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‘I want out’: Nauru’s first refugees finally find freedom

Auckland, New Zealand – After a nine-year ordeal in Australia’s immigration detention system, six refugees are preparing for a new life in New Zealand after obtaining permanent residence.

The six are among more than 4,000 people who have traveled to Australia by boat to seek asylum over the past decade and have instead been sent to the remote Pacific island of Nauru as part of a hardline immigration policy operated for Australia.

New Zealand had offered to take in some of the refugees as early as 2013, but it was only this year, after a new government was elected, that the plan finally went ahead.

“It’s very, very amazing. I still don’t think I’m free. It seems like a dream,” said Jacques, 39, originally from Cameroon and, like all the refugees who spoke to Al Jazeera, he preferred not to give his full name.

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A view of the Nibok immigration center on Nauru.  There are long blocks of buildings in a clearing surrounded by trees.
For years, Australia sent asylum seekers traveling to the country by boat to remote processing centers on the high seas of the Pacific. The centers have been closed, but those sent there will never be allowed to settle in Australia under their hardline immigration policies. [File: Jason Oxenham/Pool via AP Photo]

Under the resettlement agreement between Australia and New Zealand, Jacques was transferred to the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Center in Auckland on November 22 and finally started his new life last week.

“The first thing that came to my mind when I got here was: ‘I want to get out,’” he told Al Jazeera on the eve of his release.

“I want to go out the door. I want to see people together and if they are playing soccer somewhere. I want to test if I am really free.”

‘Everything is new’

Australia’s immigration policies were transformed in 2001 after the rescue of hundreds of Afghan refugees from their sinking Indonesian fishing boat by a Norwegian freighter called the Tampa.

The incident prompted then-Prime Minister John Howard to announce that asylum seekers arriving by boat would be processed in detention centers on the high seas, including Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, as part of what he called the “Pacific solution”.

The transfers were halted for a few years but resumed in 2012, and the government doubled down on the controversial policy a year later with the launch of the “military-led border security” policy known as Operation Sovereign Borders. No one in the group, even if they were recognized as refugees, would be allowed to settle in Australia, the government stressed.

The centers were closed in 2019 after lengthy campaigns over the treatment of refugees. Since then, the refugees have lived within the community but without any formal visa or residency status. Some were taken to Australia under a short-term medical evacuation programme, where they are detained by immigration or are granted short-term visas on the condition that they find a home in another country.

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The New Zealand deal offers an escape from the legal limbo and uncertainty that Amnesty International has described as “torture”.

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The first group to arrive included Jacques, along with four Rohingya men from Myanmar and a Somali man.

The men told Al Jazeera that they had been interned on Nauru at a similar time and had spent more than nine years together.

Noruhloq, a 27-year-old Rohingya man, said his new permanent residence was like “being like a child.”

“Everything is new to me here,” he said. “I didn’t have a chance at home. I couldn’t vote there.”

The mostly Muslim Rohingya have been denied citizenship in their native Myanmar, and Noruhloq said he did not have the right to vote, a passport or even a birth certificate.

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Your new resident status means you finally have official documentation and can claim basic rights under the law.

“This trip [as a refugee] It was for documents. I did not have [documents] prior to. Now I have it in my hand, so it’s a really good feeling,” she said.

The Rohingya have suffered successive waves of persecution in Myanmar and have been the target of communal violence fueled by religious and racial hatred.

More than three quarters of a million Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh after a brutal military crackdown in 2017 who are now the subject of a genocide trial at the International Court of Justice. Hundreds of thousands still live in squalid camps in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, with severe restrictions on their movement.

“This is a very happy moment for me,” Rahim, a 32-year-old Rohingya, told Al Jazeera as he prepared for his new life in New Zealand.

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“In my life, I could not have any documents. I have passed [a lot of] difficulties in my past. I have no words to describe how happy I am.”

Rahim described the nine years he spent in detention on Nauru as a “trauma” during which he had “no hope”.

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“Now we are free. I can’t explain how I feel,” he said.

