SYDNEY – Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Bahraini soccer player and refugee Hakeem al-Araibi at a meeting in Canberra on Thursday that his citizenship is not far off being ready.
Three days after returning home to Australia upon his release from a Thai prison, and accompanied by the ex-captain of the Australian national soccer team who led a #FreeHakeem campaign, Craig Foster, Araibi met with Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
“You’re clearly a young man of enormous strength and resilience. It’s been great to A: provide the protection, but B: I look forward to the day you’ll be presented with your citizenship certificate as well, which I don’t think is too far away,” Morrison told him, according to public broadcaster SBS.
Australia granted him refugee status in 2017 after he had fled from Bahrain in 2014.
“Thank you very much. This is a special moment for me. I’m very happy and my wife is very happy and my family as well,” Araibi told Morrison.
Araibi, who plays for Melbourne’s Pascoe Vale FC, signed and presented a soccer ball to Morrison, and received one from the leader in return.
Also in the meeting was Minister of Foreign Affairs Marise Payne who had earlier tweeted pictures from a “Welcome Home Hakeem” soccer game he had attended.
“Such a pleasure to have you in Parliament House today, Hakeem. You might have even made @ScottMorrisonMP a fan of the round (ball) game. Good luck for your first game back with @pvfc_official. I’m sure all of Australia will be cheering you on!”
Araibi is set to play with his team against Bentleigh Club on Feb. 22.
Morrison later tweeted pictures of the meeting, thanking the Bahraini and Thai governments and welcoming Araibi home.
The post garnered scathing comments criticizing the stark differences in the way Morrison has treated Araibi’s case compared to his hardline stance against migrants seeking asylum in the country. Some accused him of using the soccer player for self-promotion.
It comes a day after Morrison announced the reopening of Australia’s Christmas Island Immigration Detention Center following the passing of a bill to facilitate the medical evacuation of asylum seekers and refugees the government holds on Nauru and Manus island – a bill the prime minister strongly opposed.
Morrison said the reopening of Christmas island center would strengthen the capacity of Operation Sovereign Borders, the government’s controversial border protection operation aimed at stopping boat arrivals to the country.
Araibi was arrested on Nov. 27 upon arrival in Bangkok with his wife for their honeymoon due to an erroneous red notice issued by Interpol, which was later withdrawn, and an extradition request that was submitted by Bahrain.
Araibi was arrested in Bahrain in 2012 and claims he suffered torture there. He was later sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison, accused of vandalizing a police station during protests against the government, an allegation that he denies, saying he was playing a match abroad with the country’s soccer team at the time of the alleged offense.