Habiburahman talking at a rally in Malaysia. Photograph: Sophie Ansel
A Rohingyan refugee living in Australia is pleading with the Australian government to grant him a travel document allowing him to speak at the European parliament about the persecution of his people.
Habiburahman – who goes by only one name – arrived in Australia from Myanmar, which was then known as Burma, by boat in 2009.
But he has spent 18 years as a stateless refugee and cannot currently leave Australia. He is pleading for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Rohingya people he says are silenced by the Myanmar military government.
I cannot travel, I cannot belong. It is very upsetting
His book, D’Abord, Ils Ont Efface Notre Nom – First They Erased Our Name – cowritten with French author Sophie Ansel, charts his own life and the persecution of his people. It is set to be launched in Europe this month.
Belgian MEP Marie Arena has invited him to address the European parliament about the ongoing persecution of the Rohingya people, and he is also scheduled to meet with representatives from Amnesty International. Letters of support have been sent to the French president, Emmanuel Macron.
“This is my chance to speak for my people, who continue to suffer, but who are voiceless,” Habiburahman told the Guardian.
The Rohingya ethnic minority has faced generations of persecution from the military junta which rules Myanmar. The Rohingya have been denied citizenship since 1982, have previously been limited to having two children, and face arbitrary detention and internment in labour camps. They are excluded from education, certain professions and moving outside defined areas. The Myanmar government refuses to uses the term Rohingya: it regards the Rohingya as Bangladeshis living illegitimately in Myanmar.
In August last year, the military began a new wave of violence against the Rohingya in the western Rakhine state, burning villages and killing civilians in a pogrom described by the UN as “textbook ethnic cleansing”. More than 680,000 Rohingya have fled over Myanmar’s border into Bangladesh. And last week, further evidence has emerged over alleged mass graves of civilians in Rohingya villages.
“We are the unspeakable,” Habiburahman said. “In Burma, we are not allowed to say we are Rohingya, and you cannot say what is happening to us. You cannot report what is happening to police. It is like our mouth has been shut up, our eyes have been closed up. We are like slaves.”
Habiburahman has been displaced and stateless since 2000, when he fled his homeland, aged 19, after facing harassment, arrest and forced labour.
He went first to Thailand and then Malaysia, where he spent nine years. In both countries he was repeatedly arrested and deported because he held no valid citizenship.
Upon arriving in Australia – the only country he has ever set foot in that observes the protections of the refugee convention – he was recognised within months as a refugee but still spent 32 months in immigration detention centres across the country.
Protesting the delays, he staged a rooftop protest and a hunger strike, over which he was convicted of damaging commonwealth property. The conviction was later quashed on appeal.
But the conviction meant that, instead of being granted a protection visa, he was deemed to have failed the character test, and placed on a removal pending bridging visa, despite there being no country that recognises him as a citizen.
Habib has lived in Melbourne on the removal pending bridging visa for several years, while his application for a protection visa has remained pending. His initial protection visa was first refused by the immigration minister on the basis he failed the ‘character test’, because of the earlier conviction.
However, on appeal his conviction was quashed – the minister settled by consent in April 2016. But Habiburahman’s protection visa application remains outstanding still, and, in late 2017, Habiburahman was told he would be interviewed again by the department to re-assess his protection claim, despite already having been found to be a refugee and legally owed protection.
The conditions of his current visa mean he is unable to leave the country, or re-enter Australia if he does.
“Everything has been limited. I cannot travel, I cannot belong. It is very upsetting. It is the same thing back in Burma.
Habiburahman has formally requested Australia’s immigration officials – part of the new Department of Home Affairs – grant him travel documents to go to Europe to launch his book and speak with lawmakers.
His co-author Sophie Ansel told the Guardian his testimony was vital.
“It is not only necessary for him to be there, it is an emergency. It is a duty for whoever has the power to facilitate this trip to do it because there are not many chances for Rohingyas to raise their voice and because every day that passes without the international community acting is one more day where villages are burned, where families are forced to flee, where people are killed and raped.”
Habiburahman sees his visit as a service to his people, both those Rohingya still inside Myanmar, and the diaspora that has fled over the country’s borders.
“The world needs to hear the story of the Rohingya, I can speak for them, this is my role to play for my people.”
If Habiburahman leaves Australia it appears he will not be allowed back in. A spokesman for home affairs said the department did not comment on individual visa cases, but told the Guardian: “the removal pending bridging visa enables the release of people from immigration detention into the community in instances where their removal from Australia is not reasonably practicable at that time”.
“The visa does not provide any right of re-entry if the visa holder departs Australia.”