SYDNEY, Australia — In a case that has drawn international interest, an Afghan refugee who has lived freely in Australia while his wife and five children have been locked up for 18 months may soon join them in detention.
The government is seeking to revoke the asylum status of Ali Asqar Bakhtiari on the grounds that several unidentified witnesses and a government-paid language analyst maintain he is from Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
The case of the Bakhtiari family, which is under review by a United Nations human rights panel, has highlighted the arbitrary nature of Australia's mandatory detention system. It is now before the high court as a test of the government's authority to lock up all asylum seekers who arrive without prior approval.
It has also focused attention on the harsh conditions many detainees endure at Australia's six detention centers, where authorities send illegal immigrants until their cases are resolved.
"They have power, and they can do whatever they want," Bakhtiari said in an interview. "But until the end of everything, I am from Afghanistan and I am Afghan."
Bakhtiari, who arrived in Australia in late 1999, was initially detained but then freed in August 2000 and granted a three-year protection visa after authorities accepted his account that he was an Afghan farmer fleeing persecution by the Taliban regime.
His wife, Roqia, and their five children landed in Australia later and were denied asylum after officials concluded that she was not telling the truth and that she was most likely from Pakistan.
She and the children, now ages 5 through 14, have been incarcerated at the Woomera detention center in the Australian outback since their arrival Jan. 1, 2001.
Ali and Roqia found out only last August that they were both in Australia when a refugee who had been released from detention encountered Ali in Sydney. Attorneys took up the Bakhtiaris' case and appealed to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock to release Roqia and the children on humanitarian grounds.
But Ruddock, who opposes reuniting family members who arrive separately and without authorization, rejected the appeal. He also declined to release the children to their father.
Staff members at the detention center have expressed concern about the deteriorating condition of the family, particularly the two boys. The elder, 14-year-old Alamdar, carved the word "Freedom" into his forearm with a razor blade.
Australia has taken a tough stand against asylum seekers who began arriving, mostly by boat, from Islamic countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Although Australia is bound by international treaty to grant asylum to refugees who have a justified fear of persecution in their homelands, the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard has done all it can to keep them out.
All asylum seekers who reach Australia without proper documentation, including children, are locked up while their claims are processed. Some have remained in custody for years.
The Australian navy, aided by sophisticated surveillance aircraft, has been deployed to intercept refugee boats in international waters and take asylum seekers to detention centers on remote Pacific islands.
This approach has been condemned internationally but appears to be working. No refugee boat has reached Australia since last August. The last time one tried to make the crossing from Indonesia was in December, when it was stopped by the navy and escorted back.
The number of detainees in Australian detention centers has declined to about 600 as some have been granted temporary asylum and others have been deported. Most of those remaining either have been refused asylum and are appealing the decisions or cannot be shipped home because Australia has no deportation agreement with their countries of origin, such as Iraq.
Earlier this month, United Nations officials who toured Australia's detention centers said the asylum seekers are treated worse than criminals because they are not told how long they will be detained.
"Collective depression" and the "agonizing uncertainty" of their detention are prompting some to deliberately harm themselves and even attempt suicide, said Louis Joinet, head of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
An additional 1,400 asylum seekers remain in Australian-funded detention centers in the Pacific island countries of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they were taken by the navy last year. Activists say the conditions there are as bad or worse than in the Australian detention centers.
Since the fall of the Taliban, nearly all of the Afghans' asylum applications have been rejected. Australia has offered to pay the Afghan detainees the equivalent of $1,000 per person or $5,000 per family to return home.
"It's a very generous offer," said Steve Ingram, Ruddock's spokesman, noting that the minimum is more than the average Afghan would earn in a year.