Refugee releases are a victory, but the system of torture rolls on
Refugee releases are a victory, but the system of torture rolls on
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On the morning of 20 January, Khan* was awoken by security guards and abruptly told he was being released. Talking to him on the phone after he received the news was like talking to a different person. His voice was light as he repeated over and over through tears and laughter, “I am free, insha’Allah, I am free, insha’Allah”. Later that day, Khan and 25 other men walked free, ending almost eight years of imprisonment.

Kurdish-Iranian writer and translator Mardin Arvin was in the next group released. On 21 January, he walked out of the Park Hotel in Carlton with 30 others, tears streaming down their faces as they greeted activists on the footpath. Mardin waited two days before calling his family in Iran. He needed to be sure it was real. When he eventually contacted them, he made sure it was via a video call from the street, worried that, if they saw him in a motel, they would assume he was lying to keep their hopes up. 

For Mardin it was real: a door had finally appeared in the unyielding stone wall of cruelty and bureaucracy. This was a significant victory for justice, an all too rare one for refugees in Australia. 

But this is far from a Disney ending. Those released face continued hardship at the hands of the Australian government, and must live with the emotional damage caused by their ordeal. And the systemised regime of abuse and torture that is Australia’s detention regime endures, despite the release of about 50 men from hotel detention. 

There are currently around 1,400 asylum seekers detained across Australia’s network of offshore and onshore refugee prisons. More than 100 so-called Medevac refugees remain in hotel detention, most at a hotel in the Brisbane suburb of Kangaroo Point. They are refugees brought to Australia for medical assessment or treatment, under the “Medevac” law, which has now been revoked. At the time of writing, 12 such refugees remain at the Park Hotel in Melbourne. They have served more than seven years in prison, including six years on Manus Island or Nauru and around 14 months in hotel prisons in Australia.

Zamir is one of those still at the Park Hotel. He fled Iraq when he was 16 years old and has spent the last eight years incarcerated. He says that the days since his friends left the hotel have felt like a further eight years. “Time goes so slow”, he says by phone. “I think the day must be over and it’s only the morning. There is nothing to do, nothing to think about ... all day. Now there is only a few of us we are all in our own rooms, I only talk to the others when I go to smoke upstairs ... no-one wants to talk any more, there is nothing to say. We get our meals, go to gym and we sleep, there is nothing to do. We have no visa and we don’t know why not us.” 

For those who have been released, the pain is not over either. They feel for their friends who are still locked up, and struggle to come to terms with the last eight years of torture. Speaking to Khan after a week on the outside, the youthful excited boy is gone. The last decade weighs heavily once again: “I don’t know how to communicate with people on the outside, how to explain my life, and how to make sense of theirs. My experiences have been every day for eight years fighting for freedom and nothing else but now I can’t feel my freedom, I can’t feel happiness. My heart is broken”. 

The Australian detention system is intended to break people in this way. Refugees’ suffering is meant to act as a deterrent to others who might think of seeking asylum here. The UN considers this treatment of refugees as a form of torture, and there have been multiple inquiries into the physical, sexual and psychological abuses that routinely go on.

Behrouz Boochani, whose book No Friend but the Mountains deserves a place alongside great political prison literature, perhaps best captures the way in which the system is designed to break people’s hearts. From the minute refugees are taken into custody, they are dressed in garish oversized smocks. They are forced to wait in queues for hours to receive meagre rations of food, cigarettes and soap. Officials and bureaucrats come and go without any explanation. Surveillance is constant, except in the toilet, until the toilet is blocked and the refugees are forced to go behind the building instead. The waiting and the boredom are relentless. There is no relief—when refugees make a backgammon board by drawing on a plastic table, guards come along in the night and draw a big cross through it and scrawl “no games allowed”.

Slowly but surely, the dignity of even the proudest individuals is stripped away. Self-harm escalates.

The damage done by years of this dehumanising treatment cannot be atoned for. Two weeks’ accommodation and $300—which is all the released refugees receive from the government—is a sick joke, especially compared with the $1 billion spent every year maintaining the detention system. 

The released refugees have been issued six-month bridging visas, which means they have no access to welfare payments and will be forced into unsafe and hyper-exploitative work. Like the tens of thousands of other refugees on these visas, they will live in constant fear of deportation or of being thrown into detention again. They have no secure future to look forward to. As Mardin put it, “As long as we remain on these visas, we remain in chains”. 

Like so many crimes against humanity, nearly every part of the capitalist system is implicated in this regime, with acts ranging from the sadistic to the banal. 

There are the crimes of the security guards, cruel and overt, like the beating to death of Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati in 2014. No Australian guards have been charged or punished for this murderous response to a peaceful protest, despite at least two being suspects in the case. There are the crimes of the parasites who take millions in government contracts to convert their hotels into prisons crawling with armed guards.

Then there are the more insidious crimes—the bureaucrats who sign off on prison transfers, who approve the use of sedatives for people in desperate need of proper medical treatment, who decide that the windows of the Park Hotel should be painted so that the refugees can’t see people protesting outside. These functionaries might play a relatively minor part, but they are still complicit—there is no Nuremberg defence. 

