Refugees and activists celebrated as 26 Medevac refugees were released from the Park Hotel in Carlton on January 20 and two from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA). The next day, 20 more were released from the Park Hotel. They are, however, keeping up the campaign so that the remaining refugees in the hotel prison and MITA are released and for all to receive permanent protection.
Speaking to Green Left from outside the Park Hotel prison on January 21, Moreland socialist councillor Sue Bolton confirmed those still trapped inside were “worried the protesters might go away”.
The refugees have been held by the Australian government for almost eight years — six years offshore and almost two years in hotel prisons.
The fact that they have been released is a win for refugees. As Aran Mylvaganam, a Tamil refugee and founder of the Tamil Refugee Council in Australia, said to activists outside the Park Hotel: “Today’s victory is for the refugees who have led the most inspiring fightback the refugee movement has seen in the recent times.”
Chris Breen from Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) said on January 21 that the government did not give any reason for releasing the men. “It is not clear if the release is because many had cases before the Federal Circuit Court, or the government has finally cracked under the pressure of a long campaign for freedom, by the refugees themselves in detention, and a large movement of supporters outside.”
Breen said that Australian Border Force is persisting with the lie that “they can continue on their resettlement to the United States, return to Nauru or PNG, or return to their home country’.
“However the US deal is finished, Papua New Guinea and Nauru are not taking back Australia’s refugees, and the Medevac refugees have almost all been determined to be refugees so cannot be deported to danger (refouled) to their home countries”.
Daniel Taylor from Sydney West Legal told the ABC on January 20 that 100 people are still in detention and that the minister has indicated he is “considering granting the visas in a number of other cases”.
Detained musician Moz (also known as Mostafa Azimitabar), who was locked up in the Park Hotel prison, broke the news about the 26 detainees being released on Twitter on January 20.
The next day he was among those who were released.
“This is the most beautiful moment of my life and one that I would like to share with you all,” he said. “After 2,737 days locked up in detention – I am free. Thank you to all of the amazing people who helped me to stay strong. We need to continue to think about the people who remain in detention.”
He added: “If I am able to obtain my freedom, there should be the opportunity for the others seeking asylum to have their freedom as well. Until all of us are free, none of us are truly free.”
Monir Hossein, a refugee detained at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane, told Green Left that the government’s offer of bridging visas was a “victory for all of us”. “It is a terrific moment for us, but some of us are still in detention: we still have no sunlight; we can’t breathe here.
“I still cannot believe this government has locked us up for so long, while we have been sick. Some of us have only been given Panadol: people who were brought here for a medical emergency. This is still a very bad situation for us. We are still prisoners. I hope one day I get my freedom and I get my treatment.”
Hossein also urged the campaign to continue: “Please keep going, please keep fighting and never give up”.
Helal “Spice” Uddin, a refugee from Bangladesh, spoke to Green Left from his cell in the Australian-made Bomana Prison in Papua New Guinea that he was very happy. “I’m feeling very excited, wonderful freedom for my friends in Australia! I am so glad my friends have freedom in their life. Congratulations to them and their families.”
Seven Medevac refugees were released from Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation last December. One of these, Farhad Bandesh, said at the time that he felt “shocked” to be free after 8 years. On January 20, he said: “Today some of my friends will be freed from detention torture centers! Congratulations.”
Refugee activists have vowed to continue the campaign until all refugees are freed from onshore and offshore detention and that they receive full protection and rights to stay in Australia, without the threat of deportation.
Lavanya Thavaraja, a Tamil refugee and Migrant Workers Centre organiser, told Green Left that temporary visas are no solution. “It is a temporary excuse for this government to start torturing refugees again. We need permanent visas for every refugee and until we win that fight the campaign is not yet over!”
Refugee activist Aaron Craine, who has attended the daily protests, told Green Left that “many people [have] worked extremely hard” to force the government to change its mind.
“There have been so few wins [for refugees] over the past seven years. Hopefully, this is a turning point in refugee policy. We also need to keep fighting to make sure the refugees receive all the tools they need — education, longer-term accommodation and jobs — so that they are able to move on from this traumatic chapter.”
Joanne Shankland, from Grandmothers for Refugees, told Green Left, that when she heard the news, she became “quite overwhelmed with happiness for our friends but also sad knowing there was still many others detained”.
The released refugees have only been given bridging visas and just a few weeks’ accommodation.
Bridging visas and Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) are prisons without walls. They were only granted temporary protection — which still means that they are at risk of refoulement.
Bolton explained, “The refugees need permanent protection visas immediately. After more than seven years of being held in prison camps offshore and almost two more years in hotel prisons, the government expects the refugees to look after themselves. This is not acceptable,” Bolton said.
“They have only been given a few weeks accommodation. All the other support has been left to the community to organise. They should be given long-term, permanent and secure accommodation, education and JobSeeker allowance and be allowed to stay. They need full access to HECS-HELP, if they want to study.
“They will only have access to those measures if they are granted full rights that come with permanent protection visas. That will also prevent their deportation to the countries from which they have fled.”
Refugees also need to be able to access specialist services to help them deal with years of trauma and distress on Manus Island and Nauru.
“Don’t forget that the federal government kept most of these men captive on Nauru and Manus Island where they were witness to the murder of other refugees, the suicides of refugees and they also were involved in the rescue of attempted suicides,” Bolton said.
“They witnessed the horrific brutalisation from guards, like in the terrible death of Reza Barati. They have watched other refugees die of preventable illness, like Hamid Khazaei, who was just 24 when he died from a wound in his foot after Australian authorities refused to provide adequate medical care.
“Many of these refugees have not been able to help their families over 7 to 8 years, which have caused them massive trauma. Many have lost family members; some died while they were stuck in detention and they have not been able to say their goodbyes or assist their family members. They have missed out on developing relationships with their children.
“While we celebrate the freedom of these men, we can never forget the horrific experiences they were forced to go through. They should be compensated.
“These men committed no crimes: they simply sought asylum.”
[The next rally in Melbourne has been called for January 30. Check Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) Facebook for updates on daily protests outside the Park Hotel in Carlton and a rally to free all the Medevac refugees on February 13. On January 29, 15 more people were released from MITA.]