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Stranger on a strange island: one lonely Iraqi refugee

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 18, 2006



SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA

Lying just south of the equator, the eight square-mile pinprick of land is a far cry from the postcard image of a South Seas paradise.

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Decades of phosphate mining have left much of the island of Nauru – the world's smallest republic – a parched moonscape.

While life is tough for its 11,000 inhabitants, it's arguably harder for a man who may qualify as the loneliest refugee in the world.

Mohammed Sagar was one of 1,500 refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan who were sent to Nauru as part of Australia's "Pacific Solution," a policy under which Canberra outsourced the problem of asylum-seekers trying to reach its shores by sending them to poverty-stricken neighbors.

The refugees were intercepted by Royal Australian Navy warships in 2001 and 2002 and sent either to Nauru or Manus, an equally remote island in Papua New Guinea.

The vast majority of the asylum-seekers have either been granted refugee status and settled in other countries or sent back to their homelands.

Until recently, only two remained: Sagar and another Iraqi refugee named Mohammad Faisal.

But Faisal became suicidal and last month had to be evacuated to a hospital in Brisbane, Australia. His removal left Sagar a Shiite Muslim from Najaf, Iraq, as the last refugee on Nauru. He now feels alone and deeply depressed, according to human rights advocates.

He has set up a website to document his incarceration, www.leftonnauru.com, which includes pictures of the deserted refugee camp he inhabits.

"Can you imagine how horrible this nightmare is," he writes. "Just imagine that you are alone in a place where you can't even find anybody to talk to. Detention ... means that you do not own your life any more, or, in other words, you can't feel alive any more."

A security risk to Australia?

Sagar is stuck in legal limbo – although judged to be a genuine refugee by Australian immigration authorities, the country's intelligence agencies have ruled that he is "a risk to national security."

The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has given no reason for its negative assessment and declined to answer questions on the case.

Sagar no longer has a valid visa, and Australia has so far refused to say whether it will pay Nauru a new visa fee for him.

Not only will Australia not accept Sagar as a refugee, the ruling that he's a security risk acts as a deterrent to any other nation throwing open its doors.

Calls for the refugee camp to be closed

Opposition parties in Australia have called for the refugee camp on Nauru, which costs about $15 million a year to maintain, to be closed down.

"This is literally like something out of a Franz Kafka novel," Andrew Bartlett, the deputy leader of the opposition Democrats, said last month.

"They can't go back to Iraq, they can't go to any other country, they can't appeal the security assessment, and they can't even find out what it's about. I think that would drive anybody crazy. It's just a horrendous circumstance."

A high-profile Australian human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside, has launched a legal challenge to the Australian intelligence security assessment, demanding that it be made public.

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