A "significant number" of the missing Commonwealth Games athletes and officials are lodging protection claims, SBS has learned.
A “significant number” of about 19 Commonwealth Games athletes and officials who reportedly remain in Australia are being assisted by a refugee legal service to lodge protection claims.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has urged the athletes and officials to give themselves up to Border Force as their visas are due to expire at midnight on Tuesday.
Some have reportedly already been granted bridging visas but that has not been confirmed by Mr Dutton’s office.
“What we can say is that we have been approached by a significant number of people and it is our understanding that it is likely there are more people than has been referred to in the media that will seek protection in Australia,” said Sarah Dale, principal solicitor with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS).
More than 6,500 athletes and officials came to Australia for the 21st Commonwealth Games with the motto “Share the Dream” but not all had the same dream.
“If people breach their visa conditions like anyone else, they’re expected to operate within the law, and enforcement action will take place to identify those people and deport them if they don’t self-declare,” Mr Dutton said.
“If people have claims to make or they have submissions to put to the department, we will consider all that in due course.”
A number of teams returned home without all their athletes. About 11 members of Cameroon's team didn't go home. Other missing athletes are from Uganda, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Rwanda.
“It’s our understanding that if a person is here on a valid visa and they have made an application before the expiry of that visa, then they ought to be granted bridging visas, which allows them to remain in the community until the Australian government determines if they are owed protection,” said Ms Dale.
“There’s an online system with the Department of Home Affairs, so you have until midnight tonight when your visa expires.
“If you haven’t made a claim before your visa expires, then you become what’s known as an unlawful non-citizen, and are liable to be detained and taken to detention. However, you still have the right to make that application for protection.
“It would be up to the minister if they were granted a bridging visa.”
Some of those unaccounted for have been in touch with the Queensland African Communities Council (QACC), but most are now thought to be in Sydney and Melbourne.
“I have had contact with athletes, some through community leaders, and others directly,” QACC president Robert Mukombozi said without giving numbers.
“Some have already applied for their humanitarian pathway.”
Many of the athletes are from countries with poor human rights records, like Rwanda where Mr Mukombozi comes from.
“It’s a country that’s been under military dictatorship since 1994 so there is insecurity on a daily basis,” he said.
“We have people disappearing in that country and that’s the kind of thing that’s not often talked about, and they’re the issues that push people to get out of such countries.”
After the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, 45 athletes, mainly from African countries, stayed behind.
Many received refugee status and some like Cameroon weightlifters Simplice Ribouem and Francois Etoundi went on to represent and win medals for Australia.
Every year in Australia, tens of thousands of people overstay their temporary visas, and thousands apply for protection visas.
In the 2016/17 financial year, 62,900 people overstayed temporary visas in Australia, Senate Estimate hearings were told in October last year.
The largest numbers were almost 10,000 from Malaysia, 6,500 from China and 5,170 from the United States.
They arrived by air, just like the Commonwealth Games athletes and officials.
“This is not unprecedented, this is not unusual. This is the very reason Australia is a signatory to the refugee convention,” said Ms Dale.
- Additional reporting by AAP.