Six Sierra Leonean Runaways Win Visas

March 28, 2006: Six Sierra Leonean Runaways Win Visas

Six Sierra Leonean runaways win visas
Martin Boulton, Chris Johnston and Peter Ker
March 28, 2006 (The Age–Melbourne)

SIX Sierra Leonean athletes found by police in Sydney yesterday will apply for protection visas in the hope of making a new life in Australia and avoiding horrors such as genital mutilation in their homeland.

The Immigration Department has issued bridging visas to all six on the same day it was revealed that nine athletes from Cameroon had also fled the Commonwealth Games athletes village.

Eight athletes from Sierra Leone are still missing, along with one from Tanzania and one from Bangladesh.

The Sierra Leonean athletes decided last Tuesday to flee their team and seek asylum. By Thursday they were catching a train to Sydney, having made contact with a refugee advocacy group that would house them until they could apply for visas. Their Games-related visas would be valid until April 26 so they thought they had enough time to officially apply for a visa.

Despite facing reprisals if he was caught and returned to his home country, Albert Kobba, a 19-year-old 400-metres runner, was not worried during that overnight train trip. Instead he marvelled at a utility that most here would take for granted.

“There are lights at night-time on the train trip, so we were not scared when we came to Sydney,” he said. “In Africa everything is dark.”

The group then spent the weekend at the luxury beach-front house of Dr Rosemary Ashton, a long-time refugee supporter and member of the Northern Beaches Refugee Sanctuary, a group that lends money to Sierra Leonean refugees who have been granted visas to Australia but cannot afford the air fare.

The group was fleeing more than an impoverished and war-torn country. Sarah Turay, 19, Isha Conteh, 17 and Marion Bangura, 19 all face the prospect of female circumcision if they return home.

“My aunt's son's saw me in the street and was very angry with me and punched me for not being circumcised,” Ms Turay said. “He is in jail for a month but he has threatened to kill me when I return.”

The men, Mr Kobba, Hassan Fullah, 19 and Bangali Keita, 19, face imprisonment and worse.

The chairman of the Northern Beaches Refugee Sanctuary, David Addington, told The Age they were all scared. “They're really traumatised by the whole prospect of what's going to happen to them and they're just kids,” Mr Addington said.

He said the bridging visas were the first step and all six would be applying for protection visas.

The disappearance of nine Cameroonian athletes on Sunday came after a failed escape attempt by one of them on Friday. Cameroon team manager Robert Ndjana said an athlete escaped for four hours on Friday before being caught by officials 40 kilometres out of Melbourne.

Five of the missing Cameroonians are boxers, three are weightlifters and one is a track and field athlete.

Mr Ndjana said he did not fear for the mens' safety and urged members of the local Cameroonian community to help if they had any information on the men's whereabouts.

A spokesman for the Immigration Department said bridging visas granted to the six Sierra Leonean athletes were valid until April 13.

“This will allow them and their representatives time to make a visa application, but at this stage (department staff) have not received any visa applications from the group,” he said.

He said the athletes were again “lawfully in the country” following the cancellation of their Games accreditation and visas at midnight on Sunday.

“Our interview process has concluded. As to what they do and where they reside, that's now a matter for the group to decide,” he said.