“I don’t want to look back at the past life, because if I look back I’m going to cry. I try to look forward to my life in a positive way. I try not to look back.”

Undermining international protocols

New Zealand selects around 1,500 refugees for resettlement each year.

They are airlifted to Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre, where they follow a five-week program designed to help prepare them for life in New Zealand and explain the support services available to them.

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A formal portrait of Qemajl Murati, manager of the New Zealand Immigration Refugee Quota Scheme.  He is wearing a light gray jacket and a blue open-necked shirt and is smiling.
Qemajl Murati runs the refugee quota scheduler, which helps people adjust to their new lives. The country receives 1,500 refugees for resettlement each year. [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

“Weather [refugees] They are here, every language group is supported by interpreters,” Qemajl Murati, manager of the New Zealand Immigration Refugee Quota Program, told Al Jazeera.

“Once they enter the community, there are service providers contracted by us to support them for the next 12 months.”

While the deal with Australia is a lifeline for people who have been detained in places like Nauru, critics say Canberra is shirking its international responsibilities by refusing to resettle refugees arriving by boat.

Ian Rintoul, spokesman and coordinator for Australia’s Refugee Action Coalition, told Al Jazeera that third-country resettlement “is actually undermining the protocols associated with international refugee resettlement.”

New Zealand’s resettlement offer was made in 2013 and only now acted on, meaning the men languished on Nauru for nearly a decade longer than necessary.

“They have been held in appalling conditions and suffered terribly on Nauru,” he told Al Jazeera.

“To get somewhere where they can get permanent residency and get on with their lives is why they tried to get to Australia in the first place. So it’s a chance to start life that they should have been able to start 10 years ago.”

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In addition, the admission of 150 people per year for three years agreed by New Zealand is part of the annual quota of 1,500 people. This means that the resettlement places are being occupied by people who are possibly the responsibility of Australia.

Mahmood from Somalia (left) and Jacques from Cameroon (right) sit on a bench outside the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Center in Auckland.  They are wearing polar fleeces and dark glasses and appear thoughtful.  Jacques has his arms crossed
Mahmoud from Somalia, left, and Jacques from Cameroon, at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Center on the eve of starting their new lives as permanent residents of New Zealand. [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Still, Australia’s Labor government has indicated that high seas detention will continue, with third parties resettled not only in New Zealand but also in Canada and the United States.

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In a statement provided to Al Jazeera, a spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said: “Regional processing and resettlement in third countries is a key pillar of Operation Sovereign Borders and provides significant deterrent value to potential irregular migrants.”

“There are no plans to end regional prosecution arrangements in Nauru. [and] the government remains focused on finding third-country migration results for people under regional processing agreements.”

The United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants has described the legal limbo resulting from the policy as “punitive”, but Australia insists it has curbed human smuggling and potential deaths at sea because there is no hope. for none of the asylum seekers. allowing them to settle in Australia.

The Refugee Council of Australia says that, as of November 30, there were still 92 people on Nauru and some 105 people in Papua New Guinea. Medical evacuation refugees will also be eligible for the New Zealand program, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

UNHCR says it has also separately agreed with New Zealand a resettlement agreement for eligible refugees in Papua New Guinea who were not covered as part of the Australia-New Zealand deal.

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Mahmoud, from Somalia, told Al Jazeera that he had spent exactly nine years and two days on Nauru.

Mangere Refugee Resettlement Center in Auckland, New Zealand.  It is a two story red brick building with a brown roof and there are balconies.  A New Zealand flag is flying and the garden is neat and tidy.  Two people walk towards the building with shopping bags.
The new arrivals spend five weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Center, where they learn about their new home. [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

The 34-year-old says he is ready to start his new life in New Zealand and “give all the good things to the community” but his thoughts remain with the dozens left on Nauru.

He hopes they will join them in New Zealand soon.

“Staying one day in Nauru is very hard. Is not easy. We are asking the New Zealand government and UNHCR to make this process very fast,” he said.

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