“This is coronavirus torture. It will come sooner or later,” Mostafa Azimitabar made certain, as he spoke over the phone from his room at the Mantra Hotel. “If one person catches this virus, all of these refugees will get it and all the officers.”
Better known as Moz, Mr Azimitabar is being detained by our government in the hotel, located in the Melbourne suburb of Preston. This is following six and a half years of being held on Manus Island as an offshore detainee. And he’s now in Australia as part of the Medevac arrangements.
“I was transferred for medical help,” explained the 34-year-old Kurdish man from Iran. “But, the Australian government has locked me in this place, where there’s no outdoor area. Everywhere we’re locked up. We can’t even walk in the parking lot.”
And as the rest of the community is being ordered to follow social distancing and isolation rules for COVID-19, the offshore asylum-seeking detainees, who’ve been medically diagnosed with significant illnesses, are being held at the Mantra without any preventative measures.
According to Moz, there are untested Serco officers charged with guarding them in the hotel. There are 30 on duty during the day, and 30 during the night. And these officers – who fail to wear any protective masks or gloves – return to the community after every shift.
An alternative place of detention
There are 70-odd detainees being held in the Preston accommodation facility. After they were brought to this country for medical reasons, they were simply dumped in the hotel for months without adequate treatment. And since the coronavirus kicked in, nothing has changed.
The men – mainly from Manus, with a few transferred from Nauru – report that some of the guards have been seen coughing and sneezing of late. And while it’s difficult to tell whether they’ve contracted the coronavirus, nothing is being done to establish that one way or the other.
Health authorities recommend keeping a 1.5 metre distance between individuals during COVID, however the Mantra detainees can’t do that as it’s impossible in the narrow hallways, as well as in the hotel rooms they share and the small elevators that are used by all.
The Mantra Hotel is what the government refers to as an alternative place of detention (APOD). Right now, there’s also around 80 refugees being held in a Brisbane hotel. However, ABF figures don’t specifically set out how many APOD detainees are currently scattered around the country.
It seems that the Morrison government – which was reluctant to bring offshore detainees to mainland Australia on the advice of medical experts – transferred these sick people across and then proceeded forget about them. And so far, this is its same policy stance during the pandemic.
Darebin City Council Mayor Susan Rennie has been a vocal supporter of these men. The Mantra is actually situated in her local government area.
“There is no reason for them being there, other than appalling human rights breaches committed by our government,” Ms Rennie told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “And it’s even more critical now that they be released, because they’re in crowded unsatisfactory accommodation.
“If anyone was to get COVID-19, it would almost certainly mean that it would go through the entire population,” she continued, adding that as these refugees are suffering multiple illnesses, they’re more susceptible to the virus, especially in terms of it proving fatal
The Darebin mayor is clear that “however you dress it up” the way these people have been treated in the Mantra means it’s operating a prison. And she pointed out that they have no freedom of movement and nor do they have any access to outdoor spaces.
“Australia is absolutely breaching its duty of care. It is not a crime to seek asylum,” Rennie confirmed. “They’ve come to this country seeking our care and protection, because they were unsafe in the countries that they came from.”
Australia ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention in January 1954. The document provides that states should not impose penalties upon refugees for arrival, and nations are obliged to provide similar levels of welfare to refugees as they do their own citizens.
“Under every international convention that Australia is part of,” Ms Rennie emphasised, “we owe them that duty of care and we have failed as a nation.”
No policy change
“There’s no doubt if any of us contract the virus, it will affect everyone here,” said Ismail Hussain, who’s been holed up at the Mantra Hotel since last November, when he was medevaced from Papua New Guinea to Australia.
The 28-year-old Somali national relates that despite calls being made, and complaints being issued, to the government, it has done nothing to deal with the situation that the close to 70 men are facing. Rather, they’re left to sit in limbo, without protection, as COVID cases increase outside.
The former offshore detainees in the Mantra are pleading with the government to spare their lives, and they’re hoping that Australian authorities are not operating under the assumption that the coronavirus could clear up the issue with what should be done with them.
Both Ms Rennie and Mr Hussain were adamant that the detainees have enough support in the community to adequately house them. And this would be a much cheaper option for a government that’s trying to bail out an entire nation as the impact of the virus heightens.
Housing in the community would allow these fellow human beings to take the correct measures to ensure that they’re still here at the end of COVID-19. It would provide Moz, Ismail and all the other innocent people in the hotel with the capacity to practice social distancing and isolation.
“They really mean to destroy us,” Ismail said in relation to his ongoing detention as a public health crisis unravels. “That’s what they’ve done for the last seven years. It’s inhumane to just detain people without a clear reason and dump them in a detention centre. It’s inhumane and evil.”
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.