A refugee who was secretively deported from Melbourne to Nauru in the middle of the night last week arrived in Australia by cruise ship almost two years ago believing he had a valid visa.
The fact he was sent to Nauru despite not arriving via an illegal people smuggling venture exposed government policy as a “lie”, a human rights lawyer said.
The man, who is from an African nation, was removed from the Melbourne immigration transit accommodation on Thursday night without warning and without being able to contact his lawyers.
He had arrived in Australia in early 2014 as a passenger on a cruise ship on the understanding that he had a valid visa.
He was detained as an unauthorised maritime arrival after stating he wished to claim asylum, and was sent to Villawood detention centre in Sydney. A few months later he was transferred to Nauru via Darwin, and has since been granted refugee status.
The government argues its offshore processing policy – which has seen a dramatic reduction in asylum seekers vessels reaching Australia – discourages people from making dangerous journeys, and undermines the business model of people smugglers.
“It’s not an illegal boat,” he told Guardian Australia from Nauru. “You can’t get on a cruise ship if you don’t have a visa. It is a legal boat.
“I came here because I have a problem,” he said.
He has since returned to Australia on three occasions for medical treatment, each time sent back without warning, but he said Friday’s deportation was the worst instance, as he was restrained and prevented from contacting his lawyer.
“Punishing a man who arrived on a cruise ship exposes the lie that the government’s policies are some sort of humanitarian crusade,” said Daniel Webb of the Human Rights Law Centre.
“If this was really about safety, then the government would focus on developing safe and orderly paths to protection for people seeking asylum instead of needless punishing them.”
The man said he was woken when officials came into his room at about 1am on Friday morning and restrained him, without allowing him to dress.
“They said, ‘come on come on’, I said, ‘Why? I don’t understand.’ They said, ‘you don’t ask us anything’. They handcuffed me. ‘You have to tell me why,’ I said. I am not a criminal.
“They just come to handcuff you and carry you by force. I cry and cry and cry.”
When he begged to speak to his lawyer, officials called their office switchboard, despite the hour, he said.
“I said no, you cannot call someone from one o’clock,” he said.
“[I told them] that’s the office number, not her mobile. I have her mobile number, it’s in my diary. I can go to my room and get my diary and call her. They said we are going to transfer you to Nauru.”
Webb said the Australian government had a legal duty to facilitate a person’s access to legal assistance, and “calling a switchboard at 3am before bundling a terrified man on to a chartered plane doesn’t cut it”.
“A government confident its actions are decent and lawful doesn’t secretively deport people on chartered jets in the middle of the night without any meaningful chance to speak to their lawyers”.
The man told Guardian Australia he was confused and scared for his life during the deportation. No one told him why he was being deported and he said he remained restrained and shirtless for the whole journey from Melbourne to Nauru.
He and a number of guards were the only people on the charter flight, he said, estimating the plane could have seated more than 100 people.
The shadow immigration minister, Shayne Neumann, said he was not aware of the specifics of the case but the man’s claims were “troubling and concerning”.
“What’s concerning is the manner in which he was treated, if that’s true. I’m not across all the facts but I would certainly raise the issue with the minister,” he said.
The Department of Immigration and the minister, Peter Dutton, were contacted with questions.
The department said while it did not comment on individual cases “when an individual is transferred to Australia for medical treatment they are returned to Nauru once their medical treatment is complete and they have no medical reason to remain in Australia”.
“Individuals are informed of this process prior to their transfer,” the spokesman said. When asked for clarification of how much notice they receive, the spokesman declined to answer and cited “operational reasons”.
The department did not respond to other questions.
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