By Erin Handley
Operation #NotForgotten aims to sponsor 200 refugees on Nauru and Manus Island
Australians have raised more than $100,000 to resettle the refugees in Canada
A Syrian refugee left in limbo for months in Malaysia is spearheading the fundraiser
Australians have raised more than $100,000 to relocate refugees stranded on Manus Island and Nauru to Canada, as part of a project launched by a Syrian refugee who knows all too well what it's like to be stuck in limbo.
Hassan Al Kontar was stranded at a Malaysian airport for more than seven months last year before being granted asylum in Canada.
Now he wants to offer the same for hundreds of refugees who are languishing on Manus Island and Nauru as a result of the Australian Government's refugee policies, which have been repeatedly slammed as "cruel" by human rights groups.
His months-long stint at the Kuala Lumpur terminal was marked by gruelling uncertainty.
"I can't claim that I know exactly what they are going through," he told the ABC.
"But I know what it means to lose hope, and to gain hope again."
Last week, he launched Operation Not Forgotten— a project to sponsor some 200 refugees stuck on Manus Island and Nauru.
It aims to raise more than $3.68 million to privately sponsor the refugees — $18,400 per refugee — to resettle them in Canada and support them for the first 12 months.
More than $174,000 has been raised so far — with more than $111,000 coming from Australians, Mr Al Kontar said.
"It's a matter of obligation to me. People helped me at the time I was at the airport," he said.
He said he was contacted by refugees on Manus Island and Nauru during those months, and that he was also confronted by Australian border force ads on YouTube warning refugees not to come to Australia.
Shaminda Kanapathi, a Sri Lankan refugee who fled his home in 2012, welcomed the initiative.
"We have been trapped here for the past six years without any hope. Most people still on Manus have been rejected by the US," he said — himself included.
"There is not any other country for us."
He said refugees on Manus had weathered desperation and repeated disappointment, but the fact that Australians were donating to the cause lifted his spirits.
"It's really encouraging. Most of the Australian people are good people," he said.
"They feel really bad because this is being done in their name. They want to help us."
Mr Al Kontar said Australia's harsh deterrence policies were against international law, but that his aim was not to publicly shame the Government.
"You cannot sacrifice people. It's human lives, and you cannot do what you are doing right now," he said.
"We are actually giving them the opportunity to be the heroes they always wanted to be.
"Let's work together side by side … on a humanitarian basis — not on a political one — to end this issue once and for all."
'Rapid decline in mental health'
The project — a collaboration between Canada Caring Society and Multi-Lingual Orientation Service Association for Immigrant Communities (MOSAIC) and the Refugee Council of Australia — was in part sparked by a sense of urgency following an unprecedented spike in self-harm and attempted suicide on Manus Island in the wake of the Australian election result.
Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power said there had been detrimental mental health impacts on refugees, some of whom have lived more than six years in limbo.
"What we've seen in the course of the last few months is an even more rapid decline in the mental health of people — people basically losing hope for the future," he said.
"The situation has dragged on for so long, and the suffering the individuals involved is so great."
He said from the group's discussions with the Australian Government, there was a wish to find practical solutions.
"I can't see that there would be any reason for any of the governments involved to be opposed to this," he said.
Dr Graham Thom, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Australia, said Canada was a much-needed solution, but said the application process could take more than two years, leaving refugees stranded for longer.
He said while moves from the New Zealand Government had been rebuffed due to its proximity to Australia and travel agreements for citizens, that should not impact Australia's position on refugees relocating to Canada.
"I think they quietly would be quite supportive," he said.
"For the last six years Australia has been shirking its responsibility.
"Australia should have been the country where these people were brought to when they were found to be refugees … [it's] a serious breach of Australia's international human rights obligations."
Governments back third-country options
The campaign comes after Papua New Guinea signalled it wanted to end offshore processing on Manus Island during PNG Prime Minister James Marape's visit to Australia last month.
"The Prime Minister James Marape has clearly articulated his expectations that arrangements in Manus are to be brought to a close," PNG's chief migration officer Solomon Kantha told the ABC.
He said there were 135 refugees left on Manus and that PNG supports "durable outcomes" for refugees, like third-country resettlement.
"[The Immigration Citizenship Authority] is aware that a small number of refugees have departed under self-initiated third-country resettlement and we wish these persons the very best," he said.
In a statement to the ABC, the Department of Home Affairs said it was also aware of a "small number" of refugees seeking resettlement in Canada.
"The department will and does provide appropriate assistance to support the process," it added, which includes helping to arrange remote interviews and transport to appointments.
"Refugees in PNG are also able to choose to settle permanently in the community [as many have done]," the department said.
It added anyone who comes to Australia "illegally" by boat "is subject to regional processing arrangements and will not be settled in Australia".
Labor's Home Affairs spokeswoman Kristina Keneally told the ABC that the Opposition "has been calling on the Government to resettle eligible refugees in third countries as a matter of priority for close to six years" and it was time for her counterpart Peter Dutton to take action.
She said Labor supports Operation Sovereign Borders, including boat turn-backs, regional resettlement and offshore processing.
"But under Peter Dutton's mismanagement and failure, offshore processing has become indefinite detention in which people are treated cruelly and left to languish without a durable solution," she said.
She called on the Government to take up New Zealand's offer and find other third-country solutions for refugees.