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Land of plenty beckons after year behind a wire fence

The Age

Monday February 14, 2011

By MICHAEL GORDON

DAWOOD woke up at 5am yesterday, went for a run around leafy Balwyn and didn't stop, couldn't stop, for an hour. All the while, he says, he was thinking about freedom and how it felt.The 18-year-old Afghan learnt late last week that, after two rejections and 12 months in detention, his claim for refugee status had been successful. The same day, he and four others were told that Immigration Minister Chris Bowen had used his discretion to approve their release from a Broadmeadows centre into the care of the Hotham Mission.Dawood's first reaction was to cry. Like those who had become his friends in detention, he had all but lost hope of starting a new life in Australia.One of those friends, Amir, 16, received the same happy news the same day, but the other three remain in a kind of limbo out of detention but awaiting final decisions on their refugee claims.Ironically, the minister approved their release into community care a fortnight after the government won a High Court legal battle to keep four of the five in detention, despite uncontested evidence that their mental condition had deteriorated sharply since their arrival last February.During the case, the young Afghans, who were all under 18 when they arrived at Christmas Island, were identified only by numbers. Documents lodged with the court confirmed that all had suffered psychologically in detention, with one attempting suicide and another engaging in "self-starvation". Refugee advocates hoped the case, supported by Victoria Legal Aid, would highlight the difference between the Gillard government's policy commitments to release children from detention and a reality of inaction since a policy shift was announced last October.Only 21 unaccompanied minors had been transferred to community-based accommodation between the policy shift and the middle of last month, while 472 remained in detention on Christmas Island and in mainland detention centresAdvocates such as Pamela Curr, of the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, hope Mr Bowen's decision to exercise his discretion reflects a new determination to get children out of detention. After visiting them yesterday, she described the five as "like butterflies emerging from a cocoon", but warned that the transition would not be easy."Their only way to survive in detention was to turn-off, but that is no way to survive in the real world," she said."They have to reactivate the survival mechanisms that helped them escape from their countries and cross the world to seek refuge."Ehsan, who turned 18 in detention, struggled yesterday to describe how it felt to be in the community, but recalled how useless and dispirited he became in detention, where "every day was harder and every night was longer".Another, 16-year-old Arzhang, said he was looking forward to putting the "difficulties" of his time in detention behind him and being completely free.

© 2011 The Age

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