Six members of Afghanistan’s squad did not board their return flight home on Sunday, SBS can reveal.
More than half of the Afghan Invictus Games team has stayed behind in Sydney after their teammates returned to Afghanistan and are believed to be planning to seek asylum.
Mirwais Ramaki, who was an Invictus Games volunteer helping the Afghan team during their stay, said when the team was due to depart on Sunday, five athletes and one official didn’t go to the airport with the rest of the team.
“One of them actually said when he came and saw the people here - basically it was his first time coming out of the country, being in a safe and peaceful environment - that totally changed his perceptions,” Mr Ramaki said.
“They never actually had the intention to stay, they planned to go back, but these 10 days actually changed them”.
The Afghan team visiting the games comprised of 8 athletes and three officials, who all arrived in Sydney on the 18 October.
Mr Ramaki, a former refugee who has lived in Australia for four years, said the team have valid visas to stay in the country until the end of November, so they have not yet breached their visa conditions.
The six participants were present for the closing ceremony of the week-long Invictus Games on Saturday night, but by Sunday, had left the team’s hotel.
Mr Ramaki said he has not had contact with the group since they had left the hotel, but was extremely concerned about their welfare as they had disabilities, extremely limited English and little money.
Asked about whether any asylum applications from Afghan Invictus Games team members had been lodged, a spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told SBS News: “The Invictus Games competitors and officials may remain lawfully in Australia until the expiry of their visas. Their visas have not yet expired.”
The Invictus Games did not respond to questions about the group of Afghans. Attempts to reach the Afghan Embassy in Australia were also unsuccessful.
The annual competition was created by the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry. This year’s event in Sydney was the fourth time it had been held and involved about 500 wounded and ill veterans from 18 participating nations.
It’s not known if any athletes or officials from other nations have stayed behind.
Following the Commonwealth Games held on the Gold Coast in April, around 250 athletes and officials, mostly from African nations including Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon stayed in Australia.
The Department of Home Affairs said around 200 of them lodged asylum applications.
Speaking to SBS News at the time, one of them said he had no choice but to remain in Australia: “I was faced with two questions: either going back home and die like a hero or be a coward and be alive,” he said.
Mr Ramaki said he believed some of the Afghan veterans had legitimate fears about returning home.
“One of them said to me, ‘I went and fought, I lost my leg and I lost my brother, my brother was killed, I don’t want to be killed, I don’t want my children to lose parts of their bodies’,” Mr Ramaki said.
Do you know more? Email Jarni.Blakkarly@sbs.com.au