Commonwealth Games athletes seeking asylum in Australia are living in fear their visas will be rejected and they will be imprisoned, maimed or killed if made to return home.
Three athletes who spoke to Fairfax Media on the condition of anonymity already fear for the lives of their family's back home.
A number of the athletes are gay. One fled the Commonwealth Games after being caught engaging in a same-sex relationship. Coming from countries where homosexuality is illegal or at the very least taboo, they would face certain persecution if identified and returned.
It was revealed in Senate estimates in May that about 250 people had fled the Games. About 200 of those had applied for visas, mostly on the grounds of protection, while the others remained in the country unlawfully.
At least one person was being held in immigration detention, it was reported at the time.
The asylum seekers are believed to be from African countries including Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Uganda and Cameroon.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesman said visa applications would be rigorously assesed in line with standard processes. Those without a valid visa would be "subject to enforcement measures".
Speaking on 2GB in May, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton said he needed to "round them up as quickly as possible".
He said once visa overstayers were on Australian soil they were entitled to legal protections.
“Like most Australians, I shake my head sometimes when you look at the conditions and the protections,” Mr Dutton said.
“Some of these people have more legal rights than Australian citizens themselves.”
African athlete Peter is one of three asylum seekers who recently spoke to Fairfax Media. Mary* and Amos* are also seeking asylum in Australia.
The identities of those speaking out are being kept secret to prevent officials from their home country, from where they are fleeing persecution, from finding them. These interviews were conducted through an interpreter.
Peter’s* sport is his passion but after being outed at the Commonwealth Games as a homosexual, he said there is no way he can return home.
"Homosexuality is illegal in my home country."
Kind-eyed and muscular, Peter speaks softly, head down. He's afraid of being killed “by the people” for being homosexual. He’s already been seriously beaten, subject to “mob justice”, after being presumed to be gay.
Peter’s coach presumed he was gay and held it against him, refusing to pass on to him his proper entitlements for competing.
“It was said if I continued to ask for my entitlements I would be imprisoned, that a homosexual doesn’t have the right to any recognition,” Peter said.
He was also threatened that if he didn’t win at his sport, he would be thrown in jail.
Peter has competed in other countries before and has never had the need to seek asylum.
But fear and panic spread through the athletes after they were called to a meeting with team officials about homosexuality following an incident in the athlete's village.
It was then that Peter knew he had little choice but to flee.
“I have never thought of seeking asylum in any other country because I’ve never faced such a situation, things have never escalated to this level before,” Peter said.
He said fleeing was very difficult, but what motivated him was that he was certain if he went back home he was going to be killed.
However, his decision has put his family in danger. Tears leak from Peter’s eyes when he speaks: “My family is not in any security now that it’s been leaked, now that everyone knows I’m a homosexual. There’s a finger pointed at my family.”
Peter has, for years, been a serious competitor in his sport. It’s his passion, the only thing he knows, he says.
He said if Australia grants him protection, he would like to win medals for this country.
“I want to live a free life in Australia,” he said.
Mary* and Amos*, whose names have also been changed for protection, feel the same. They both have families back in Africa, but the threat to return is too great.
Mary is in a similar situation to Peter. She’s a shy lesbian women, who was outed at the Games on the Gold Coast.
Mary was caught in the company of another women, and it became widely known among officials and athletes from her home country that she is a lesbian.
“Before coming to Australia I could at least hide my orientation and lead a double life where I could pretend not to be a lesbian in public,” Mary said.
But now, because of the high profiles of the athletes, everybody back in her home country would know her sexual orientation, she said.
“The consequences of returning are grave,” Mary said.
“Lesbians aren’t accepted.”
She has heard of gay and lesbian people back home who have been imprisoned, tortured or killed, including a man who had his tongue cut out.
Torturous punishment for lesbians in some African countries include female genital mutilation and "corrective" rape.
Amos is accused of having a political opinion that opposes the government.
Amos has been in trouble for speaking out in the past. He was beaten up by the authorities after he was involved in a protest to change government policy.
While he was in Australia, his home was raided. It was then that he found out people were actively searching for him.
“[Seeking asylum] was a decision I was obliged to take because I knew it's better that I be alive here like a coward than being the dead hero back home,” Amos said.
The three athletes are part of a small group being assisted with their protection claims by Liz Huang Hughes-Brown at Welcome Legal in Canberra.
The applicants Welcome Legal is working with have made formal applications for protection and are now awaiting the outcome.
However, it hasn’t been a simple process. Ms Huang Hughes-Brown said officials are looking for a high standard of proof particularly with homosexuality claims, which often isn’t possible coming from countries where these relationships are illegal.
“It means they are not likely to have a lot of evidence to prove their status, like photos or Facebook posts,” Ms Huang Hughes-Brown said.
She said often they’re asked to describe their sexual experiences.
“Many have not been able to come out to their own family and friends and find themselves having to come out to an immigration officer who they are meeting for the first time. Recently, we had a young lesbian woman who described the development of her sexual orientation in intimate detail over a three-hour interview with Home Affairs. Despite this, at the end of the interview, the department case officer still expressed doubt over her sexuality.”
Ms Huang Hughes-Brown said Australia has a history of absorbing people from all over the world.
“The group of athletes we are assisting has already started working, studying and integrating into the community. They are keen to make a positive contribution to Australian society,” she said.
*Names have been changed.