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A year after the medevac repeal, refugees brought here under the law are still in detention and say they are being punished by the government for speaking out. By Karen Middleton.

Medevac refugees: we face special punishment

Farhad Rahmati is waiting for retribution. Every time the Iranian refugee speaks out about being forcibly transferred between detention facilities in Australia, which usually occurs in handcuffs and without warning, he is transferred again.

Rahmati knows that speaking to The Saturday Paper will likely trigger another punitive transfer. But he is determined to take that risk.

“When you are in a prison situation, we have three different stages,” Rahmati explains from his room in Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

“First, you hate the bars around you. Second, you get used to them. Third, which is the most dangerous stage, is when you love the bars around you. So, I push myself to be the first stage for past eight years. I always hate these bars, and I want to get out. And every day I have this hope that this day is going to be the last day of my life in this situation.”

Rahmati and 181 others remain in detention in Australia after being transferred from Nauru and Papua New Guinea under the short-lived medevac legislation, passed against the federal government’s wishes in March last year. This week marks a year since its repeal.

Rahmati claims he and others are being punished because they were brought to Australia under a law forced upon the government by crossbench and opposition MPs. While those who came on medical transfer before the medevac legislation was passed – and since it was repealed – are being released into community detention, those who were moved to Australia under the medevac law are not.

“This is the standoff between [political] parties,” Rahmati says. “They are taking revenge on each other by sacrificing our lives.”

Medevac transferees have been subject to repeated and unannounced moves between onshore detention facilities. Since he was brought to Australia from Manus Island in July last year on health grounds, Rahmati has been transferred eight times, across two states. Almost every time it has happened without warning in the middle of the night. It has happened to other detainees as well.

“What is that? What’s going on here?” he asks. “I’m just a refugee. Just one person. I have no gun. I have no enemy. I have no army. And you are taking this measure? Isn’t that over the top, honestly?”

The repeal of medevac was made possible by the support of independent senator Jacqui Lambie, who insists that in return she won a concession for asylum seekers and refugees.

While Lambie has refused to say publicly what that was, it is widely understood to have been the government’s agreement to finally accept an offer from New Zealand to annually take in 150 refugees detained by Australia.

A year on, the Morrison government has still not accepted that offer.

If it had accepted it from the start, almost all of those medevaced to Australia would have been resettled by now.

This week, Lambie was one of several MPs and senators who met with refugee advocates and sports stars Craig Foster and Sonny Bill Williams, along with Amnesty International’s Graham Thom, as part of Foster’s Game Over initiative aimed at pressing the government to accept the NZ deal.

The group was in Canberra a month ago, meeting other MPs, and promoted this week’s meeting with Lambie heavily on social media.

The Tasmanian senator won’t discuss either the still-secret government assurance she received for her vote on the medevac repeal or this week’s meeting with the advocates. But the latter does send a clear message to the government that she is running out of patience with its unkept promise.

Late last month, answering a parliamentary question from independent MP Zali Steggall, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said: “We have not ruled out an arrangement with NZ. We will work with NZ as we do on many, many issues.”

But he is insisting the government must first conclude transfers under a deal with the United States to take 1250 of the refugees detained offshore.

The US transfers are not yet complete.

Dutton said “850 or 900” refugees had gone to the US.

Farhad Rahmati is among those who have been interviewed for a US placement. He does not know when he will hear the result.

Rahmati was good friends with Reza Barati, who was murdered in the Manus Island detention centre in 2014. He has seen others self-harm or succumb to suicide.

Confirmed as a refugee but refused release because he arrived by boat, Rahmati developed a heart condition while in detention and was transferred to Australia for treatment last year.

While he has had emergency medical attention for heart problems, he is still waiting to be examined for longer-term treatment.

The government denies it is punishing the medevac cohort.

“Claims that detainees are being ‘punished’ or moved because they have spoken to advocates or the media are incorrect,” the Home Affairs Department said in a statement. “Detainees are routinely moved for a range of reasons, including health, welfare or to ensure the safety of other detainees, staff and the public.”

But Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) advocacy director Jana Favero says there is mounting evidence to support the claim, particularly in regard to the political embarrassment the government faced in losing the first medevac vote.

“There’s no doubt that people who were transferred under medevac are being subjected to different policies, rules, punishment by the government,” Favero says.

