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‘No one cares about us’: Lives of detainees in alternative places of detention

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Detainees at Melbourne's Mantra Hotel have limited freedom and are at risk of exposure to COVID-19 (Screenshot via YouTube)

Hotels have become detention centres for many asylum seekers, each with their own problems and sometimes worse than offshore centres, writes Dr Sabrin Farooqui.

THE 1951 REFUGEE CONVENTION protects the right to seek and enjoy asylum, a right afforded to people who have to flee persecution or other serious human rights violations. However, to strengthen Australia’s border protection policies, the Government mandated in 2013 that people arriving by boat would be processed offshore and even if they were found to be refugees, they would never be settled in Australia.

So, anyone who arrives by boat is forcibly taken by the Government of Australia to offshore “Refugee Processing Centres” on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) or the remote Pacific island of Nauru which was called an “open-air prison” by Amnesty International in 2016.

The Government claimed the policy would remove demand for people smugglers and prevent deaths at sea. Few boats arrive now, but human rights advocates say the policy has created a group of prisoners confined to islands offshore. These people came to this country to seek asylum because they were unsafe in the countries that they came from but after coming here, they got stuck in an eternal uncertainty.

As the detainees' mental health deteriorated, advocates pushed for a law to allow doctors to decide if they should be brought to Australia for medical treatment. The Medevac Bill was passed in March 2019, opening the door for transfers, but the Government abruptly closed it again later that year citing national security concerns.

Before that happened, almost 200 men had been brought to Australia under the Medevac law and housed in hotels known as “APOD”, or alternative places of detention. Of those, 120 detainees are currently in a hotel at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane and about 70 detainees are in the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne.

One of those asylum seekers, Monirul Joarder (aged 40), had to flee from his home in Bangladesh in mid-2013, fearing for his life. At first, he fled to Malaysia and then without him even knowing, he was taken to Indonesia by the people smugglers. From there, he managed to come to Australia by boat in Oct 2013.

Upon arrival, he was first taken to Christmas Island before being moved to the detention centre in PNG. He spent much of his last seven years between these two places.

Monirul feared deportation when he saw many of the asylum seekers moved to Bomana Immigration Centre. This was a Canberra-funded detention centre in Port Moresby where detainees were treated inhumanly and then deported to their countries of origin — some with incentive, some without. He somehow managed to escape going to Bomana since he was physically unwell. He was later brought from PNG to the APOD in Melbourne for urgent treatment in November 2019, just before the Medevac Bill was repealed.

He said that after the initial check-up, no further treatment was provided in Melbourne. He needed essential nasal surgery but can’t see it happening in the foreseeable future.

Monirul has lost connection with his family in Bangladesh, not knowing their whereabouts and vice versa.

In his words:

“My poverty-stricken family must think that I’ll spend the rest of my life in detention centres and won’t be able to contribute. I think they have lost hope about me and moved on.”

He really thinks that he doesn’t exist in their lives anymore, unsure if he’ll ever be with his family again.

He believes most of the detainees are on the same page with him and expressed this view with frustration:

“No one cares about us. Neither our families nor the Australian Government.”

Due to COVID-19, the detainees at Australia's onshore detention centres are pleading to be released, because they fear that the conditions inside the facilities are potential breeding grounds for the disease. Detainees are being exposed to dozens of guards who they come into contact with every day.

Since these refugees were allowed to be transported to Australia for treatment on the advice of doctors, they are much more vulnerable to the virus than people who are fit and well and living in healthy conditions.

In April 2020, during the early phase of the COVID-19 breakout, Darebin City Council Mayor Susan Rennie said about detainees in Mantra Hotel:

“If anyone was to get COVID-19, it would almost certainly mean that it would go through the entire population.”

She has been a vocal supporter of these men. Notably, the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne, used as one of the APODs, is located in her local government area.

Speaking from that Mantra Hotel in Melbourne, Monirul said:

Life in PNG was better. We could move around. Here in Mantra, we are stuck in our room all day. The Government ceased all visits and prohibited excursions to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation detention centre [MITA] to prevent an outbreak. We have limited access to the gym but we don’t go there for fear of the coronavirus. We used to go downstairs for food but with the COVID outbreak, it has been stopped. We are literally confined in one room 24 hours a day. Serco officers deliver food to our room. These officers don’t use any gloves or masks and different officers deliver food every time.

Human rights organisations have constantly called on the Government to immediately release people from immigration centres across the country. They argue it would reduce the imminent risk of an outbreak inside centres and also the risk of further community transmission, but nothing has changed.

The Government has ignored all calls, including from infectious diseases experts, to release detainees to reduce the risk of an outbreak. With the new spike of coronavirus cases in Melbourne, it is more important than ever to immediately release detainees held in immigration centres and move them to community detention centres.

Dr Sabrin Farooqui is a passionate community advocate for social justice and cultural diversity. She has worked for private and public sectors, in higher education, research and policy. Currently, she is the president of Cultural Diversity Network Inc.

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