Like many young Australians,19-year-old Queenslander Oliver Bridgeman enjoys playing sport, spending time with friends and family, and travelling.
The accomplished youngster is also a dedicated humanitarian – having deferred his university degree last year to undertake charity work in Bali.
But now, the Australian government has cancelled his passport and prohibited him from returning home.
Oliver left Australia early last year to undertake volunteer work in Indonesia. He stayed there for about a month, before travelling to Turkey.
He made the journey across the Syrian border in April, where has remained ever since, undertaking charity work with an organisation called ‘Live Updates From Syria’.
Syria has been locked in a violent civil war since 2011. Conflict between the Syrian government, rebel groups and terrorist organisations including the Islamic State and Nusra Front has seen 250,000 people killed to date, and entire cities reduced to rubble.
A temporary truce is hoped to suspend fighting in the short-term, and allow the distribution of desperately-needed aid to civilians.
Oliver was inspired to help the Syrian people after hearing of their plight in the media. He converted to Islam around two years ago, and told the media he felt compelled to lend a hand because ‘Islam teaches us to help the needy, so this is my Islamic obligation. I must help these people, we need to do something.’
He spends his days in the heart of the war-torn country teaching children swimming, horse riding, soccer and educating them. When areas are bombed, he devotes his time to distributing medical supplies, food, and basic life essentials to children and families in need.
But on the 9th of February, Oliver’s parents were informed that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) had cancelled his passport – leaving him stranded in Syria without any means of returning to Australia once his work is done.
This is despite the fact Oliver had been cooperating with Australian authorities to enable his safe return exit from the war-torn country and return home.
The AFP previously accused Oliver of aligning himself with al-Qaida affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra, but he has always vehemently denied any involvement with terrorist groups, saying:
‘I haven’t done anything wrong. I haven’t done anything incriminating. I haven’t been to any declared zones, or picked up arms.’
He admits interacting with people involved in terrorist groups, but says that this is necessary as:
‘They’re the ones who control the area, so I have to have neutral relationships with them. I have to build a relationship with people who say, we trust you, we help you out, we know your intentions.
None of [the rebel groups] have said I have to take up arms. They’ve been happy with me doing my thing. I have done nothing hostile to any of them. If I do my thing and don’t bother them, or raise any suspicions, then I’m OK.’
The Battle to Bring Oliver Home
Oliver’s parents are now locked in a desperate legal battle to get his passport back. His lawyers have lodged an appeal against the decision to cancel his passport, which will be heard in a Brisbane court tomorrow.
They argue there has been no allegation, let alone evidence, that Oliver has done anything illegal or that he poses a security risk.
Although Oliver had been directed to surrender his passport to the Australian consulate in Turkey, this is unfeasible as he has no legal means of crossing the border into Turkey.
With nothing to suggest Oliver has done anything wrong, his supporters are accusing the Australian government of discriminating against Muslims. A message posted by Live Updates from Syria on its Facebook page reads:
‘It has become evidently clear that the western governments have one rule for Muslims and another for non Muslims. Why is there one rule for Australian citizens like Matthew Gardner who fought with the Peshmerga Kurdish militia openly and then returned home without charge? Is Oliver Bridgeman’s only crime the fact that he is a Muslim???’
In recent times, the government has tightened its anti-terror laws, with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott famously stating that those who travel to Syria and seek to come home will be arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned.
It seems Foreign Minister Julie Bishop maintains that sentiment – since Oliver’s struggle has come to light, she has refused to comment on his case, saying only that:
‘The Government has consistently – and in the strongest terms – discouraged Australians from travelling to Iraq and Syria to participate in hostile activities.
Australians travelling to Syria or Iraq not only risk committing offences, but may be kidnapped, seriously injured or even killed as a result.
The Australian Government cannot facilitate the safe passage of people out of the conflict zones.’
With no evidence of any wrongdoing or security threat, it appears the government’s decision to cancel Oliver’s passport is without proper basis.