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Asylum seekers held in a Brisbane hotel have been transferred to Melbourne without warning, while others are being arbitrarily released into the community. Advocates argue immigration detention is out of control. By Santilla Chingaipe.

Refugees handcuffed, moved again

Protesters march in Melbourne on Monday night to support asylum seekers.
Credit: Diego Fedele / Getty Images

“They handcuffed three of my friends,” Kasra Mirabi says. “One Iranian, one from Bangladesh and other one from Pakistan.”

Mirabi, an Iranian refugee, was forcibly removed from the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel and Apartments in Brisbane on Friday, April 16, along with 18 other men. They had been detained at the site by the Australian government.

It was a “hurried evacuation”, according to refugee advocate Ian Rintoul. “It was a very panicked move by Border Force and Serco,” he says.

Mirabi says he was playing with his phone in his room when security staff came in and quickly ushered the men onto waiting buses. “They moved us by force and they didn’t allow us to take our property,” he says.

The sudden transfer of the men was reportedly a result of a dispute between the owners of the hotel, the lessor – an unknown tenant – and the sub-lessor, Serco, which is contracted by the government to run immigration detention.

The owners claim to have been unaware that their tenant had sub-leased the hotel to Serco, who were using it as a detention facility. Serco allegedly repurposed the hotel and erected fences.

“The owner of the hotel … came and they brought the paper from the court and they said ‘you should leave our hotel’ and they kicked the security and the refugees out,” Mirabi says.

It didn’t take long for the owners to retake possession of the hotel.

“They very quickly took down the fences that had been erected by Border Force; they took off the nameplate … and then by the afternoon they were gone,” says Rintoul.

The hotel owners declined to comment.

In a statement to The Saturday Paper, a Border Force spokesperson said “detainees are routinely moved between facilities to ensure the safety and wellbeing of both detainees and service-provider staff” and declined to give further details, citing “operational matters”.

The Brisbane hotel was being used as a detention centre, referred to by the government as an Alternative Place of Detention (APOD). Hotels across the country are increasingly being used to house refugees and asylum seekers, despite the Australian Human Rights Commission raising its concerns over the practice and asking that they only be used in “exceptional circumstances … [for] very short periods of immigration detention”.

The average length of time people spend in detention in Australia is currently 627 days, with some being held for more than 1825 days. Mirabi, 34, has spent the past two years in hotel detention in Australia.

He says the detained men were taken from Kangaroo Point to Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation before 17 of them, himself included, were put onto a charter flight to Melbourne. They are currently being held at the Park Hotel in Carlton.

Rintoul says the men, who were transferred to Australia from offshore detention in 2019 for medical treatment, are likely to stay in hotels indefinitely.

“It’s nearly nine years that we are in detention without any crimes, and they treated us like criminals, but we haven’t done anything,” Mirabi says. “Our situation is worse than the jail.”

 

Kasra Mirabi fled Iran in 2013, fearing reprisal after he criticised the government. “I had some activities on social media about the government and that’s what caused me to leave Iran,” he says.

After arriving in Indonesia, he found his passage to Australia via boat. He was hopeful that he would find safety “in a place that we could live really peacefully”. But just as he boarded that boat to make the perilous journey to Australia, hardline changes to Australia’s border policy were introduced by then prime minister Kevin Rudd.

“Asylum seekers who come here by boat without a visa will never be settled in Australia,” Rudd declared.

Under these laws, all asylum seekers who travelled to Australia by boat after July 2013 were to be transferred to Papua New Guinea for processing. If found to be refugees, they would be resettled in PNG. Those not deemed to be refugees would be deported to their home country or held in detention indefinitely.

Luck wasn’t on Mirabi’s side. His boat was one of the first arrivals sent to offshore processing.

He was sent to Christmas Island, and then on to PNG where he spent six years. The experience was punctuated by horrors. “So many of friends they died in front of my eyes because of the treatment,” he says. “Some of them died by suicide, some died from the lack of the treatment like [24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker] Hamid Khazaei.”

The effects of indefinite detention have taken their toll on Mirabi. “I get very sick mentally. I have really bad types of panic attacks and anxiety and depression. For years, I have been using pills: antidepressants and sleeping pills every single night to have better sleep,” he says.

Mirabi was transferred to Australia under the medevac laws, which allowed sick refugees in offshore detention to be brought to Australia for treatment. Under the now defunct medevac legislation, refugees and asylum seekers were placed in detention centres in Darwin, Brisbane and Melbourne.

Ian Rintoul says that the government can’t return these people to offshore centres because of legal challenges. “The government is insisting that it can, but it’s emerged through a number of court cases that it cannot send people to Papua New Guinea. It looks like it’s willing to send people to Nauru, if they request it,” he says.

In recent months, the federal government quietly began releasing some refugees into the community without much explanation.

Appearing before senate estimates last month, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Michael Pezzullo, revealed that there were currently 1223 refugees and asylum seekers in Australia whom the government deems “transitory persons”. This term is used to describe anyone who arrived by boat after July 2013 and can never be resettled in Australia under the current legislation.

Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, is calling for the release of all detainees.

“The great majority of them are actually refugees, so detaining people is a complete breach of Australia’s obligations under the refugee convention. But also, there’s no practical purpose in detaining people in this situation,” he says.

At the same estimates hearing, the deputy secretary of Immigration and Settlement Services, Andrew Kefford, revealed that as of March this year, 276 people were moved from community detention to living in the community on bridging visas, while 140 people in APODs have been released into the community on those same visas.

Department of Home Affairs statistics reveal that there are currently 1527 people in immigration detention facilities – detention centres and APODs – with men making up most of the detainees.

Kefford did not explain why some people were released while others weren’t, adding only that “the decision is ultimately with the exercise of a ministerial discretion to grant that visa”.

Paul Power says the arbitrary way in which some people are being released while others remain detained highlights how “out of control the immigration detention system is”.

“The government’s official line is that people are detained in immigration detention for administrative purposes for their status to be resolved and also that people should be detained for the minimum period, and that’s just not happening,” he says.

Once released from hotel detention, the situation for these people remains uncertain. The detainees are reportedly receiving six weeks of support, which includes motel accommodation and income support payments.

Power says the bridging visas, which are for six months, grant refugees the right to work. “They’ve never worked in Australia before and have been unable to work for years. It’s challenging obviously for people to find work,” he says. “They have access to Medicare but one of the things that’s not quite clear is, where people have more complex medical needs, what coverage they would receive.”

Power says as a result, much of the responsibility is being shouldered by the community. “It’s a matter of find work or just get by on whatever assistance that they can find through community connections and services that aren’t funded by the government”.

And although the prospect of permanently resettling in Australia is unlikely without a change in the law, Kasra Mirabi hopes that he too can be released into the community.

“I heard my friends who got free from detention the past two months they are taking their certificates and at some point participate in TAFE … and I want to do the same things,” he says.

But because the government decides who to release and when, all he can do is wait.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 24, 2021 as "Refugees handcuffed, moved again".

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Santilla Chingaipe is a journalist and documentary filmmaker.