When Najat Janabi arrived in Australia with her 16-year-old son Ahmed Shalikhan in 2013, she thought they’d finally made it to safety.
Their boat from Indonesia was the final leg in a decades-long journey, which included escaping persecution in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime and being stateless in Iran.
In reality, it was the beginning of another nightmare.
Nine years later, Ahmed is still locked in immigration detention — and there’s no end in sight.
“I lost hope, I lost my childhood, I lost my education. I always wanted to have a better life. This government. This department took everything from me,” he told the ABC.
Ahmed’s case is complex.
He last week returned to Sydney’s Villawood detention center after spending five months in the Mid North Coast Correctional Center because he was charged with assaulting an officer in detention.
He pleaded not guilty under the Mental Health Act, and the charge against him was dismissed.
Body-worn camera footage from inside Villawood shows Ahmed being detained by several Serco officers, who pin him to the ground and then to the walls.
The video was filmed in January.
In the recordings, the 24-year-old can be heard screaming “you’re breaking my arm”, “I’m choking” and “you’re punching me”.
In another, one of the guards can be heard saying: “That’s OK. You’re all right.”
In a statement, Serco said “all staff involved in the incident acted in accordance with procedure.”
“Serco’s priority is always to treat people in our care with dignity and respect in a safe and secure environment.”
Ahmed’s lawyer, Omar Juweinat, described the case as the “saddest I’ve had the displeasure of appearing in”.
“I can’t think of another defendant in recent history in a case in which I have appeared, that has suffered to the extent that he has,” he said.
“How on earth a government saw it fit to effectively carve out him from being in the company of his mother and his siblings is beyond me and one of the most inhumane decisions I’ve ever seen.”
Despite his charge being dismissed, the decision did not mean freedom for Ahmed — just a transfer from jail back to detention.
Falling through the cracks
After three years being moved around detention facilities, Najat was released into community detention in August 2016 and granted a safe haven visa.
This five-year visa granted her freedom to live, work and study in Australia.
Najat claims a doctor from the Department of Immigration promised her Ahmed’s case for release was progressing too.
“They said your son will be right behind you, in three months, they said he’ll be out in three months,” she said.
Ahmed, however, had “ongoing behavioral issues” that constituted a “barrier to a community release”, according to a case review from November 2015 by the Department of Home Affairs.
As early as July 2015, Ahmed had been involved in six incidents in detention, including two in which he was described as the perpetrator.
Several of those incidents, and subsequent ones, have been altercations with SERCO guards.
Ahmed also lives with an intellectual disability and mental health issues.
At least four psychological reports, commissioned by his legal team and a GP at Villawood, amongst others, agree he now has depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other suspected diagnoses including anxiety, paranoia and suicidal ideation.
The evaluations detail how Ahmed’s father, who died when his son was a young child, lived with Alzheimer’s disease and was “prone to domestic violence”.
Some of them mention how Ahmed was left traumatized after his uncle took him on a tour of an Iranian prison aged 11, where he witnessed torture and saw dead bodies.
They also detail how Ahmed was bullied at primary school in Iran because of his ethnicity.
Several assessments have also suggested that Ahmed’s mental health has been declining.
An assessment from May 2014 found “the psychiatrist advises that remaining in his current confined environment is exacerbating his mental health”.
In October 2020, Ahmed was jailed after pleading guilty to several charges of using a carriage service to make a threat to kill, using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence, using a carriage service to make a threat to cause serious harm, and using a carriage service to procure persons under 16 years old for sexual activity.
“At first blush, the matters that he pleaded guilty to in the District Court seemed distasteful,” Juweinat said.
“Although, when considered in context of the evidence surrounding his mental illness, and amongst other things, his offending was part and parcel of his desperation to want to be able to be part of the outside world.”
Ahmed told the ABC he did not absolve himself from his crimes, but said detention was the wrong environment for him.
“I came to this country to have a better life you know, not to commit any crime,” he said.
“Because of what happened to me in the past when I was a child. That makes me to do mistakes.”
In a statement, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said it “was committed to the health and welfare of detainees.”
“All detainees receive appropriate physical and mental health care. There is a range of health services available including psychiatry, psychology and counseling services,” they said.
‘We created the man’
Ahmed’s human rights lawyer, Alison Battisson, argues her client’s criminal record should have no bearing on his release from detention because he and his mother were already recognized by the Department of Home Affairs as refugees and they are stateless.
“We effectively created the man he is today, and that is somebody who needs significant support and has committed some crimes,” she said.
“He never displayed any of these behaviors prior to being locked up as a child with a whole lot of other random people in unsafe circumstances.”
According to the Department of Home Affairs, there were 1,512 people in immigration detention as of March 2022.
Of those, there were 129 who had been there for five years or more.
There are no children in detention, but some, like Ahmed, grew up there and now count as adults.
Ms Battison told the ABC Ahmed could be reunited with his family thanks to ministerial “God-like” powers.
“It is literally as simple as signing a piece of paper. The Minister for Home Affairs or the Minister for Immigration would sign a statutory instrument … effectively granting him the visa,” she said.
In 2018, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called for Ahmed’s immediate release and found his deprivation of liberty in contravention of several human, civil and political rights.
A report by the same UN group on Ahmed’s case released that year contained a response from the federal government which claimed his “detention continues to be appropriate” and that his “current place of detention is suitable”.
It claimed Ahmed’s case had been reviewed 32 times.
Meanwhile, Najat is dealing with her own health conditions and relies on her older son for support.
I have arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2011, and is now a permanent resident.
Najat prays Ahmed will be allowed to rejoin the family and start his life in Australia soon.
“I want my son. I really need my son. He needs me. We talk on the phone, he cries and screams please end this,” she said.