MUSTAFA WAS A SECRET from the outside world for months, before an unnamed source leaked the information to The Australian late in 2001. The informant could not abide this child being left unattended and alone for one more day.
As a father with a little boy about the same age as Mustafa, and two others not that much older, it seemed unconscionable that this child was all alone in a strange country with no-one making a fuss. No-one was questioning whether this could be acceptable.
According to Ms Inese Peterson, a teacher in Woomera when he arrived, Mustafa came in June 2001 with a number of other unaccompanied children. He was a tiny little child who had some education in Afghanistan and could speak reasonable English. He was a polite and scared little boy, all alone with no real idea of where he was — except to tell her that his family had decided to pay all their money to have one child saved from the Taliban.
His father is a doctor in Afghanistan and owns a pharmacy in Kabul. Mustafa’s father took him over the border into Pakistan, where he was handed to people smugglers, taken to Indonesia and handed to other smugglers for the boat trip to Australia.
All alone, he survived for 14 days at sea. During the Senate Inquiry into the refugee boat codenamed SIEV4, it was revealed that every boat which ever left Indonesia was known to the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Immigration and at least six other government departments. All the boats were tracked by P3 Orion aircraft until they arrived at either Ashmore Reef or Christmas Island.
When boats are allowed to drift at sea for 14 days, about 12 of which they were considered to be overdue, I think this nation has to ask some hard questions about their humanity.
A Department of Family Services memo dated about 25th July 2001 was the first report to be received at the department about the rather parlous state of this child. The unnamed reporter stated:
The family he has been placed with to care for him are basically ignoring him and he has been found wandering in the compound late at night on more than one occasion in the past week, in temperatures around freezing.
He was not being bathed or having his teeth cleaned and is not attending classes. One of the UHN workers within the centre has taken responsibility for at least ensuring that his teeth are brushed once a day and that his clothes are clean.In a further undated memo, the author followed up with the information that a further memo had been received from Monica Lane to Chris Conway on the 25th of July.
A confidential meeting was held about him this week. Normally all meetings of the staff in the centre are taped, but the recorder was switched off for this part of the meeting. What was discussed was that the boy was “screened out”, which means he will not be released. The family he was placed with has been screened in, meaning they will be released as soon as their processing is completed.
The intention of the centre staff was to separate him from the family so that there will be fewer problems when the family is released and also, so that he can be transferred to another part of the centre with other people who are not to be released.
One of my concerns is also the ability for an 8 year old to seek avenues of appeal to his screening out in the same way as an adult would. However, I believe the immediate state of his welfare is of great concern. I guess that as a mandated reporter can I consider my duty to report child welfare concerns to FAYS has been fulfilled.
The second memo stated:
“Looking at my notes on 25th July 2001 there was information provided from FAYS to DIMIA, Greg Kelly and Di Miller, in which concerns were passed regarding the quality of foster care an 8 year old unaccompanied minor was receiving at Woomera.
The issues were:
- Foster family basically ignoring him
- Boy found “wandering” in the compound at night
- Boy not being bathed
- Boy not having teeth cleaned
- Boy not attending lessons
- Boy currently attached to a family about to be released, therefore boy to be moved to a family not due for release.
A further memo was forwarded from Greg Kelly to John High with a copy to David Frencham of DIMIA and to Daniel Jukic.
John you will recall that we discussed the 8 year old unaccompanied minor currently accommodated at the Woomera Immigration & Reception & Processing centre (IRPC). I understand that a number of discussions have been held with officers from your agency including a senior officer from Port Augusta.Mohammad Mustafa Ali, known as Mustafa, was found roaming unattended around Woomera in the middle of 2001. His assigned birth date, the department has always given the Afghan refugees a birth date on arrival, was 31/12/93. He was hardly 8 years old.
Until now DIMIA has been able to find suitable carers within the detention environment. However, one of the two current carers has now been released on a temporary protection visa and is in the community.
I am becoming increasingly concerned for the ongoing care and well being for this child. I would expect that the continued upheaval and change in carer would have a deliterious affect on the child.
It is on this basis that I am approaching you and your agency to establish whether and external care arrangement (with a foster family) would be in the best interests of the child.
DIMIA is actively working with UNHCR with a view to re-uniting Mohamed with his family. At this time, the prospects of a quick reunion are not high. I consider that ACM have provided adequate care arrangements to date.
However, I believe that the involvement of you and your agency is very necessary to ensure that our duty of care for this child is met.