“I have no doubt that government are intentionally holding a grudge – political grudge, political power, political pride – at having been defeated on the floor of the parliament for the first time in over 60 years. And that is why they’re subjecting the particular group who came under a law that the government didn’t want, that they prioritised repealing. And they’re punishing those individuals.

“It’s really no other reasonable conclusion to come to because it’s such a difference in treatment experience between those who came under medevac and those who didn’t.”

The ASRC says that on Friday last week an Iranian man suffering a mental health condition was forcibly moved at 5am from detention at a motel at Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point. He was taken to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre. The ASRC says the government denied the man’s requests to be taken to hospital.

The ASRC says that, over the weekend, another 30 men were woken and transferred without warning from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation to the Yongah Hill facility in Western Australia, which has become a quarantine staging post for onward transfers to Christmas Island.

It’s a familiar story to Farhad Rahmati.

“Four to five months ago, when I had an interview with ABC, early morning, around 7.30, officers rushed into my room, handcuffed me,” he says. “Six officers rush into my room, grab my phone, threw it away. Because it was early morning, and I was in the bed, so they put me on my face.

“Why we have been treated like that? Why we are getting moved in these conditions, getting handcuffed?”

Rahmati says it can’t be for security concerns, because the government knows everything there is to know about him. And while it could have objected to his medical transfer from Manus Island on security grounds, it didn’t.

He has asked why he isn’t being released into community detention, but has never received an answer.

“I might be in this situation for another five years. I might get released in next 10 minutes. Who knows?” he says. “This has been my life living in limbo.”

Rahmati is so desperate to be free he has asked to be transferred back to PNG, where he was detained. Although his activities were restricted before his medevac transfer, he was at least able to live in the community after a PNG court ruled that people being held in Australia’s Manus Island facility could no longer be detained.

While Rahmati professes an undiminished love for Australia’s people, he is disillusioned with the country’s political and legal systems.

“The two major parties, when it comes to refugees, they have almost same policy,” he says. “And they have blocked all legal avenues.”

This week, the High Court handed down a ruling that paves the way for stalled cases involving applications for medical transfers and claims for damages relating to inhumane treatment to be heard by the Federal Court.

The decision means at least a dozen stalled cases can proceed.

The director of the National Justice Project, solicitor George Newhouse, who represented two of the four respondents in the High Court case, accused the government of an act of “bastardry” in pressing it for so long.

“The government just simply wanted to delay and deny these families justice and they did that for the last two years by just appealing the decisions on the basis that the Federal Court didn’t have the jurisdiction to hear these cases,” Newhouse said.

He said those cases could now proceed in the Federal Court and a backlog of another 50 cases would now also be brought on.

The Department of Home Affairs said it was considering the decision.

“The department is aware that there are other ongoing litigation matters that may be affected by the judgment. It would not be appropriate to comment on any ongoing matters that are currently before the Court,” its statement said.

The government has also used the federal budget to put further obstacles in the way of detainees seeking redress in the court, quadrupling the fees required to lodge a Federal Court application.

“We’re dealing with impoverished people,” Newhouse says. “And the government has actually harmed them in many cases, so they are incapable of earning an income and yet they’re attempting to raise filing fees. It’s a blatant attempt to deny them access to justice.”

Farhad Rahmati asks why the government is spending so much, especially during an economic downturn, to keep people in detention – something that costs about $350,000 per person, per year.

“I don’t understand really why the government is willing to spend that much money, especially taxpayers’ money,” he says.

A civil engineer who learnt English in detention, Rahmati says he would like to have the opportunity to work and pay tax, to put something back into Australia, a country he still believes in, despite his eight-year incarceration.

“I would be more than happy to be given a chance to contribute here, to do something positive.”

He tries to stay positive, despite his immediate surroundings.

“The only reason that I keep myself sane is I know out there, there is something waiting for me and hope is alive for me,” he says. “I know one day I will be free, and I will be in charge of my life, and I can make it. So, I still have that hope.”

He jumps whenever there’s a knock at the door of his room. Rationally, though, he knows it’s unlikely to be the Australian Border Force, coming to haul him off to a new place. When that happens it’s rarely daylight, and they don’t knock.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2020 as "Medevac refugees: we face special punishment".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.