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Syrian refugee fled war by sea for an unlikely home in Cambodia

Abdullah, a Syrian refugee, arrived in Phnom Penh from a detention centre on Nauru a few weeks ago.
Abdullah, a Syrian refugee, arrived in Phnom Penh from a detention centre on Nauru a few weeks ago. Eliah Lillis

Syrian refugee fled war by sea for an unlikely home in Cambodia

There was sky and there was water, nothing else but the wavering cries.

Abdullah, a Syrian refugee, lets the ash gather on the end of his cigarette as he recalls the five days he spent on a fishing boat on the vast Indian Ocean.

“It was very, very dangerous,” he says. He expected to die.

Abdullah, who asks to be referred to only by his first name, is the latest refugee from the island detention centre on Nauru to arrive in Cambodia under Australia’s controversial multi-million dollar resettlement deal.

His quest to secure safety for himself and his family has spanned almost four years. But it was those five days on the boat – just a speck on the sprawling map of his journey – that cost him his freedom.

Abdullah’s detention was part of an Australian government deterrence scheme that has been roundly condemned as “cruel” and akin to torture.

“I started travelling to find a life,” he says, stubbing out his cigarette. First, Abdullah found something much darker.

The war

Abdullah’s eyes have a piercing clarity, like those seen in many photographs of people fleeing war.

Before the odyssey that landed him in Cambodia, Abdullah was a humble baker of bread. He describes throwing discs of flat dough, or mannakish, onto a hot metal dome, sprinkling cheese or fragrant za’atar on top.

He worked in a restaurant in his hometown, Daraa – which in 2011 became the “cradle” of the Syrian revolution.

Abdullah fled violence in his hometown of Daraa, where the protests and crackdowns that sparked the Syrian civil war began. AFP
Abdullah fled violence in his hometown of Daraa, where the protests and crackdowns that sparked the Syrian civil war began. AFP

Pro-democracy protests erupted in the city following the arrest of children for scrawling revolutionary graffiti on a school wall in March of that year. Security forces opened fire. Many were killed and more arrested. The demonstrations, and the violence, escalated.

Since then, about 250,000 Syrians have been killed, and more than 11 million – around half of the nation’s population – have fled their homes.

Abdullah is one of them. Despite the horrors he has seen, he is reluctant to name those responsible for killings.

“There are so many things I do not want to talk about . . . but if my family is brought here, I can speak about everything,” he says.

It is clear family is vital to him, and he fears for their safety. Last year, he received the news that his nephew had died in Syria’s notorious Saydnaya prison – under torture, Abdullah says.

He recalls friends and neighbours shot by snipers poised on top of mosques, or killed by car bombs.

“People were only going out just for important things, like food or medicine,” he says.“There were people who went to get those essentials and they could not – they just disappeared.”

The restaurant where Abdullah worked shut its doors; people were not willing to risk their lives for a nice meal.“It’s not a life to live there [in Syria],” Abdullah says. He resolved to get his family out.

“For myself, I don’t care about myself. I care about my family. I’m responsible for keeping my family safe,” he says.

The journey

At the beginning of 2013, Abdullah found a place for his family in a neighbouring country. He then travelled to Egypt in search of work, but the political situation was volatile. A coup d’etat that year saw president Mohammed Morsi overthrown. So Abdullah set his sights on Australia, where his brother travelled in 2008 and still lives.

He saw it as a place of refuge. “I thought, they are open to refugees and respect the human dignity; it is a peaceful place to bring your family,” he says.

Does he still think that now?

“No,” he says, shaking his head with a dry laugh.

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The route to Australia was circuitous. Abdullah travelled to Malaysia and then to Indonesia, where he met an Arabic broker who told him the easiest way to get to Australia was to pay $5,500 for a boat.

People smugglers told him the boat was large, and safe. He would spend three months getting processed in a camp before being granted a visa and accommodation, they said. None of that was true.

Seventy-two people – six or seven families among them – were taken by a dinghy to a small fishing boat. At that point, Abdullah says, they had no choice but to climb aboard.  

“In that moment, I felt I was cheated. I felt I was going to die,” he says. Men, women and children were shouting and crying on the boat.

“With us was a woman, she was already eight months pregnant. She was scared, the baby is inside her, she is shouting and crying and her husband could do nothing,” he says.

On the fifth day, they saw the helicopter.

The island

Once intercepted, Abdullah was taken to Christmas Island, where he remained for eight months. He was then transferred to Nauru, where he would spend the next two and a half years. “It was like a jail,” he says.

For the first 18 months, he wasn’t allowed to leave the centre. He could use the internet once a week, but he and other refugees smuggled in phones from the outside.

On both islands, Abdullah says he requested that the government return him to Syria, rather than subject him to the camps. Government officials said no, he says. They would return people to other countries, like Kuwait or Pakistan.

This week, a spokesperson at Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection refused to say if it had refused or returned Syrian refugees to Syria, but said hundreds of “illegal maritime arrivals” had returned to their countries of origin.

On Nauru, Abdullah witnessed the extent of the abuse, trauma and self-harm unveiled by the Nauru Files in August and a litany of human rights reports.

