Bianca Hall,Reporter for The Age
Yeshiwork Abrha’s hands shake as she sifts through the paperwork that has decided her fate. She looks up helplessly, she can’t find the words.
Her friend, Melbourne Ethiopian community leader Kojii Umer, speaks on her behalf.
“There is no hope for her to survive. That is our concern. The Australian government knows this situation, but they are telling her to go home. That’s our concern.”
On Thursday, Ms Yeshiwork’s visa expires and she must report to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
With no valid visa, it is all but certain she will be sent to a detention centre and authorities will prepare to deport her. But her compatriots and supporters are in no doubt: if she is forced to go home, she will be jailed, or worse.
Ms Yeshiwork is an active supporter of the pro-democracy opposition group Ginbot 7. Other supporters have been forced to flee Ethiopia in their thousands, after the government declared five opposition groups to be terrorist organisations in 2011.
At the 2011 census, there were 8453 Ethiopian-born Australians, most of whom live in Victoria. The vast majority are political refugees.
When she arrived in Australia in 2011, Ms Yeshiwork worked for the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture. She came on a three-month visa, to take part in a short-term professional development course sponsored by her government.
While she was here, she says, her brother, also a member of the outlawed group, was arrested. He has not been seen since.
Ginbot 7’s leader, Andargachew Tsege – who Ms Yeshiwork worked for in Ethiopia – wrote to the Refugee Review Tribunal on her behalf in 2012, in a letter seen by Fairfax Media.
He wrote: “Ms Yeshiwork is one of our active member [sic] in Melbourne, Australia which is known by the international security tentacles [sic] of the Ethiopian regime operating from each Embassies around the world [sic]…We strongly believe that if forced to return to Ethiopia she would gravely suffer in the hands of the agents of the repressive regime”.
Two years after he wrote that letter, Mr Andargachew, a British citizen, was abducted by Ethiopian security forces during a stop-over in Yemen, and taken back to Ethiopia.
He has been on death row in Ethiopia ever since. The United Nations has made repeated demands for his release.
The Ginbot 7 political group has repeatedly written to the Australian government warning that Ms Yeshiwork faces the same fate as Mr Andargachew, but Australian authorities deny she is at grave risk.
Ms Yeshiwork applied for asylum in Australia two months after she arrived in 2011, but her application was rejected. The officer assessing her claim wrote: “I am … of the view that the applicant either does not think it is important to provide correct information to the department at all times or that she has sought to embellish her claims.”
The Refugee Review Tribunal similarly rejected her appeal in February 2013.
In April 2013, Ms Yeshiwork wrote a desperate letter to then immigration minister Brendan O’Connor, asking him to intervene in her case. He declined.
Finally, three weeks ago, she wrote to Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, begging him to reconsider her asylum rejection.
She said that if Ethiopian authorities could snatch Mr Andargachew from another country, she would “face immediate arrest and persecution and death” if forced to return to Ethiopia.
“There is no safety for me … If the Ethiopians can capture and imprison a dissident who is a British citizen and in another country, I know that they will arrest me as soon as I return to Ethiopia. I have no defence against them. No one can protect me.”
Anglican archdeacon and Anglicare board member Ray McInnes also wrote to Mr Dutton, pleading for Ms Yeshiwork to be spared deportation.
“I seriously fear for her life and future if this occurs,” he wrote.
“She would be a fine citizen and an asset to our country. I hope you might reconsider her dilemma and exercise whatever powers you have at your disposal to enable Yeshi to stay in Australia in freedom.”
Last week, she received a final bridging visa. It expired on Wednesday.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection said it would not be appropriate to comment on individual visa applications.