Australia’s infamous Park Hotel made headlines last week after tennis star Novak Djokovic was sent there when his visa was revoked.
The incident shone a light on the plight of more than 30 refugees detained there, some of them for years, but the country’s immigration detention system extends far beyond any hotel.
Hundreds more refugees are staying in other detention centers around Australia and in the infamous foreign processing system in the Pacific – and these refugees are of a specific category.
They all arrived in Australian waters by boat after mid-2013, when the country entered into a series of agreements in the Pacific that would see any asylum seekers trying to arrive in Australia by sea sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru. be for processing and relocation.
Some of them, now recognized as refugees, were brought to Australia in 2019 under a short-term medical evacuation scheme – these are the people being held in places like the Park Hotel.
Others stick to PNG and Nauru.
The Iraqi refugee, Mustafa Salah, was only 14 when he was taken to Nauru with his father. They left Iraq after threats to their lives and traveled by boat from Indonesia to Australia.
The Nauru camp was fenced on all sides, packed with mildew, plastic tents with temperatures inside that reached as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
The tents burned themselves into Mustafa’s memory.
He slept in it for “exactly one year and a half and 15 days” before he and his father were granted refugee status and moved into the Nauru community after staying.
“It was a tropical island, imagine you have been sleeping in the tent all these years and with the dust, you know, with the people around you… they are…. It was not safe to be honest. “It was not safe,” he told Al Jazeera.
Mustafa remembers seeing people set themselves on fire in desperation. He saw people sink into depression and wait for the freedom they feared would never come.
Finally, mid-2021, Mustafa and his father were brought to Australia because his father needed medical treatment, but more than 200 refugees and asylum seekers still live in Nauru and in PNG.
One Afghan father, whose name has been hidden for the safety of his family, has been recognized as a refugee and is desperate to help his family, but he is stranded in the PNG capital, Port Moresby, without the right to work .
He traveled to Australia in 2013 and “after three days the Australian immigration transferred [him] by force to Manus Island ”.
He was detained in a detention camp as widely convicted as the one on Nauru.
In 2017, the camp was found to be illegal and closed, and its detainees moved to the local community after staying.
Two years later, the Afghan refugee says he was taken to Port Moresby, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Nearly 40 percent of PNG’s population lives in poverty.
While the refugees are theoretically free to come and go, the threat of attack and abuse from the local people means that their lives are almost as limited as they were in the camps.
“We have no acceptable job or anything,” the refugee told Al Jazeera in broken English. “It’s not safe here, I went out twice, but the local attacked me, they cut my hand, broke my hand, I was in the hospital for about five months. They got my phone, my money. “
The “immediate” reason for the danger that refugees face at PNG, says Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition in Australia, is that “the refugees actually stand out … and for local people in PNG they believe that they “probably have money or a cell phone… so they are immediate targets in that regard.”
Another detainee on PNG, 29-year-old Sudanese refugee Yasir Omar, said he could not sleep at night for fear of being attacked.
“In the middle of the night I wake up, I look around and I look at my window, and I see exactly what’s going on outside,” he said.
“… [Papua New Guineans] look at us, you know, like nothing. Like nothing, as if we are not human. No respect… they curse us all the time. ”
According to Yasir, the refugees live on PNG in accommodation paid for by the Australian government. Single people also get just over 100 Australian dollars in cash each week, and about the equivalent in basic supplies so they can cook for themselves.
Detention of connections
Meanwhile, nearly 60 maritime refugees are being held in detention centers across mainland Australia after being relocated there from Nauru or PNG, mostly for medical reasons.
Their imprisonment, like that of the refugees on Nauru and PNG, has been repeatedly condemned by human rights groups within Australia and internationally.
Detaining people for nine years simply because they are trying to get to the country by boat is illegal, says lawyer Daniel Taylor, who represents a number of refugees in Australian immigration detention along with his colleague Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran.
“Under international law, it is arbitrary imprisonment,” Taylor said.
“International law requires a proportionality and a reason for detention,” he adds, as is the need to determine refugee status, or to consider any security issues.