Abdullah documented the results of a self-immolation on Nauru.
Abdullah documented the results of a self-immolation on Nauru. Eliah Lillis

He remembers the day an Iranian refugee, Omid Masoumali, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Abdullah knew Omid; they didn’t speak the same language, but they would routinely exchange a friendly greeting of salaam with one another.

He didn’t see the flames erupt, but he took photos after the fire was extinguished of Omid’s scorched skin. Omid did not receive treatment for two hours – despite the hospital being 10 minutes away, Abdullah says – and it took 24 hours for him to be sent to Australia. He died two days later.  

But the worst thing Abdullah saw, he says, is when a newborn child – just 2 days old – was left on Nauru while the mother was flown to Australia for medical treatment.

He tried to keep a record, he says, as he swipes through photos and footage he shot, some snapped in haste through the flaps of a tent. Some images depict guards physically assaulting refugee children, he says. There were rapes and other assaults, by both local Nauruans and security guards.

It was the indefinite nature of his detention that got to him, Abdullah says.

“When you are broken and you have lost your power, you can’t even talk, you can’t even think,” he says. “We were taking tablets just to sleep at night, because we kept thinking, thinking, thinking. There was no hope for tomorrow.”

Australian quagmire

After a photo of drowned 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi appeared in newspapers around the world last year, the Australian government pledged it would accept 12,000 additional Syrian refugees.

Abdullah, by then detained on Nauru, was not among them.

Between 2000 and 2013, more than 1,500 refugees drowned or were lost at sea attempting to reach Australian shores. The government characterises its detainment of refugees as necessary to prevent such deaths.

But paired with this rationale is the rhetoric of “illegal maritime arrivals”. “Illegal” is a word that Abdullah uses now, too. It was drummed into him on Nauru.

Daniel Webb, of the Human Rights Law Centre in Australia, says the mantra is a legal fiction.

“Seeking asylum is a basic human right, expressly recognised in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” he says. “The very nature of flight from persecution is that it is often urgent and irregular.”

For that reason, he says, the Refugee Convention prohibits countries for punishing refugees just because they seek asylum without prior approval.

Last month, Amnesty International released a report, Island of Despair, roundly condemning Australia’s network of offshore detention centres as “a deliberate and systematic regime of neglect and cruelty”.

It exacerbates the suffering of vulnerable people who have reached Australia’s shores, in an effort to prevent others from arriving, says Anna Neistat of Amnesty, one of the few people who has managed to enter the remote island.

“The government of Australia has isolated vulnerable women, men and children in a remote place which they cannot leave, with the specific intention that these people should suffer,” she says.

Refugee advocates say the impending closure of Nauru and Australia’s other detention centre, Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, are long overdue.

But they also note the announcement last week of a nascent plan to resettle some of the 1,600 refugees on Nauru and Manus Island in the United States lacks a timeline or concrete numbers. It is, Webb says, “full of holes”.

“This ugly chapter in our history only closes when every single man, woman and child suffering at [the Australian] government’s hands on Nauru or Manus is rebuilding their lives in safety,” Webb says.

“No one can be left behind.”

The escape

Strolling the streets of Phnom Penh, Abdullah says the city reminds him of Daraa: “before”, he says, “not now”. He is starting Khmer lessons this week, and still fumbles a little with his chopsticks.

Here Abdullah has renewed hope to find work, build a life, and reunite with his family. He smiles when he talks about his wife and their children: two girls and two boys, all under 13 years old. He hasn’t seen them in more than three years.

“They are growing so fast,” he says.

Abdullah fears for the safety of his wife and children.
Abdullah fears for the safety of his wife and children. Eliah Lillis

The Australian government has promised to reunite them in a matter of months, he says. An immigration spokesperson did not directly confirm this, but said the government would continue to work with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) “to provide refugees the support they need to build new lives and integrate into the Cambodian community”.

Cambodia will receive A$40 million over four years for its trouble, while an additional A$15 million was set aside for resettlement. Only A$4.77 million of those funds have been spent so far.

Tan Sovichea, the director of the Interior Ministry’s refugee department, says that Abdullah’s family is welcome to come here, but Cambodia does not have any refugee family reunion policy.

While a total of six refugees have come from Nauru to Cambodia, all have been short-lived stays, save for Mohammed Rashid, a Rohingya refugee from Myanmar, and Abdullah.

What Rashid and Abdullah have in common is that, for now, they cannot return home. Mohammed declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he was ill with a fever. This month marks a year since he left Nauru for the Kingdom.

Over the past month, the situation in his homeland has deteriorated rapidly. Hundreds of homes in Rohingya villages have been burned to the ground by security forces, and allegations of rape and killings in the area are rampant, says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, which this week called for a UN investigation into the crimes.

“Our satellite photography has revealed over 1,250 Rohingya homes torched in Maungdaw township alone over the past five weeks,” Robertson says. “So Rakhine state is hardly a welcoming place for a Rohingya refugee to return.”

For now, Abdullah has escaped a double trauma: his war-torn home and the island prison. Abdullah knew nothing of Cambodia before. But in the Kingdom, he doesn’t need a pill to sleep at night.

“Here you can create a life, but in Nauru, no,” he says.

“It’s much better here. It’s like going from hell to heaven.”


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