60s and 70s, with the rise of Arab nationalism in Iraq, some ethnic groups were expelled because they were deemed as non-Indigenous Iraqi Arabs.
These groups were labelled as “amussafrin”, or “the expelled”, and this practice went on until the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.
Iran and Iraq engaged in a bloody war from 1980-1988, which resulted in a large mass of Iraqis fleeing to Iran.
As a result, by the time the forces of the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, half of the world’s Iraqi refugees were living in Iran.
“I didn’t get any papers, whether it is Iraqi or Iranian, and on this basis, I got my refugee status,” Mr Al Najafi said.
He decided to flee Iran and eventually arrived in Australia by boat in 2012, and spent 19 months between detention centres on Christmas Island and in Sydney.
“I spent six months on Christmas Island and 13 months in Sydney before I was released and granted a temporary visa.”
Three months after his release from detention, he was given permanent residency under a protection visa and obtained a travel document as he is ‘stateless’.
Despite being thankful for being granted asylum, he said his circumstances at the time left many grey areas.
“You can travel with this but only to countries that recognise it, and you are still stateless,” he said.
He applied for citizenship in 2016, but he soon realised that the process wasn’t as quick as the one which resulted in him obtaining permanent residency.
In February 2020, he received a response from the department and his application was rejected.
“They told me it is because I don’t have official documentation to prove my identity, even though my refugee status was given because I don’t have official documentation to prove my identity.
“The migration department knows about us, ‘the expelled’, and they know about the Feyli Kurds who are in the same situation.”
Migration lawyer Eva AbdelMessiah, who runs her own agency called Migrate to Australia, explains why there appears to be a "discrepancy" between the department’s position on one's refugee status and citizenship.
“The protection visa and residency are under the Migration Act and citizenship is under the Citizenship Act, and although it is issued by the same department, they are two different laws," she said.
A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told SBS Arabic24: "Permanent visa holders have a path to Australian citizenship if they are able to satisfy the legislative requirements of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (the Act)."
"The identity provisions of the Act prohibit the approval of a citizenship application in cases where the decision-maker (the Minister or delegate) is not satisfied of the person’s identity.
The spokesperson added: "In the context of the Department’s functions, identity integrity is essential in maintaining Australia’s national security, law enforcement, and economic and social interests."
"When assessing a person’s identity, the Department relies on a combination of documentation, biometrics and the person’s life story, referred to as the three pillars of identity."
In 2014, the government of then Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison took a strong stance on the issues of boat refugees, which cascaded into the formation of new laws and the tightening of the character test criteria, which widened the scope to strip visas and deportations.
Ms AbdelMessiah said during this time, the laws regulating citizenship “didn’t change radically”, but what changed was the way the immigration department managed applications.
She said this has carried on to the current government.
“The current criteria are the same, they need to verify the person’s identity and believe it is true, applicants need to stay for a fixed amount of time before getting their citizenship and you should meet the requirements of the character test,” she said.
“During this time as well, ISIS appeared in the Middle East and officials in Australia found out that some migrants who came and got citizenship went to join ISIS.
“This led to stricter handling of citizenship applications, and the way they look at it is, if you can’t verify the identity with documents and evidence that meet the criteria, we can’t give you citizenship.”
But not everyone can obtain documentation to prove their identity, Mr Al Najafi laments.
“My dad doesn’t have official Iraqi documents, and I can’t prove my identity, and I don’t have the right to go to courts in Iran to get documents, and I am also afraid of challenging the Iranian authorities especially as my family still lives there.
“I have been living in Australia for the past 10 years, I didn’t get a traffic ticket or a fine, I didn’t commit a crime, my records are clean, why I can’t get citizenship, what are they waiting for?
“I didn’t receive government support for the past three or four years and before this, I only got it in times of hardship. I work and I pay taxes.
“Lots of refugees that I know are people who helped to build the Australian economy, working in construction and building infrastructure projects.”
Ms Abdel-Massieh said some countries of origin, especially in the Middle East, are seen as “high risk,” so the application process for these individuals can be treated stricter.
“I had a client with a similar case, an Iraqi who is born in Iran with no documents, and his application was stuck with the department because he couldn't prove his identity.
“We looked everywhere in Iraq and Iran until we got a copy from an old Iraqi document that has the name and the date of birth, and we used this to push the application through.”
Mr Al Najafi believes it is vital that the “fate of boat refugees shouldn’t be politicised and weaponised in politics because the refugees would be the only victims”.
“No one would like to travel in this illegal and dangerous way, of course, I would rather travel in a better way, but sometimes your circumstances don’t allow you, and this what pushes the person to travel in this way and take a risk,” he said.
“Whoever goes to the ocean to spend several days, while they don't know where they are going, or whether they will make it or drown, should be considered a refugee."
He said he hasn't decided what his next move will be.
“They told me, you either go to a Federal Court to appeal the decision, or bring more information to re-examine your case.”
Permanent visa holders have a path to Australian citizenship if they are able to satisfy the legislative requirements of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (the Act).
· The identity provisions of the Act prohibit the approval of a citizenship application in cases where the decision-maker (the Minister or delegate) is not satisfied of the person’s identity.
· In the context of the Department’s functions, identity integrity is essential in maintaining Australia’s national security, law enforcement, and economic and social interests.
· When assessing a person’s identity, the Department relies on a combination of documentation, biometrics and the person’s life story, referred to as the three pillars of identity.