An interpreter who assisted US-led forces in Afghanistan before fleeing Taliban reprisals faces indefinite detention in Australia’s immigration system unless the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, grants him a visa.
Father of five Peter – whose real name cannot be disclosed for fear of endangering his family – is in an onshore immigration detention centre and has been separated from his family for seven years.
Australia is legally obliged to protect Peter from persecution, but he failed the government’s “character test” because of a robbery committed in desperation in 2015, for which he received a suspended jail term.
Peter, a teacher and member of Afghanistan’s persecuted Hazara ethnic and religious minority, lived in a contested Afghan province, near a major arterial route used by coalition forces in their war against the Taliban.
Peter “provided support services to the allied forces in Afghanistan as a translator”, the federal court heard in a 2017 case on his visa application.
Any connection to or perceived sympathy for the west is viewed with deep suspicion by the Taliban, and Peter – known as NKWF in court documents – was repeatedly threatened with torture and death because of the work he was doing.
He fled Afghanistan, arriving by boat in Australia, the first country where he could make a claim for protection, in November 2012.
While his claim was assessed, Peter was allowed to live in the community on a bridging visa, but without the right to work.
Unable to earn money to support himself or to send home to his family, and suffering significant anxiety about his and his family’s wellbeing, he committed a robbery in 2015, holding up a taxi driver with a butter knife. The driver was not injured.
In February 2016 he pleaded guilty and was given a suspended sentence by the magistrate, but was immediately redetained by the then immigration department.
Later that year the Australian government found Peter had a “well-founded fear of persecution”, meaning it was obliged to protect him and it would be illegal to forcibly return him to Afghanistan, a breach of Australia’s non-refoulement obligations.
But his conviction meant he failed the department’s “character test” and was therefore refused a visa and remained in detention.
Peter’s case came before the federal court in 2017, when Justice Antony Siopis upheld his application for review and ordered the government’s appeals tribunal to reassess its decision refusing Peter a visa.
The court heard his translation work meant he was considered “a spy and an infidel” by the Taliban. His work was described in court documents as “an extraordinary service to Nato, and thus Australian forces, and at tremendous personal cost”.
Siopis said the tribunal had failed “to give proper, genuine and realistic consideration” to Peter’s “support to the allied forces in Afghanistan”, a relevant consideration “which militated in favour” of him being granted a visa.
However, Peter’s case has not progressed in the three years since his court hearing, and he remains in detention, with no prospect of release.
Peter’s lawyer Alison Battisson, the director principal of Human Rights for All, said his crime had been “an isolated incident and a cry for help, when he didn’t know where else to turn”.
“He had been dependent on charity for years. He could not send money back to his family in Afghanistan, who remained threatened by the Taliban. Releasing people into the community without work rights is a cruel practice that pushes vulnerable people to the edge. It is not a long-term solution.
“Peter held up a taxi driver with a butter knife. Peter acknowledges this was wrong.”
Following the federal court’s order, consideration of Peter’s visa was ultimately handed back to the Department of Home Affairs.
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has indicated in writing that he may be refused a visa, which would leave Peter facing indefinite detention.
Battisson said cases like Peter’s were “unfortunately … not unusual”.
“I represent a number of refugees who have had mental health episodes and are locked away indefinitely as a result in immigration detention. These episodes are used against them again and again, despite measurable improvements in their mental health in a very difficult environment.”
The home affairs department did not respond to a request for comment on Peter’s case.