CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Fiji outraged rights groups on Friday by forcing an Iranian refugee back to Papua New Guinea where he had spent more than three years under Australia's tough asylum seeker policies and where he said he feared persecution.
Loghaman Sawari's plight shines a spotlight on the human suffering behind Australia's harsh policy of banishing asylum seekers to remote Pacific islands at a time the United States considers giving hundreds of them homes.
Sawari, 21, flew to Fiji last week to apply for a protection visa but was deported before he could lodge that application with Fijian immigration officials at the capital Suva, said lawyer Aman Ravindra-Singh, who was with Sawari when he was arrested outside Suva.
"He's scared of ending up in Manus in a hell hole," Ravindra-Singh said, referring to Manus Island where Papua New Guinea's mosquito-infested immigration camp is located.
The Fijian government said Sawari had been legally obliged to apply for political asylum without delay, but he had failed to do so during his 10 days in Fiji.
Sawari would have become the first asylum seeker to apply for protection from a country where Australia has been banishing refugees for more than more than three years despite United Nations objections.
His plight has prompted rights groups to call on Australia to accept hundreds of refugees who are languishing on Manus Island and on the Pacific atoll of Nauru. Australia refuses to accept asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat and pays the two impoverished Pacific islands nations to keep them.
The United States had agreed to resettle an undisclosed number of refugees among more than 1,200 asylum seekers — mostly Muslims from Africa, the Middle East and Asia — on Manus and Nauru.
Another 370 asylum seekers who were brought to Australia for medical treatment then took court action to prevent their return to the remote islands would also be eligible for resettlement to the United States under the deal struck between Australia and the Obama administration.
But the deal has been condemned by President Donald Trump and now appears to be in doubt.
Australia sent Sawari to the men-only camp on Manus as a 17-year-old in August 2013. He was accepted as a refugee and had lived in Papua New Guinea outside the camp. But he complained he had been physically attacked by locals, threatened, harassed and had lived for a period in poverty on the street.
He pleaded for international help and protection for asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus in a video posted on social media from Fiji.
"Australia took me in 2013 to PNG by force and I don't want to settle in PNG," he said, referring to Papua New Guinea. "We need just freedom. Please, we are not slaves, we are human beings."
Sawari had arrived at Port Moresby on an Air Niugini flight on Friday afternoon and was being interviewed by Papua New Guinea immigration officials, a police statement said.
Ravindra-Singh said he had arranged on Tuesday a meeting in Suva on Friday for Sawari to claim asylum. The pair where in their way to that meeting when their car was intercepted by six police and four immigration officers who took Sawari to an airport, the lawyer said.
"The Fijian government shows no respect for human rights or international law or even its own laws," Ravindra-Singh said.
Fijian Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said Sawari had broken local laws by arriving in Fiji on a Papua New Guinea passport "obtained by fraudulent means." Sayed-Khaiyum did not elaborate.
Amnesty International said it had grave concerns for Sawari's welling being and called on Australia to take responsibility for him. Fiji's Humans Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission director Ashwin Raj said Sawari's deportation could expose him to "inhuman and degrading treatment."
A coalition of 69 Australian organizations and community groups on Friday released a statement demanding that Australia evacuate the Pacific camps to end a humanitarian crisis.