Immigration

Melbourne refugee family denied Italian holiday despite being told they 'had right documents'

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A Syrian family living in Melbourne is seeking compensation after they were stopped at Dubai airport and banned from boarding a flight to their holiday destination.

For the Kassis family, a trip to Italy was so much more than a holiday, they were going to be reunited with  relatives they had last seen when they fled war-torn Syria four years ago.

Munzer and Diala Kassis, along with their children Sabin, 14, and Rami, 10, had flown from Melbourne to Dubai with Emirates - snapping selfies along the way. 

The Kassis family (from left) Munzer, Rami, Sabin and Diala were devastated when they were turned away from boarding a flight to Italy from Dubai Airport.
The Kassis family (from left) Munzer, Rami, Sabin and Diala were devastated when they were turned away from boarding a flight to Italy from Dubai Airport.
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But just metres from the boarding gate at Dubai airport, airline staff refused to let them board the final leg of their journey to Milan. 

"My wife starts crying, my kids too, like, it's the worst situation I've had in my life," Mr Kassis recalled to SBS News. 

The Kassis family fled Syria in 2015, with barely their clothes on their backs - let alone passports.

They are now permanent Australian residents and had been granted a Certificate of Identity (COI), a travel document which looks very similar to an Australian passport.

Each member of the Kassis family was granted a Certificate of Identity from the Australian Government.
Each member of the Kassis family was granted a Certificate of Identity from the Australian Government.
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The Passport Office website states a COI “may be issued to non-Australian citizens who are unable to obtain a travel document from their country of nationality”.

But Emirates staff were wary of the document and decided it would not comply with Italian law.

In a statement to SBS News, the airline said: "Mr Munzer Kassis and his family were not allowed to board a flight to Italy as they did not have the appropriate travel documents to enter the country".

"Emirates abides by the rules and regulations of the respective issuing country and passengers must ensure they have the correct travel documents for each country."

The Kassis family was not allowed to board their Emirates flight from Dubai to Italy.
The Kassis family was not allowed to board their Emirates flight from Dubai to Italy.
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Migration law expert Professor Mary Crock from the University of Sydney said countries had the power not only to punish the individual but also the airline if they did not have the right documents.

"The Italian government essentially said that that's not enough," she told SBS News.

"In fact all around the world, what happens is that if governments are not happy with a person's identity, they can both exclude the individual, but also impose carrier sanctions on the aircraft carrying them to the country."

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The family was devastated and confused. Mr Kassis said before the trip he was assured by staff at the Italian consulate in Melbourne that he didn't need any further documentation.

"Then I asked if I need the visa to go to Italy and they say no. If you're holding the travel document you don't need a visa to go to Italy," he said.

Like any family, the Kassis marked the start of their holiday with selfies. Pictured: Munzer Kassis.
Like any family, the Kassis marked the start of their holiday with selfies. Pictured: Munzer Kassis.
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Family friend and migration law graduate Renee Mazloum told SBS News she had different emails that assured the Kassis' would be able to get into Italy, and the situation would raise concern among refugee and migrant communities for those wanting to holiday outside of Australia. 

SBS News contacted the Melbourne consulate for comment. The Sydney office said it was unaware of the situation, and couldn't comment.

Professor Crock said it was unfortunate the family was travelling to Europe at a "sensitive time". 

"Italy, in particular, is receiving thousands upon thousands of asylum seekers... I think this has made the conservative government in power very sensitive to anyone trying to get into the country without full or proper documentation," she said. 

Mr Munzer said his family was equally devastated by the airline questioning his citizenship.

"When I said it's an Australian passport, he [border officer] said 'no, not an Australian, you are Syrian'," he said.

Munzer Kassis with his 10-year-old son Rami.
Munzer Kassis in transit with his 10-year-old son Rami before learning they couldn't board the final leg of their journey.
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"I know I'm Syrian, and it's like a passport [equivalent] from [the] Australian government. All Australian people the same here, they have backgrounds. Some are from Italy, some are from Germany. They're from everywhere, it's multicultural.

"I can't help I'm Syrian, I'm only human."

The Department of Home Affairs states travellers "must ensure they have the right entry documents for the countries they are visiting or transiting, and check other entry or exit requirements".

But Professor Crock said it was often more complicated than that for people from certain backgrounds.

"The reality is around the world, that if you come from a country that has produced a lot of refugees, that's going to place you at risk of being excluded from countries," she said. 

Sabin Kassis (centre) was going to be reunited with her cousin in Italy.
Sabin Kassis (centre) was going to be reunited with her cousin in Italy.
SBS News

The couple's 14-year-old Daughter Sabin recalled the last time she saw her cousin, whom she had hoped to be united in Italy. 

"In Syria, we were all crying because we were going to Lebanon, and from Lebanon to Australia," she said.

"My cousin was crying a lot, she was just yelling from the verandah, 'don't go'."

It's a setback for the Kassis family but Mr Kassis is determined to try again and see their relatives.

"I want to try again to make them happy again," he said, as his family wept.

"I'm not going to give up."

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