The Cameroon team marches for the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Picture: Mark Schiefelbein
The Cameroon team marches for the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. Picture: Mark Schiefelbein

True scale of missing athletes problem

A MONTH after the Commonwealth Games finished up, at least 100 athletes and staff who arrived in Australia for the Gold Coast event are asking to stay permanently.

The visas offered to the international visitors expired on Tuesday and the number of people now seeking asylum is growing every day.

Officials refuse to confirm the exact number of people now applying for asylum but it is estimated at least 100 are currently speaking with refugee advocates.

Speaking on Radio National Breakfast this morning, Refugee Council President Phil Glendenning said the estimated 100 lines up with our nation's history when hosting international sporting events.

"No one can put a precise figure on it ... but it's definitely much more than 13 or 14," Mr Glendenning said.

"If you look at the history, after the 2006 [Melbourne Commonwealth] Games, 45 stayed. The 2000 [Sydney] Olympics, 145 stayed and 35 applied for asylum. We saw the same thing with World Catholic Youth Day, it's not unusual."

Simplice Fotsala, a 29-year-old boxer from Cameroon who went missing before the end of the Commonwealth Games, poses in Melbourne.
Simplice Fotsala, a 29-year-old boxer from Cameroon who went missing before the end of the Commonwealth Games, poses in Melbourne.

Mr Glendenning said if the missing people had valid claims for asylum then they would be welcome to stay.

"The most important thing isn't numbers but the process and that people who do have valid claims for asylum can be found.

"It also shines a light on that not everyone in the Commonwealth has human rights situations like ours. A number of countries still face serious human rights abuse" Mr Glendenning said.

On Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph reported a handful of sportsmen and women had turned up in Sydney seeking legal advice on how to stay in Australia.

It was previously reported up to 19 athletes disappeared during the Games last month, including a third of the Cameroon team, sparking a nationwide search. Others hailed from Uganda, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

A number of the country's officials also disappeared.

Rwanda's weightlifting coach excused himself to go to the toilet while his team competed last month - and never came back.

A third of Cameroon’s Commonwealth Games team is missing. Picture: Mark Schiefelbein
A third of Cameroon’s Commonwealth Games team is missing. Picture: Mark Schiefelbein

Mr Glendenning said the confusion around the exact number of people who failed to leave Australia could be due to confidentiality.

People seeking asylum can ask for the case to stay completely confidential.

Another reason the number is still unconfirmed is because "the numbers are used for domestic and political purpose", Mr Glendenning said.

"Politicians often use it as way of inflaming the debate and making it a topic for shock jocks to discuss when, we're talking about peoples lives here.

"We have a good process in this country for dealing with people who arrive here seeking asylum in this manner and they need to have those claims properly assessed

"If they have valid claims they deserve to stay here and if they don't, they need to be safely removed," Mr Glendenning said.

Speaking to ABC Radio, migration consultant Ian Natherson said he had received more than 40 calls during the 2018 Commonwealth Games - mostly from African team members - looking for legal ways to stay in Australia afterwards.

"Just walking down the street [here] the freedom you have - you cannot do that in a lot of African countries," he told the ABC.

The Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Sydney, where some of the missing athletes are believed to be receiving help.
The Refugee Advice and Casework Service in Sydney, where some of the missing athletes are believed to be receiving help.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton issued a number of warnings to athletes who might plan on overstaying their visas.

He warned them the government would not tolerate athletes "gaming" the system.

"As I've said in relation to people who have travelled to Australia on visas associated with the Commonwealth Games, people have conditions of the visas to meet," the Home Affairs Minister told reporters on Tuesday.

"If they breach the conditions, they're subject to enforcement action, and I would say to anyone that is outside of the conditions of their visa ... to make contact with the Border Force so arrangements can be made for that person to be returned to their country of origin," he added.

In response to that, Mr Glendenning said Mr Dutton "is not the nation's policeman".

"He has a duty of care to these people and if they have valid claims, they deserve to be assessed," he said.

"We're talking about peoples lives here and if you get these decisions wrong, people die

and I don't think Australia has got a whole lot to fear from Sierra Leonean badminton players

but those Sierra Leonean players may well have a case for human rights protection and human rights abuse back in their country," he added.

There have been no deportations and Mr Glendenning said officials in the Immigration Department are still assessing the dozens of cases.

"A place like Australia should ... think it's really good that we have systems where we can provide assistance and protection to people whose lives are at risk in the rest of the world.

"Moreover, that's the law. That's our law and the minister should be someone who should be following the law. Not someone saying, 'right we're going to lock you up and throw away the key before we find out what you've got to say'.

"Where we get let down is by politicians who see there is some political advantage in demonising asylum seekers before we find out whether their cases are valid or not," Mr Glendenning added.

Gaining asylum depends on being able to convince authorities there is a threat to your life if you return to your home country. But the athletes may be eligible for special skills visas to allow them to live in Australia and compete professionally.

For some, the risk of emerging from hiding and being sent home may be judged too great, and they may choose to stay under the radar, with no legal documents, living as best they can through menial jobs.


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