A 60-year-old Iranian refugee has spent more than eight years in Australia’s immigration detention system despite a court ordering her release.
The detainee, Masoumeh Torkpour, who is understood to be the oldest female refugee held in Australia’s system of immigration detention, is one of the many refugees who are blocked from gaining a visa due to stringent “character” tests – but cannot be sent back to the countries from where they fled.
A number of these refugees have now been detained for over a decade.
In 2018 a refugee tribunal, held in Melbourne, ordered that Torkpour should be issued with a temporary protection visa, which would allow her release. During the hearing, community groups offered to assist Torkpour’s transition out of detention.
However, she continues to languish in detention at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation.
“My only heartfelt desire is to hold my son Daniel one more time in my arms and feel his heartbeat and his warm breathing again after 10 years,” Torkpour told the Guardian.
Her son Daniel says he has been hoping for the past 10 years to see his mother not just behind the screen or on the phone but to feel her hands and kiss her.
“There is no word to say who can take the place of someone else’s mother,” Daniel says.
He describes the time apart from his mother as leaving a gap in his life.
The 2018 tribunal found that Torkpour should be issued a temporary visa because her mental health issues – including OCD, depression and adjustment disorder – were being exacerbated by the difficult conditions of detention.
Torkpour’s psychiatrist reported that “she misses her son and freedom. She is frustrated and demoralised. She complains of severe anxiety and somatic symptoms such as headaches, sweating, pains and aches in her body. Her memory is poor and she feels lethargic. She washes everything repeatedly. She feels very anxious if she stops.”
The tribunal took into consideration that Iran rejects the return of its citizens seeking asylum overseas on an involuntary basis, and found that Australia’s international non-refoulement obligations and the expectations of the Australia community meant she should not be refused a visa on the grounds of character.
The Australian Border Force says it won’t comment on individual cases.
“Immigration detention is used as a last resort. All individuals in detention have ongoing matters, whether in relation to their removal from Australia or their ongoing visa application process,” an ABF spokesperson says.
This is not an isolated case. Torkpour says a Sri Lankan refugee in the centre has been held for more than 10 years. She says this contrasts with the experience of many detainees from the UK and New Zealand who have been transferred from jail to detention.
“Their permanent residency visas are cancelled. But after several months the minister issued their visa again and sent them back to the community,” Torkpour says.
Sarah Dale, the principal solicitor and director of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, says it is a unique issue within Australian law and many other common-law systems would not tolerate indefinite detention without judicial oversight.
Dale points out the recent case in which the minister for immigration, Peter Dutton, was threatened with jail for contempt of court if he failed to make a decision on granting a visa for another Iranian asylum seeker, a man known to the court as AFX17. Dutton made the decision, just before the court’s final deadline, to deny the man a temporary protection visa.
“What indefinite detention does is shine a very bright light on the insurmountable powers of the minister for immigration and the very little effective oversight and lack of any legal avenues for redress,” Dale says.
“This system ultimately renders the administrative appeals tribunal truly powerless in the outcome for a person: that despite as a judicial body having assessed and tested evidence, relied on law and precedent, forming a decision – only to have the minister personally overturn that decision and have it exempt from any legal meritorious challenge. It goes against the very foundation of the rule of law,” Dale says.
Torkpour’s difficult youth and the accumulated effect of her life-long trauma have contributed to her adversity during imprisonment. At the age 14, Torkpour’s mother died and she was forced to leave school.
“My mother died young of cancer and left me with seven brothers and sisters to look after. I’m lucky that the sisters and brothers I looked after for the whole of my childhood are now looking after my only son in Canada,” Torkpour told the Guardian in Persian.
Then, when Torkpour was just 21, her first daughter was killed in a car crash and her husband was left as a quadriplegic, and later died.
Torkpour fled Iran for the first time around 1989 and in 1991 found asylum in Canada, where she was later reunited with her second husband. Torkpour stabbed a woman she had found in bed with her husband, causing the woman a major bleed. She was jailed for four years for the offence.
This prevented her from being able to obtain a permanent visa in Canada and later in Australia. The Canadian immigration authorities allowed her to remain in Canada on a temporary visa which was renewed year-to-year.
Torkpour explains that when her son was six months old, her sister would take him to prison twice a day to be breastfed for two years. Then she was transferred to a shelter for imprisoned mothers where she could live with her son for two years.
She returned to Iran from Canada in 2005, in order to care for her dying father, who passed away shortly after her arrival. “Upon my return to Iran I was detained for having left Iran illegally,” Torkpour says.
In her second attempt to escape Iran, Torkpour fled to Australia in 2011, and was held in immigration detention. Here, she committed spitting and biting offences and was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment which was served in full.
The spitting incident was prompted by a dispute over food in the accommodation quarters.
“I spat at the officer’s face as I was frustrated by the ugliness of our lives and our powerlessness to have control over our own lives.”
One day after the spitting incident, she bit the same officer.
“I was not allowed to have a mobile phone in the Darwin detention centre as I came by boat to Australia, so I borrowed my fellow detainee’s phone, who came by airplane and was allowed to have a phone in detention, to talk to my son. I hid the phone under my clothes and when the female officer tried to grab it, I bit her on the left wrist. It was a deeply grievous time for me to be deprived of speaking with my son,” Torkpour says.
“Most of my life I suffered infidelity, loss, insecurity and turmoil. For the last 15 years I have endured not only displacement but also injustice on so many levels.
“My only happiness is having a phone and waiting for my son to call me.”