The Australian government has defended a policy encouraging refugees held on Nauru to sever ties with their families – including relinquishing all rights to ever see their children – in order to be considered for resettlement in the US.
The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said on Wednesday that Australia’s policy would not change but the UN children’s agency and parliamentarians have all urged Australia to uphold international law and the unity of families.
Several hundred refugees have been brought to Australia from offshore processing centres for medical treatment not available in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
In dozens of cases, their immediate family members have been left on offshore islands and told that, if they want to be considered for resettlement under the US deal, they must abandon their families, or encourage their families to return to offshore processing, even in defiance of doctors’ advice.
Dutton said the government’s policy was that nobody brought to Australia from offshore for medical treatment could be considered for resettlement in the United States.
“We have been clear on people who have received medical advice here: it was the reality for people on Nauru that if people left and came to Australia then consideration of their file would be suspended until they returned back to Nauru.”
Unicef Australia director Amy Lamoin said the UN’s children’s agency had consistently provided advice to the federal government on the importance of, and legal protections for, family unity.
“Placing people in a position where they have to make an impossible decision – one that may have lifelong ramifications – to choose between their families and an option to live in a safe country with a feasible future is unacceptable.”
Lamoin said Australia’s offshore processing policy had caused “severe physical and psychological harm, and … deliberately split vulnerable families”.
“Unicef Australia urges the Australian government to consider the plight of children who have already suffered so much and to take steps to ensure that the identified vulnerable families, including children, can be reunited in an appropriate country such as Australia with adequate and ongoing support.”
Several department sources, and sources on Nauru, have confirmed to the Guardian that it is “unofficial policy” to use family separation as a coercive measure to encourage refugees to agree to return to Nauru, or even to abandon their protection claims altogether. The department has said in public statements that families are separated to keep the number of people being brought to Australia as low as possible.
On Wednesday, the Guardian reported on the case of Iranian refugee Arash Shirmohamadi, who has never seen nor held his nine-month-old daughter, Yusra, after his pregnant wife was flown from Nauru to Australia because of health complications during her pregnancy.
In March, four days after Yusra was born, an Australian Border Force official emailed Shirmohamadi a “release of custody” form that would have severed all of his parental rights to his child, potentially forever.
The ABF told Shirmohamadi he had two choices if he wanted to seek resettlement: either separate from his wife and relinquish all rights to his child in order to apply to go to the US as a single man; or bring his family, including his Australian-born child, to Nauru to apply for a chance – but with no guarantee – of American resettlement together.
The US has, so far, preferred to take single people rather than families for its resettlement places and Shirmohamadi’s wife has been advised by doctors not to return to Nauru because of ongoing complex health issues, and there is a court-ordered injunction preventing her return.
The Guardian has obtained copies of the email, the release of custody document and recordings of a phone call with an ABF official in which the official tells Shirmohamadi “if you want to keep your case together, your wife would need to be on Nauru … but if you wanted to progress in the US process without your family, it would be a matter of splitting your cases”.
Shirmohamadi told the Guardian he faced an impossible choice and the government’s policy might keep him from ever seeing his daughter.
“I was not allowed to be with my wife for our child’s birth and now they are saying to me, ‘You must abandon your family’,” he said. “And they do it just to be cruel, just to cause pain to me and my family. To be heartless.”
The immigration department declined to comment for the Guardian’s story but issued a statement after it was published. It confirmed the Guardian’s story that Shirmohamadi had been sent a release of custody form and was told that, in order to apply for the US, while his wife and child was in Australia, he would need to separate from them.
The department said: “No family units in Nauru have ever been forcibly separated by the department or the ABF. Claims it is ‘unofficial policy to use family separation as a coercive measure’ are also false.”
The Guardian did not report that families were forcibly separated. In response to the statement, department staff again contacted the Guardian to state that family separation was deliberately, if unofficially, used to encourage refugees to return offshore, or to abandon protection claims.
It is understood up to six refugees are in similar situations to Shirmohamadi, split from their immediate family members – including pregnant wives and Australian-born children they have never met.
The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, accused the Turnbull government of flouting international law.
“We’re talking about tearing apart families here,” he said.
Family unity is a fundamental principle of international and Australian domestic law. Australia is a party to the convention on the rights of the child, which states that children have a right to know and be cared for by their parents, and should grow up in a family environment wherever possible. It is also a party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, which says the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state.