Family's Asylum Fight Spotlights Australia's Refugee Woes

When it comes to life's hardships, Ali Baktiyari has had more than his fair share, but by all accounts the events of July 18 were among the worst — if only because hope seemed so very, very close.

More than two years after he arrived on Australian shores onboard a cramped boat bearing weary asylum-seekers from Central and South Asia, Baktiyari was finally going to be reunited with his two sons, Alamdar, 14, and Muntazer, 12, in freedom.

Or so he thought.

In a dramatic buildup of events that has put his family at the center of a human rights storm in Australia, Baktiyari had traveled from Sydney — where he currently resides — to the southern Australian city of Melbourne to meet his boys.

In June, the 43-year-old father of five had heard that his sons were part of a group of more than 30 detainees who broke out from the notorious Woomera detention center in the remote southern Australian desert. And for 21 days, as the news media carried reports of police combing the harsh, unyielding outback for the runaways, Baktiyari was sick with worry.

But aided by refugee rights activists, the boys made it to Melbourne where they sought asylum at the British diplomatic mission.

Cyrus Saring, a friend and a fellow refugee, was at Baktiyari's Sydney apartment that July morning when he finally heard from his sons. "They called him from the British Consulate in Melbourne and just said, 'hello dad, we're fine,'" Saring recounts during a phone interview with "His hand started shaking and he was crying with joy. Then he put down the phone and started doing namaz [prayers] to thank Allah."

The two men immediately boarded a flight to Melbourne, while a network of refugee rights activists alerted the national and international press.

A Melee at Melbourne Airport

The Baktiyari family's long, cross-continental reunification attempt seemed to be heading in a positive direction as the two friends arrived at the Melbourne Airport.

"When we got there, all the cameras and the reporters were there," says Saring. "And there were also ordinary people there — they started clapping when they saw him and shaking his hands and saying they're with him, they're happy for him, they were excellent."

But things took a rapid turn for the worse.

In the taxi from the airport to the British Consulate, Saring got a call on his cell phone from a journalist who told him he was heading the wrong way — Britain had rejected the boys' asylum plea, claiming there were "no grounds for anyone to seek asylum in Britain from Australia."

Reporters on the scene described the two weeping boys being led from the British Consulate to a Melbourne detention center before being put on a chartered flight to Woomera to rejoin their mother and three little sisters in the camp.

A Long Journey

The Baktiyari family saga began in October 1999, when Baktiyari, who says he is a member of Afghanistan's Hazara ethnic minority, arrived alone in Sydney. Australian immigration officials determined he was a genuine case and granted him a temporary protection visa.

But his wife and five children, who arrived separately in January 2001, were refused asylum and have been in detention at the Woomera camp ever since.

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