I would appreciate you considering this request as a matter of urgency.
He first came to the attention of Family and Youth Services not long after her arrived in July, when a number of notifications were made to the department about him being in the centre all alone.
Arrangements were eventually made between FAYS and DIMIA/ACM for foster parents inside the centre. Several follow up inquiries were made over some months about Mustafa had been found in Woomera and under the foster arrangements he seemed to be clean and well looked after.
On the 20th August, FAYS wrote to DIMIA stating they had received several reports that Mustafa was not being cared for at all. On several occasions, he had been found wandering all alone in the compound in the middle of the night, dirty. It was reported he was not cleaning his teeth, or attending meals correctly and obviously was often hungry.
The contents of FAYS reports are confidential but, nevertheless, they had been given secretly to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission for investigation after they had taken legal action against DIMIA.
When this little boy had first been interviewed by DIMIA about his parents, he could only say they were “gone”. There was a dispute among others on the same boat: some said his parents were dead, while others said they were in Indonesia.
Whatever the truth of his parents, as a little boy on his own, he was screened out of refugee processes and was never offered a lawyer. The family he was with were screened in and separated from Mustafa at this point, even though it was advised that further separation from everyone he knew would create further trauma.
It seems very likely also that Mustafa was never advised that he had to ask for protection. The question is why was this very little boy was treated like an adult in the refugee assessment process and not immediately removed from the centre into foster care?
At all times, DIMIA shunted responsibility for Mustafa over to FAYS, without ever considering his age — that is until details of his story were released to Megan Saunders of The Australian. However, Megan would not publish full details without paper trails or evidence of the facts.
Monica Leahy of FAYS had access to an electronic trail that demonstrated that FAYS had made arrangements for Mustafa in the community over eight weeks earlier, but had no positive response from DIMIA regarding having Mustafa released on a bridging visa. Records at FAYS show that he had been granted his visa on 12/10/01 but were not advised until 31/10/01, just before his imminent arrival in Adelaide.
After his arrival in Adelaide on the evening of 31/10/01, he was immediately settled with his foster family and enrolled at the local school just days later. He did exceptionally well in this environment at first, he excelled at his new school, but still problems arose for this boy.
His foster family had 6 other children, so Mustafa felt he needed to misbehave to get the attention he craved. He began to fight with his foster sister, and became increasingly disruptive at home. FAYS tried desperately to work with the family and Mustafa rather than cause further upset and trauma for Mustafa, but ultimately were unsuccessful.
On 21/02/02, FAYS moved Mustafa to live with another family — one of the same religious and ethnic group as him, and with only one other child two years younger than Mustafa. With this family, he could pray his normal five times a day and relish his role as big brother to his foster brother. His reports were superb, he finally felt he could fit somewhere. He has a feeling of safety and is loved by his new family, even though he still has no idea of the fate of his family, who is believed to be a doctor.
After almost a year alone in Australia, Mustafa was granted a Temporary Protection Visa on 17th June 2002.
Mustafa has never been able to give his address, but was able to tell FAYS the general area to pass on to International Red Cross for tracing purposes.
Recently FAYS was contacted by a Sydney lawyer with the remarkable claim that a man detained on Nauru was claiming to be Mustafa’s uncle. When Mustafa spoke to him on the phone, he was adamant that he did not know the man.
Mustafa, at the age of 9, was trapped into the position where he felt that if he said he knew the man on Nauru was his uncle, he himself might be sent to Nauru to detention — or alternatively if the man was his uncle he could be granted a visa to care for Mustafa.
When I interviewed Mustafa with his foster family on the 17th of April 2003, there was still no word about his missing family, father Ali, mother Daljone, brother Murtaza 7, and sister Nagbia 16.
He is very anxious to find his family, but security in Afghanistan is atrocious.
His new family, Sadollah and Fatima Baghercouie, with their son Pouria, are from Iran and love him dearly. I immediately sent to FAYS for all his files and memos under the freedom of information act.
I need to find out why this nation would treat an 8 year old child in this manner and why he was screened out of the refugee process. It’s unconscionable that a country could and did do this thing to a child, any child.
In discussion with the group, I feel we should be able to try harder to find his family, a desire he expressed to me at the interview. As much as he loves his new family, he’s only 10 and has been alone for nearly 3 years.
(This story was originally written in 2002. Mustafa settled in well to Australian life and became dux of his school. He is now 20, an Australian citizen and lives in Adelaide. )
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License