But none are more culpable than the politicians who have designed, honed and presided over this monstrous regime. It is easy to imagine that figures like Morrison and Dutton derive real pleasure from the cruelties they mete out. But just as disturbing are the pragmatic and base motivations that have driven every Liberal and Labor leader to dial up the torture over decades. For both parties, attacks on refugees are a useful go-to for leaders wanting to distract from their own domestic failings, drum up nation-unifying prejudice or seem tough. 

In mid-2013, for example, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, having just clawed his way back into the prime ministership and with a federal election looming, attempted to grab headlines by declaring, “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia”. The fate of hundreds of refugees in transit to Australia was changed in an instant.  
Author Mohsin Hamid describes the precarious life of refugees as one of finding secret doors in the walls that provide passages out of danger. These doors exist only fleetingly before they are shut down by authorities. 

In 2013, Mardin was making his way to a door to Australia. It was a long and treacherous passage: he had fled Iran, made it to Indonesia and finally boarded a boat bound for Australia. Also on board was Boochani, as well as many of those who were to become the Medevac refugees.

They were almost at the end of the passage when their boat began to sink. Boochani describes their vessel as a “caravan of weary bodies ... deep in the expanse of the ocean” being “swept away by those giant waves” and surrounded by “the scent of death”. All of a sudden, just when they were losing hope, the Australian navy arrived to rescue them. 

But the rescue was a cruel trick. The Australian navy arrived on Christmas Island with its hostages on Mardin’s 24th birthday, 23 July 2013, just four days after Rudd’s announcement. The secret door leading away from danger was slammed shut in their faces. 

They were then transferred to Manus Island, the first of many prison transfers. Whether to a new island, a new compound, a new hotel, each of these transfers was a cruel trick: the appearance of a door to freedom, invariably proving a mirage. As Mardin explains: “They wanted to use us to scare other people from coming to Australia; that is why they wouldn’t let us go”. 

Particularly cruel was the transfer of the Medevac refugees to Australia. Advocates told them that they would have a better chance of release through this avenue than if they took the deals being offered at the time for resettlement in a third country. Mardin wrote about the transfer in the Guardian in August 2020:

“I remember when we left the prison camp the sun was shining. We were restless as we sat in the bus, we were smiling. We had a reason to smile. We thought that after six years we would be able to live a free life. That was not to be the case. We entered a city, but we would not experience freedom ... After what I have gone through I now have to spend months confined to a single floor, in a hotel and in a room with a few people; my world is limited to the narrow corridor of the third floor of this hotel.”

Something, however, did change when these brave men were brought to cities on the Australian mainland. For years, the two major parties have succeeded in keeping their detention regime out of public sight. But with refugees imprisoned in suburban hotels, their plight became harder to ignore. Awareness and horror at what was happening to these men increased. As has often been the case, it was not simply the treatment of refugees that forced attention to the issue, but also their resistance. 

Refugees have a proud history of resistance to Australia’s brutality, whether through collective defiance, rioting, hunger striking, smuggling out messages, articles and books written secretly on phones, scrawling messages on sheets and even barricading themselves inside their prisons to protest against transfers.

Khan, who was involved with all of the major protests on Manus Island, sees resistance as essential both as a political strategy for freedom and as a means to reassert refugees’ humanity. “We could not survive without trying to resist. You can’t resist by yourself, you need people to stand with and people to stand for you.”

It is no surprise then that it was the Medevac refugees themselves who gave the lead by beginning daily protests on the balcony of their Kangaroo Point prison in the middle of 2020. This inspired protests outside the hotel and the establishment of a permanent protest camp, and regular protests of several hundred that continued for months. In Melbourne, delayed by the lockdowns, activists began mobilising in earnest outside the hotel in November.

Samira Kamiri was one of the activists who initiated daily protests. She explained the rationale for this escalation: “They are struggling for their freedom every second, so the least we can do is yell for their freedom every day.  They needed to see us outside the window every day, to stay hopeful, to feel like they are not being forgotten”.

The next escalation happened when word spread that the refugees were going to be evicted from Mantra Hotel in Melbourne. Activist organisations, in particular Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, called an emergency protest at the hotel, with the aim of stopping the transfer, which was seen as a move to break up the protests and disrupt the bonds that had formed between refugees and their supporters outside.  

Although not able to stop the transfer, protesters were able to follow the buses to the new prison, the Park Hotel in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton, where a permanent protest presence was immediately established. 

This, along with regular protests that disrupted one of Melbourne’s main streets, undoubtedly caused a headache for the government. It has also meant that news about the plight of the Medevac refugees spread wider and wider.

Along with important legal victories, these actions were significant contributing factors to the government eventually bowing to the pressure and releasing people. 

To secure more wins for refugees, there will need to be more such street protests that are just as militant. The continued resistance of refugees inside and outside provides important inspiration. Since being released, every refugee who has spoken to the media has talked of those still inside with instinctive solidarity. Many have come to the protests that continue outside the Park Hotel to fight for their brothers. In the words of Mardin, “There is no freedom for anyone until they are all free”.

 

*Some names have been changed.

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