The continuing crisis in immigration detention

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In 2020, many Australians experienced constraints on their freedom for the first time. Regulations introduced to reduce the spread of COVID-19 meant that, for a short period, we weren’t able to go to shops, restaurants and other public places when we wanted. It was a rude shock for a population that up until that point took its personal liberties for granted.

Refugee protest. Sign: 'Treating refugees as the problem is the problem.' (John Englart/Flickr)

It was widely acknowledged that the strict lockdown conditions implemented in Victoria during the state’s second wave of COVID-19 infections — where people were allowed outside for only one hour a day and limited travel to within five kilometres of home — were enormously difficult to endure and unsustainable over the long term. Many commentators voiced concerns over the restrictions’ impact on mental health.

And yet refugees in Australia endure conditions like these for periods much longer than 112 days, the length of the Melbourne lockdown. The average length of detention in Australia is more than 500 days — vastly more than the UK, where 87 per cent of detainees have been in detention for less than six months, and Canada, where the average stay in 2019 was 12.3 days. As of November 2020, the Australian government held 1500 people in immigration detention.

new report from the Australian Human Rights Commission notes that ‘almost every human rights problem in closed immigration detention is made worse the longer an individual is detained.’

Many refugees in Australia live in conditions that the rest of the population would find unacceptable. Most of the 192 refugees who were transferred to Australia under the Medevac legislation between February and December 2019 are currently held at hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane, known as ‘alternative places of detention’ (APOD), where they have had no access to the outdoors or fresh air for more than 12 months.

Ismail Hussein, a 29-year-old refugee from Somalia who was detained at the Mantra hotel in Preston in Melbourne’s north, told Guardian Australia that the only time he was not in his room is the one hour a day he spends at the gym. ‘The rest of the day, I’m lying on my bed or sitting on the chair,’ he said, describing the conditions as ‘more difficult than what we experienced in Manus Island’.

Moz Azimi is a Kurdish refugee who fled Iran eight years ago. Azimi, who lives with PTSD, told Junkee that although he was medically transferred to Australia, he has not received any medical attention in the 12 months he lived at the Mantra hotel in Preston, which he described as a ‘torture centre’. ‘All my life I am inside a room,’ he told Junkee. ‘My life is a room. Inside this room I try not to die. I always fight for my freedom.’ Both Hussein and Azimi have recently been transferred to a hotel in Carlton.

 

'We have forgotten that "unlawful citizens", as they are described in the Migration Act, are not criminals or prisoners, yet we treat them as such.'

 

Another case in point is the ‘Biloela family‘ — Priya, Nades and their children Kopika and Tharunicaa, a Tamil family who were seized from their home in Biloela in a dawn raid in 2019 — who have been detained for more than 1000 days. They are currently the only detainees held at the Christmas Island Detention Centre.

If a foreign nation treated an Australian family in a similar fashion to the way this family has been treated by the Australian government, the public outcry would be deafening. We would be outraged that Aussie kids were being locked up, deprived of friends, education and safety. While there are many people who are doing what they can to assist this family — particularly from their hometown of Biloela in Queensland — those whose responsibility it is to decide the fate of this family remain unmoved. The purgatory in which this family finds themselves reflects the crisis gripping our system of immigration detention, and it should be a national priority to fix it.

Lengthy periods of detention should not be an inherent feature of the asylum-seeking process. ‘That people are detained for so long in Australia’s immigration detention system is not the necessary consequence of irregular migration, which affects many parts of the world,’ writes Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow. ‘People are detained for long periods in Australia’s immigration detention network because of Australia’s current legal and policy framework.’

This is unacceptable, and the fact that there is little interest or political will in mainstream Australia in treating asylum seekers better — with dignity and benevolence — is a sad indictment of our society’s lack of compassion. Australia is one of the most prosperous countries in the world and yet we are reluctant to share our bounty with those in need.

We have forgotten that ‘unlawful citizens’, as they are described in the Migration Act, are not criminals or prisoners, yet we treat them as such. Among the Commission’s concerns are the use of unnecessary restraints when transporting detainees and the prison-like accommodation in which detainees are held.

If, ‘as a liberal democracy, Australia takes its human rights obligations seriously,’ as Santow suggests, ‘we should confront a difficult truth: we can and we must do better to protect the human rights of people subject to immigration detention.’

This Christmas, as we spend time with friends and family after a year of isolation and hardship, perhaps we can muster enough compassion for the hundreds of refugees currently held in detention in Australia to resolve to take action in 2021 and demand our leaders to end this crisis.

 

 

Nicola HeathNicola Heath is a freelance journalist who writes about the workplace, social affairs, sustainability, and the arts and entertainment. She tweets at @nicoheath.

Main image: Refugee protest. Sign reads 'Treating refugees as the problem is the problem.' (John Englart/Flickr)

Topic tags: Nicola Heath, refugees, Kangaroo Point, Mantra, Manus, Nauru, Biloela family

 

 

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Existing comments

These people were brought here from Manus 'legally' by our government because it was deemed they need medical treatment. How then can Govt justify locking them up without treatment nor access to fresh air and the means to get well?


Maria Nechwatal | 17 December 2020  

Great article Nicola. Makes you think our government and those who elected them need cochlear implants, such are their dialogues of the deaf. What is the real answer??? Storming our Bastille in Canberra?


Henri | 17 December 2020  

Both our major parties have similar views on refugees and should be truly ashamed that, in the country of the 'fair go', they can treat anyone as they have treated refugees. They should feel lasting shame and do everything they can to correct the situation. Only by pressuring our elected representatives at Federal and State levels can we expect to inspire any changes. Let's keep the pressure on and remind them that humanitarianism is more important than the economy.


Joe Barr | 17 December 2020  

The contempt the government feels for refugees is wonderfully illustrated by the fact that those who have been confined to rooms in the Mantra in Melbourne have now been moved to a motel which was one of the vectors of Victoria’s second wave of infection. You are right to note that if Australians were treated like this in any other country there would be an outcry. Australia’s treatment of those silly enough to rely on being received by a humane government will dishonour this country for decades.


Juliet | 18 December 2020  

The problem of a possible resumption of the ‘boat traffic’ is one that can be solved. The problem of a society which is no longer characterised by humility, gratitude, grace or mercy, isn’t.


Joan Seymour | 19 December 2020  

LAST POSTS EUREKA STREET IS NOW IN RECESS. IF YOU HAVE A LAST WORD, POSTINGS WILL BE ACCEPTED UNTIL WED. DECEMBER 23, AT 3.00 PM. POSTINGS ON 2021 ARTICLES WILL BE ACCEPTED WHEN EUREKA STREET RESUMES IN LATE JANUARY. THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR SPIRITED AND CONVIVIAL CONTRIBUTIONS TO OUR CONVERSATION. AND MAY YOUR CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR GIVE BIRTH TO GOOD THINGS, BOTH NEW AND OLD, IN YOURSELVES AND OUR WORLD.


EDITORS | 22 December 2020  

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