When Australian Border Force officials called the former offshore refugee detainees – who’d been locked up in Melbourne’s Mantra Hotel for over a year – to a 14 December meeting, the 60-odd men were well aware that five other Medevac transferees had just been released into the community.
So, understandably, their hopes were stirred, as they’ve now spent the last seven to eight years incarcerated by our nation for having legally sought refuge in Australia, after fleeing persecution in their home countries and arriving here by boat.
But in true Dutton style the refugees – who were flown to Australia to receive much-needed medical treatment and have since been confined inside transitory hotel accommodation – were told they were to be moved to another alternative place of detention (APOD) for further slow torture.
So, a week before Christmas, a mass of Victoria police officers arrived at the hotel in the quiet suburb of Preston to transport the men to the Park Hotel in Carlton: from one carpeted concentration camp to another.
Demonstrating out the front of the Mantra, advocates cried foul over the government’s decision to continue the illegal detention of those who came seeking help.
And the impact of the move has been so great that another long-term captive attempted to take his own life right before Christ’s birthday.
Out of the frying pan
“The Mantra contract finished, so the government had to move them,” said refugee rights activist Claire Gomez. “There were hundreds of police. It was a full-scale military-looking operation, which was quite a shock.”
“Considering these guys have come from regimes where their lives were at risk, I can’t imagine the impact that seeing this kind of operation would have had on them,” she told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
According to Gomez, the Park Hotel is problematic as the rooms are about a quarter of the size of those where they spent the last year. However, unlike the Mantra, there’s a small area to get some sun, which is beneficial, as most have been suffering vitamin D deficiency without any.
So, after arriving in Australia from Manus and Nauru because of their medical conditions, these men have had their health impacted further via a lack of sunlight, and now they’re facing intensely cramped living conditions.
“I have heard in a friend’s voice a definite deterioration already, even though it hasn’t been very long,” Gomez stressed. “They’re starting to struggle to formulate conversation.”
Crimes against humanity
Just days after the men were incarcerated in the new APOD, a surprise protest sprung up out the front of Carlton’s Park Hotel with a mock Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton locked up in cages on top of a truck. And they were made to stand trial over the unlawful indefinite detention of refugees.
Organised by Whistleblowers, Activists and Communities Alliance (WACA), the snap action aimed to convey that in Australia it’s the politicians and the police that are a threat to human rights. And just like on top of the truck, the real Morrison and Dutton should stand trial for their crimes.
“At the Mantra, I had a window and I could see people,” said Kurdish refugee and current Park Hotel detainee Mostafa Azimitabar in a statement. “I think this is one of their plans: for us not to be seen by people outside smiling at us – waving at us. Here, there is no window.”
WACA further pointed out that in February this year the International Criminal Court (ICC) condemned Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers as a cruel and inhumane transgression of international law, which is a view it shares with the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Playing politics with lives
Tragically, former offshore detainee Ismail Hussein attempted to take his own life on 22 December. The 29-year-old Somali refugee had meant to throw himself off the roof of the Park Hotel located on Carlton’s Swanston Street in the early hours of the morning.
Hussein subsequently told the Refugee Action Collective Victoria that the rooms they’re supposed to stay in at the Park are far worse than the conditions at the Mantra.
And following his attempted suicide, Australian authorities took Hussein to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) facility in Broadmeadows, where they placed him in isolation.
“This is the typical thing they do when someone attempts suicide, they place them in isolation,” explained Gomez, who is a psychiatric nurse. “Theoretically, they do this for their safety. Although, that’s not how we do it in psychiatric hospitals.”
Gomez further said that Hussein now has a guard accompanying him 24/7, which is again not how medical professionals deal with suicide survivors. She made clear that hospitals will have a nurse accompany the patient, but that’s certainly not the same as a guard, who’s “part of the oppression”.
Having first met Ismail a year ago when visitors were still allowed at the Mantra, Gomez outlined that the detainee was halfway through an engineering degree when he was forced to flee Somalia to save his own life.
So, this is Christmas
“We have a terrible fear that the government might send these men back to Christmas Island,” Gomez continued. And the nurse made clear that this would have a seriously detrimental impact upon the refugees who were first detained at the island facility near on eight years ago.
Home affairs minister Peter Dutton announced on shock jock radio in August that his department was going to start transferring noncitizen immigration detainees awaiting deportation to the remote Christmas Island facility.
And despite ABF assurances that no asylum seekers or refugees will be sent to the facility, history has taught their supporters not to trust the government’s official line on such matters.
Right now, Australian PM Scott Morrison has the Biloela family locked up on the island for the holiday season. It consists of two adult Tamil parents who arrived in this country by boat many years ago and their two Australian-born infant daughters: 5-year-old Kopika and 3-year-old Tharunicaa.
“The Park Hotel is only temporary. Serco is actively recruiting for a lot of staff to work on Christmas Island, which will commence soon,” Gomez concluded.
“There is an idea the Christmas Island move could happen in March. So, it’s of the greatest urgency that people start speaking out for these guys and showing up to protests.”
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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.