Keeping the refugees in indefinite detention was also “extremely expensive”, according to Australia’s Refugee Council.
For the 2019-2020 financial year, the cost of immigration to land was 361,835 Australian dollars ($ 266,519) per person. Foreign detention has cost Australia 602 million Australian dollars ($ 433 million) in 2020-2021.
Now in the family wing at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), an immigration detention facility in the state of Victoria, Mustafa describes his detention as “a lot of [mentally] difficult, difficult times ”.
He fills his day with training. There is nothing else to do, he says.
(training of what?)
“There is no future, so every day you wake up you do the same thing… my motivation is not so good. You know, always think about when I go [get] out, think of my family, ”he said.
Another refugee, Amin Afravi, an ethnic Ahwazi Arab, fled persecution in Iran in 2013 and, like the other people Al Jazeera spoke to, tried to reach Australia by boat.
He spent six long years on Manus before being evacuated to Australia for medical reasons, under short-lived legislation caused by evidence that people in the foreign system are suffering serious health problems as a result of their detention.
Now in the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA), Amin spends every day in his room and only goes for a few minutes every now and then to smoke a cigarette. There’s a small gym for detainees to use, a large area to walk in, a basketball court, but he says he does not see the point in doing anything.
“[For] how long do you want to do this? For how long? You know, it’s been nine years, ”he said.
There are activities on offer, he says, but they are part of a points system that allows refugees to shop at the detention center’s canteen.
According to Rintoul, the system is “a form of behavior management”.
Refugees get a basic number of points per week, he says, and must participate in activities if they want to earn more.
“So you know, attend the gym, or attend art [class], reading group, English class or whatever, [and] they get points… to 60, ”he said.
Amin, who spends most of his time in his room and has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to his experiences in detention, says such activities are “useless”.
Amin says as long as he is denied his freedom, the trauma that fuels his PTSD continues.
He also has severe anxiety and becomes panicked every time he sees the facility’s security guards, accusing them of inflicting small atrocities on those detained.
“I can not breathe properly. It’s like, you know, it’s like drowning in the sea. “You feel like you are dying and there is nothing you can do about it,” he said.
A year after their medical evacuation, Mustafa’s father is still awaiting treatment for his condition.
Amin himself contracted Helicobacter pylori, a bacterial infection in his stomach, in 2019 while being held at Kangaroo Point Hotel, a detention facility similar to the Park Hotel that has since been closed.
“Whatever I do [ate] it’s like I’m eating tons of food. “Even a little food will make my stomach swell very badly,” he said, “and I could not breathe properly. I could not sleep properly. “
It took IHMS, the provider contracted by the Australian government to provide healthcare to people in BITA, 13 months to get him tested and diagnosed, he says.
Two months and a medication change later, he was told he was free of the infection.
“It has made no difference to my stomach from that day on, until now, I mean, the feeling,” he said. He still exists on a small range of foods, most of which he buys with his weekly points.
“I have to see my life”
In an email response to the refugees’ allegations about their treatment, an Australian Border Patrol spokesman told Al Jazeera that the country was “committed to the health and well-being of prisoners” and that those detained in facilities can expect health care to be “broadly in line” with what is offered to the wider community by the public health system.
Prisoners were treated “in accordance with human rights standards” and their management was “carried out with primary regard for the safety and security of all individuals, staff and the public”.
The spokesman stressed there are no plans for change, despite the focus brought by Djokovic’s incarceration in the same place as the sea arrivals.
“Australia’s border protection policy remains firm; “People who travel to Australia illegally by boat will not settle here,” the spokesman told Al Jazeera.
With a powerful legal team behind him, Djokovic was released from immigration detention within less than a week.
The millionaire player has since tweeted his intention to take part in the Australian Open and “play at one of the most important events we have in front of the amazing fans”.
But as the attention fades, those who are behind Djokovic wonder if they will ever get their freedom.
“[I’m a grown] man now and I have to see my life, you know? When [am I] go to study, when [am I] will I follow my sport and do what I love? ” Mustafa said.