An Australian teen who says he's "here to help humanity" may be stranded in Syria after the Australian government cancelled his passport, despite, his lawyer says, no evidence that the young man has broken the law.
Oliver Bridgeman, age 19, has been directed to surrender his passport at the nearest consular post, as the government considers issuing temporary travel documents to permit his return to Australia. The teen had been cooperating with federal officials to plan his trip home, according to Alex Jones of Bosscher Lawyers, who plans to file an appeal on Monday.
"Why, with a kid coming home, would you prevent that? That's what we want answers to," Mr. Jones told the Brisbane Times.
Under Australian law, passports may be cancelled if a national is "likely to engage in conduct that might prejudice the safety of Australia or a foreign country," or put others in danger. It is illegal for Australians to support any armed groups in Syria.
Mr. Bridgeman's case has been widely publicized for months, after his parents first reported him missing last spring. The teen told his parents he was deferring university to work at an Indonesian charity, but, after a month in Bali, traveled through Turkey to Syria in April 2015. Since then, he says he has been working for nonprofits that provide food aid and camp programs for refugee children.
His Facebook posts and online videos, including one from an organization called Live Updates from Syria, show him playing with children, teaching them rugby, and delivering food packages.
Soon after his story broke last spring, media reporting his conversion to Islam during high school suggested that he had joined the al-Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda proxy in Syria. Roughly 100 Australians are believed to be fighting in the ongoing civil war. However, the government has not charged Bridgeman with any specific accusations of fighting.
On Facebook, Bridgeman has repeatedly denied involvement with any armed groups in Syria. "No matter what they say or do, they know that I'm here to help humanity and especially the people of Syria," he wrote on Friday. On a separate Facebook page under his Arabic name, he criticized religious extremism as "lying against Allah."
In an August interview with the Guardian, Bridgeman said he was not pressured to join armed groups, but that having "neutral relationships" with them was key to his safety. Citing his fear of kidnapping, he would not tell the British paper where in the country he was, or what he thought of various rebel groups. He strongly condemned ISIS, however.
"I haven't done anything wrong," he said, explaining that he felt he was making a difference in children's lives. "When I feel like my job’s done here, I want to return home. Australia’s my country."
The Australian government officially recommends that citizens not travel to Syria, and no longer has any embassies in the country. Australians in Syria are advised to go to the Romanian Embassy in Damascus, or the Australian Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.
"We don't want to see cowboys running off," no matter how "well intentioned," Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told Sky TV in January 2015, referring to people who may believe "that they are doing some good when potentially they are getting in harm's way. If we have to divert resources to support them or if they become captive themselves, it is just not helpful."
But authorities did not charge Matthew Gardiner, a former Labour Party politician and soldier who fought ISIS with Kurdish militias in 2015; he was detained upon his return to Australia last April, but released without charges. Live Updates from Syria, the organization Bridgeman is now working for, criticized a "double standard," suggesting that the teen's conversion to Islam made authorities treat him differently.
"The Australian Government cannot facilitate the safe passage of people out of the conflict zones," said Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.
The Bridgeman family had not sought help getting their son out of Syria, but was cooperating with authorities so that they could de-brief him on his return, their lawyer said. In order for Bridgeman to surrender his passport, he would have to cross the Turkish border, Jones claims, risking a 10-year prison term for crossing with a cancelled passport.