Rohingya man Mohammad Ayub might be the oldest asylum seeker to ever be released from immigration detention in Australia.
He and his son, Sharif Ayub, 38, spent more than eight years detained by the Australian government. They were in Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA) for several years before their release on Thursday.
The pair will now rejoin their family, who are in community detention in Sydney, after more than two years apart.
"I'm very glad that we've been released after all these years," Sharif said, speaking to SBS News from the airport.
“Everyone, when they saw my father in detention, they say, ‘he should not be here’.”
A refugee identification card issued by the government of Nauru, seen by SBS News, shows Mohammad as being 78 years of age, with him due to turn 79 at the end of the month. But his son believes his father is more likely to be 83 years old.
“My uncle, who lives in Canada, says my dad is probably 83. He’s definitely in his 80s,” Sharif said.
“When we came by boat we got confused trying to convert the Burmese calendar to the Gregorian calendar.”
Rohingya refugees gather near the fence at the 'no man's land' zone between the Bangladesh-Myanmar border in Maungdaw district, Rakhine State. Source: EPA
After SBS News contacted Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews about the father and son's situation, Sharif was told they would be released into community detention in Sydney, rejoining his two sisters and their mother.
Sharif had feared his mother, who is 70 years old, may have died before he could be reunited with her.
"I'm really glad because my mum is still alive and I can see her before she has an operation," he told SBS News.
"It's like a dream to be freed after so long. I feel like my dad and I get our proper lives back again."
The family cannot work and study in community detention, but are provided welfare payments to live on.
The family first arrived together by boat in 2013 and were taken to Nauru. As Rohingya asylum seekers, the family is part of a heavily persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar.
“We left because we are Muslim. We don’t even have [citizenship]. We are allowed to study but can’t get any certificates, any documents from the school,” Sharif said.
“Day by day, there were wars coming, we thought we better leave the country. It’s very hard.”
Their arrival predated the mass Rohingya exodus from Myanmar in 2017.
After more than five years on Nauru, they were transferred to Australia in February 2019 as Sharif's sister required mental health assistance and his father had eye issues and high blood pressure.
They spent time in hotel detention before Sharif's sisters and mother were transferred to Sydney, and he and his father to BITA.
While Sharif's parents were no longer in a relationship at the time and his mother and sisters were moved to community detention, he doesn’t understand why the family was not allowed to move into community detention together.
Sharif said his father’s mental and physical health rapidly deteriorated in detention. His father does not speak English and spent up to 23 hours a day in his room.
“Most of the time he has dizziness, that’s why he uses the [walking] stick," he said.
“Sometimes he’s in the room, he’s talking alone. When he gets calls from his children, he starts crying a lot.”
A warning sign on the fence of the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation, where a number of Medevac transferees are held. Source: AAP
The federal government has repeatedly indicated that those who arrive in Australia by boat will not be resettled in Australia.
There are roughly 75 people in Australia who arrived under the Medevac legislation, while offshore about 124 asylum seekers and refugees remain in Papua New Guinea and 100 in Nauru.
Sharif said the Australian Border Force (ABF) paid him and his father an in-person visit a few weeks ago and offered to move Mohammad to an aged care facility.
“My dad said no and that he’s already separated from his daughters, his family. He said ‘I only have one son. Why do you want to separate me from my son? I’m not going to the nursing home'.”
Sharif said an aged care facility wouldn’t be able to adequately care for his father’s cultural needs or provide him with any in-language support like he does.
“I appreciate them offering me [the option] but he doesn’t want to go.”
The ABF does not comment on individual cases and a spokesperson said in a statement that people “may be placed in an alternative place of detention where appropriate”, including aged care facilities, as well as "hotel-style accommodation, hospitals or inpatient mental health facilities".
Decisions about immigration detention accommodation are made “on a case-by-case basis and involve consideration of medical needs and the safety and security of detainees, service providers, visitors and staff.”
“Healthcare services for detainees in held detention are comparable to those available to the Australian community, under the Australian public health system.”
The age groups of those in immigration detention are not publicly available.
A detained asylum seeker watches activists as they hold a rally outside the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel in Brisbane, Monday, 1 March, 2021. Source: AAP
Sydney-based lawyers for Sharif and his father, Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran and Daniel Taylor, said Sharif's family cannot return to their home country.
“They are stateless persons and don't have a home to return to,” Ms Harendran said.
“The government is aware they cannot be sent to [Myanmar] as they are stateless and [Myanmar] won't accept them and they are refugees.”
Without a pathway to settle in Australia, they must wait to be resettled in another third country.
Sharif's lawyers say his family withdrew their application to be settled in the United States in 2018 as his sister was rejected from the process. This meant the family would’ve been separated if they went through with the resettlement application.
Ms Harendran said aged care was not an appropriate option for Sharif's father and may have resulted in them being separated.
“Sharif is a son who has a cultural need and obligation where he wants to care for his father.”
“The son has the right to care for his ailing father as does anyone in Australia.”
Asylum seekers at Kangaroo Point Cental Hotel in Brisbane on 13 June 2020. Source: AAP
Mr Taylor said the separation of families in detention - as in the case of Sharif and his mother and sisters - is common and at the discretion of the Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews.
“The minister… has absolute power. [They] cannot be compelled and the law provides for the minister to make decisions and separate families,” Mr Taylor said.
“Sometimes it is a permanent separation.”
An ABF spokesperson confirmed the home affairs minister has “non-compellable powers” under section 195A of the Migration Act to grant a visa to a person in immigration detention.
Under section 197AB of the Act, the minister can also make a residence determination - such as putting a person in community detention.
“Ministers are not required to exercise their power. What is in the public interest is a matter for the Minister to determine,” the spokesperson said.
“Transitory persons are encouraged to finalise their medical treatment so they can resettle in the United States or other third country, or return home voluntarily.”
Iranian asylum seeker Amin Afravi, who is detained in BITA, said he’s happy for his friend and his father but hopes more releases are soon to come.
Around 15 Medevac refugees remain in BITA and 34 in Melbourne’s Park Hotel.
“It's insane to see that a father could not see his daughters and his wife for three years and were separated for zero reason,” Amin said.
“They kept an 83-year-old man in detention, who is very sick. I am very happy he’s been released.”
Amin was transferred from Manus Island to Australia in 2019 for medical treatment and has been in BITA for three years.
After spending more than eight years in detention, he says he has “no hope” he’ll be released.
“I’m suffering from mental and physical illnesses in here,” Amin said.
“I’m just trying to survive the situation.”
SBS News contacted Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews for comment, but she was travelling and unable to comment.