"We never did help him. And worst of all, we failed to care."

Last week, a 27-year-old asylum-seeker – believed to be Mohammad Nasim Najafi – died in a Western Australian detention centre. Nasim Najafi came to Australia believing it was a country that helps people when they are in need. Today, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young reflects on how we failed him.

Would you stay in your house if your parents had been killed by men who lorded over your town or village?

Would you stay knowing that if the men came back and found you, you and the rest of your family would be next?

I wouldn’t. If it was my family I’d be out of there as fast as I could. With little money and no access to passports or travel visas, I’d have to cross the border, quietly. If I was caught, we’d all be dead.

Crossing the border, knowing I can’t return, all of a sudden I’ve become a refugee. My one goal is to find somewhere safe for my family, somewhere we can call home.

This is the experience of many people who have fled Afghanistan.

Mohammad’s family are Hazara, part of the persecuted minority in Afghanistan. We are told he was lucky to escape after his father was killed by the Taliban. Leaving his mother and the rest of his family in hiding, he hoped to find a safe place where they could start a new life.

Having no access to a visa to fly, he came to Australia by boat. He arrived at Christmas Island four years ago. Unaware of how harsh Australia’s laws are to those who arrived by boat, Mohammad had no idea that even if he arrived safely, spent years in detention and was recognised as a refugee, he would never be able to bring his family here to meet him.

This is the current law. Refugees who come to Australia by boat are not allowed to be reunited with their families here – even if they too are refugees.

Last Friday, Mohammad died in custody inside the Yongah Hill Detention Centre in WA. He’d been in detention in Australia for almost four years. The reason he was in detention for so long was never disclosed to him.

Manus Island refugees.

Those he had become friends with in detention describe him as a loving and caring person who always spoke about his family who were still in Afghanistan.

He came to Australia because he believed we are a country that helps people when they are in need. He came here believing that our Government would understand the reasons people are fleeing the torture and brutality of the Taliban. We were, of course, part of the coalition forces; our own brave men and women fought the evils of the Taliban during the longest war in Australian history. I can see why Mohammad would think that here in Australia we would understand his family’s plight. Sadly, we didn’t.


Hazara’s are fleeing Afghanistan in record numbers. Everyday families are displaced by violence and intimidation. Many are crossing to neighbouring countries like Iraq, into another war zone, or trying to get to Europe via the perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean. The United Nations estimates there’s around 2.5 million Afghan refugees displaced around the world. Very few come to Australia in comparison.

There’s no official conclusion yet as to why Mohammad died. Some people inside the detention centre say he had a heart attack after complaining of pain and feeling sick for the past two weeks. Others say his complaints of chest pain weren’t taken seriously by the health staff. He was given panadol but little else. When he was found there were cuts on his wrists. His friends say he had become more and more depressed the longer his detention went on. He was worried about his family and felt he had let them down.

Sarah Hanson-Young has talked openly about a need to change our rules about refugees.

Unless there is an independent investigation we will never know exactly why this young man died. But concerns about access to proper medical attention and care are quite common inside the detention centres. Only last year, another young man, Hamid, died in custody in the Manus Island detention camp after an infected cut on his foot went untreated and ultimately poisoned him. He too had left family behind who were never given the opportunity to say goodbye.

The Government argues that a harsh policy is needed to deter people from coming here. But the truth is it only makes the pain of people’s suffering even worse. Over 90 percent of those who arrive in Australia by boat are found to be legitimate refugees. Locking them up indefinitely, hoping they’ll give up on the dream of freedom and go home doesn’t work when there’s no safe place to return. You can’t “deter” people from being refugees. No one chooses to be a refugee. No one leaves their loved ones and home for no reason.

Mohammad was 23 when he came to Australia asking for our help; years later he died in detention, in custody. We never did help him. And worst of all we failed to care.

Want to read more of Sarah’s columns? Try:

Sarah Hanson-Young: “Why I chose to sue Zoo over the lingerie shot.”

Sarah Hanson-Young: “Insults are a daily part of my life.”

Sarah Hanson-Young: “No child should be exposed to these horrific conditions.”