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Another year of hell for refugees

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Nur Mohammed Dhali spent many months on Nauru in this state without being granted an MRI for gastric, liver and kidney issues (Photo by Nur Mohammed Dhali)

While a few good news stories have emerged regarding asylum seekers in Australia, many are still suffering while our government turns a blind eye, writes Jane Salmon.

IT'S BEEN A YEAR since Novak Djokovic landed in an immigration hotel under COVID “quarantine” prior to deportation over his vaccination and legal status. He is free.

However, the Australian immigration detention regime is still a cruel, inconsistent mess. 

In other parts of the same building as Djokovic (Park Hotel, Carlton in Melbourne) were many men Medevacced from Nauru and Manus, who were awaiting medical care or community access and visas for years.

The hotel was poorly ventilated. The food had been maggoty over Christmas. The guys hadn't been into the community for years. They had no concept of their future. COVID travelled through the building rapidly.

Don Khan was one such detainee. Joy Mohammad Miah was another. Azizi from Afghanistan was frantic about the return of the Taliban and how this would affect his wife and children. 

The last of the Park Hotel detainees were let go after a huge public advocacy campaign just before the Federal Election. 

There has been a new government.

This year, Djokovic knows roughly where he stands with the Australian authorities. Behrouz Boochani is visiting the country after being told he will never set foot here. The Biloela family are freed. All fine and good. The high-profile window dressing looks slightly prettier.

But behind the scenes, very little has changed. Alternative places of detention (APODs) still exist.

The Park Hotel Medevac cohort is still unable to settle. Some now have jobs, partners and stellar careers. But none has any clarity about their own future. 

Some Medevac refugees who are now released into the community still do not have visa certainty. Their visas are renewed every six months. Others live with visa rules that do not allow work or study. The selection seems random and often splits family members. Most have been sent letters telling them to find a third country to settle in. 

Instead of this harassment, after nine years of hell, they need permanent visas so that they can experience steady work, consistent leasing histories and make plans to reunite with families from whom they have been separated. Most are still being pressured to go to third countries despite their almost decade-long ordeal. That is, they are still being used as deterrents against boat arrivals. 

Hard-liners retained by the Department of Immigration are still pushing for them to go.

Still, others are suffering offshore. Nine years is a long time to be on the mean streets of PNG or in an island nation with a media blackout like Nauru. Accountability for detainee safety and well-being is split between unaccountable agencies and nations. 

A handful of men Medevacced from Nauru just before Christmas 2022 have been denied the medical care they urgently need over the Christmas/New Year “break”. Illness doesn't take time off. 

Once again, they spent the “holiday season” stuck in solitary hotel rooms and are still denied ordinary freedom of movement. That is, all they saw for ten days were grey rooms, takeaway curries in plastic and the occasional nurse. There were no trips to the gym. Guards ensure the guys don't wander the hotel. 

 Appeals directly to members of cabinet have not led to action. 

The dreary hotel room in which detainees spent the Christmas season (Photo by Nur Mohammed Dhali)
Detainees weren't permitted to leave their rooms, with drab views adding to the frustration (Photo by Nur Mohammed Dhali)

Two of these guys are available to chat. One has urinary frequency and a hernia but has not seen a doctor since once visited Nauru in 2019. 

The other desperately needs an MRI for digestive problems that also began three years ago. Naturally, there is also significant depression. Anti-depressant medications have been given in quantities and combinations that may have taxed livers and kidneys. Trim bodies adapted to hard work are no longer as healthy. 

Neither has seen a doctor or been given a date for a medical appointment. Neither has a caseworker or even an Australia SIM card. The hotel gym is not accessible.

Takeaway food in plastic containers was all the nourishment provided (Photo by Nur Mohammed Dhali)
(Photo by Nur Mohammed Dhali)

The Australian immigration detention regime is still a cruel, inconsistent mess. 

Djokovic's return highlights that very little has truly changed. 

The ball is very much in the court of the Minister for Home Affairs, Clare O'Neil, and the Minister for Immigration, Andrew Giles

They have been asked to intervene, but there has been no response.

For all intents and purposes, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and former PM Scott Morrison still run the Department of Home Affairs. Some boats may be deterred. Regional processing is still lacking. 

But at what cost? 

Jane Salmon is a refugee advocate. You can follow her on Twitter @jsalmonupstream.

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