The Current

This Syrian refugee spent months stuck in a Malaysian airport. Now he wants to bring 200 refugees to Canada

A Syrian refugee wants to give up to 200 refugees who have spent years detained in Australia's disputed offshore immigration system the same freedom he was given: a chance to resettle in Canada.

Hassan Al Kontar aims to sponsor refugees 'with no hope' on Manus and Nauru islands

Hassan Al Kontar, a Syrian refugee who spent months in a Malaysian airport, aims to sponsor up to 200 refugees detained in Australia's offshore immigration system on Manus and Nauru islands through an initiative called Operation Not Forgotten. (Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC)
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A Syrian refugee wants to give up to 200 refugees who have spent years detained in Australia's disputed offshore immigration system the same freedom he was given: a chance to resettle in Canada.

Hassan Al Kontar thrust the global migrant crisis into the spotlight in 2018 after becoming stranded at a Malaysian airport for months. The 38-year-old has since resettled in Canada thanks to a Whistler group and the B.C. Muslim Association that raised money to help rescue him.

Now he hopes to help others detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru Island in the South Pacific through an initiative called Operation Not Forgotten.

"We need to give these people their lives back," he told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

"We need to stand up for human rights."

The Australian government has been blasted for its controversial policy of detaining asylum seekers who try to reach its shore by boat — even if they are government-sponsored refugees — and paying to keep them in offshore immigration camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru Island in the South Pacific.

The goal here is to offer hope and betterment and solution.- Hassan Al Kontar

Operation Not Forgotten launched at the end of July in partnership with two non-profit groups in B.C.: MOSAIC and Canada Caring Society, which helped organize Al Kontar's resettlement in Canada.

Refugees who are privately sponsored — by community groups, families or private citizens — are in addition to those resettled by the government. This year, Canada plans to resettle 19,000 migrants by private sponsors who commit the equivalent of one year of social security in cash to assist them in settling into the country. 

Al Kontar's aim to sponsor up to 200 refugees detained on these tiny Pacific Ocean nations comes with a $3.3 million price tag — the total amount the Canadian government requires to cover the living expenses of each person for a year under the private sponsorship system.

So far, the project has raised over $140,000, and intends to resettle the refugees once they meet their funding target.

"The goal here is to offer hope and betterment and solution," Al Kontar said.

Australian-run immigration camps

Since 2013, Australia has forcibly transferred more than 3,000 migrants and refugees to offshore processing camps, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

The asylum seekers — primarily from Iran, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq — are almost entirely men.

Under Australia's hardline immigration policy, asylum seekers intercepted trying to reach the country by boat are sent for processing at camps on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island and the tiny Pacific Ocean nation of Nauru. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The camps are a key part of Australia's lambasted Operation Sovereign Borders migration policy. Many who have been detained on Manus and Nauru islands for years say they feel like hostages to the Australian government that keeps dangling the promise of a better life and eventual resettlement without providing a timeline.

The Australian government did not respond to The Current's request for comment. 

'Not made for any kind of human beings'

Amir Taghinia, an Iranian refugee, has been outspoken in his criticism of the Pacific Ocean asylum centres.

He was detained on Manus Island for more than four years, in facilities the UN refugee agency and rights group have deemed a humanitarian crisis, before he made his way to B.C. through private sponsorship in 2017.

"That place is not made for any kind of human beings," he told Lynch.

Amir Taghinia was detained on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for more than four years before he made his way to Canada through private sponsorship in 2017. (Submitted by Amir Taghinia)

Authorities shuttered the Manus detention centre in late 2017 amid widespread public condemnation, and moved more than 800 detainees to alternative accommodations on the island, or pushed them to either return to their home country, settle in Papua New Guinea or move elsewhere.

Despite this effort to shore up concerns, many human rights groups have continued to report that the situation has not improved.

joint report conducted by the Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty International in 2018 called Australia's offshore processing system "a kind of evil" that "can ruin the very inner strength of human spirit."  

And Taghinia says detainees have told him that conditions are "just getting worse and worse."

"Most of the words that I hear, like mainly, I repeatedly hear this sentence: 'You have been in here, you know the situation. Imagine that 10 times worse,'" he said.

At least 15 people have died on these offshore camps between 2013 and 2018, according to the Australian Border Deaths Database compiled by Monash University. 

Refugees gather on one side of a fence to talk with journalists in 2001 about the journey that brought them to Nauru Island. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press)

'They have no other hope'

Asked why Canada should be responsible for helping to address the plight of asylum seekers in Australia's care, Al Kontar said the country has a long history of protecting refugees.    

"Canada is a great country. It's become an icon when it comes to refugee issues."

Unable to find a country that would issue him a visa and unwilling to return to Syria, Al Kontar spent seven months in the transit area of Kuala Lumpar Airport. He had no money, few possessions and lived in constant fear of being deported back to his war-torn home where he would have been forced into mandatory military service in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces. 

Hassan Al Kontar arrives in Vancouver in November 2018 after spending months in limbo in Malaysia's Kuala Lampar Airport, terrified of being deported back to war-torn Syria. (Ben Nelms/The Canadian Press)

Still he considers himself one of the lucky ones, when compared to the hundreds of asylum seekers trapped on Manus and Nauru islands.

"Even with my own story, I was living in an airport with access to my lawyer, communications, mobiles and air conditioning," Al Kontar said. 

He wants to snap a sleepy public to attention about the refugee crisis unfolding in Australia, and nudge the government "to do the right thing."

"It became a personal matter for me," he said. "They have no other hope, no other durable solution."


Written by Amara McLaughlin. Produced by Imogen Birchard and Samira Mohyeddin.