From the balcony of a hotel at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, refugees have silently protested every day for the last month. They hold placards such as, “Virus doesn’t check your visa status” and “I miss my wife and son – they are in the community”. 

The last two Fridays, 60 people walked or cycled nearby in solidarity. Because of the social distancing rules, we couldn’t gather to protest. But we could exercise in groups of two. Heavy-duty chain wire fencing surrounds the hotel’s grey stucco walls to block most of the entrances. Behind black mesh, Serco guards lounged, paced and watched on. As we exercised in view of the refugees, we crossed our wrists above our heads. 

It’s a gesture we picked up from those inside. “Our hands are tied. The government has put handcuffs on our hands. We don't have power”, Farhad Rahmati, one of the detainees, says over the phone. As the sun set, a protestor paused on the driveway to lead warm-down exercises. Four police officers ushered us on, “You can’t exercise in groups!” Farhad is happy we have joined them because the cause is urgent. “This is a pandemic situation, it’s crazy for everyone. We see security guards everyday – imagine if one person brings the virus in”, he says.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Josh Davis, an infectious diseases expert, agreed that social distancing is not possible for detainees. The virus “will spread like wildfire – as has happened in other closed environments like cruise ships”, he said. Detainees inside the Brisbane hotel have every reason to fear for their health. A Serco guard here tested positive for COVID-19 in late March. 

Across Australia, there are more than 1,400 people in immigration detention. The facilities are plagued by shortages of toilet paper, soap and hand sanitiser. Detainees often have to queue for services. In some centres, they share rooms with up to four people. They are often transferred from one immigration detention centre to another. This also makes the spread of viruses more likely. There have been a few COVID-19 scares so far in Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney and in the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation in Broadmeadows. 

Many of the people locked in the Brisbane hotel have witnessed the full horror of Australia’s detention system. From July 2013 onward, every asylum seeker who arrived by boat was sent to the camps on Manus Island and Nauru. Khaled* was on Manus Island from that time. For the first three years, the camp was a closed prison and those inside protested a lot. Khaled went on a hunger strike and eventually was transferred to the Port Moresby hospital for surgery, he says. In January 2014, the detainees staged three weeks of protests. They wanted answers: when would their claims be processed? Where would they be settled? The official answer came on 16 February. They had no chance of getting to Australia. 

The following day, the camp erupted in protests. Azeta Bokan, who worked as a Farsi interpreter, recalled that a “mood of despair” descended on the camp. “The men had no weapons, so they threw fruit at the guards, mostly peaches”, She told the ABC. The guards reportedly grabbed rocks, metal table legs and other objects to use as weapons. Khaled remembers standing on the grass and looking up a flight of steel stairs to see another detainee above being attacked. His name was Reza Berati, and he was murdered. Eleven deaths followed on Manus and Nauru over the next four years.

In Brisbane, the refugees are confined to a few floors of the Brisbane hotel. Reviews of the establishment on Google read like a dingy student share house: “dead pot plant” with “cigarette butts in it”; a bed “bent in the middle like a banana”; an air conditioner rattled the windows and was “coated” in dust; the kettle water was “turbid”; holes the “size of my hand” in the carpet; “smells like cigarettes and mould”; a “massive cockroach”.

There is no-one for the refugees to complain to, however. They have zero contact with the manager. Rahmati says that is because “the guest here is ABF (Australian Border Force) not us”. Before COVID-19 the refugees could welcome the odd visitor. Now they see no-one but the guards.

Before the lockdown, the refugees could leave for 45 minutes of exercise at Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA). They would be patted down four times: when they left the hotel, when they arrived at BITA, when they left BITA, when they arrived at the hotel. 

Khaled has a low opinion of the guards. On a visit to the hospital, a guard tried to hold him by the wrist, he says. He pushed the hand away and said, “I am not a criminal”. Khaled says that “good people can’t work [as guards] ... They are racist, laughing and make fun of us. Many are retired from army or ex-prison guard”. He says he has been sexually harassed multiple times. During the body checks they sometimes “touch your arse”. There is no privacy when Khaled sleeps and he says that twice a guard entered the bathroom while he was showering. 

“Everywhere there are good and bad people who try to do their job. That doesn't mean they care about us. They don’t care”, Rahmati says. He laughs when I ask if medical requests are ever denied. “Of course! Plenty of times. If you work on it, you can get rid of your humanity. It is the same with people in the army or police.” He says that there is a long queue to get a medical appointment.

“We are asking the government: let us be free even if it is temporary and we can soon come back. Just let us out”, he says. “For us it will never be a total freedom. They take all your rights then give it to you bit by bit.” He identified community detention and temporary bridging visas as examples.

The government has spent almost three decades cultivating the detention industry, which generates human misery to sustain profits. If the government can find the resources to detain refugees in hotels, it can certainly find the resources to set them free. Australia must allow refugees to access Centrelink, to work and to study. 

Khaled encourages people to keep protesting: “I am thankful to all of you, everyone who has helped us for the last seven years. We keep hope. There is still humanity”.

* Not his real name.