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Following warnings from advocates, Covid-19 has broken out in immigration detention. Imasi Yousef, a stateless asylum seeker, was identified as a close contact of an infected guard. He has been in a windowless room since. By Sarah Price.

Villawood asylum seeker’s plea from solitary ‘torture’ amid virus scare

Imasi Yousef inside his room at the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.
Credit: Supplied

Imasi Yousef knows what it is to wait. Orphaned, then trafficked to Europe as a young child, he slept rough on the streets while he waited for a home. As a stateless person – accepted by not one country on Earth – he now waits for permission, sanctuary and citizenship. He waits for freedom. He has waited in Australian detention centres his entire adult life.

As the Delta strain of Covid-19 spread through Sydney’s south-west, Imasi waited inside Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. He watched the news cycle. Even as the virus made its way into neighbouring suburbs nothing changed for him and other detainees at Villawood. The centre continued to operate as normal.

When we spoke in July, Imasi reported a total lack of personal protective equipment at Villawood. Detainees had no access to masks, sanitiser or gloves. The centre was overcrowded, with no provisions for social distancing. Vaccines, he was told at a meeting with the centre’s management that month, were not available to detainees. During our conversation Imasi expressed his own fear: if the virus entered the centre, he would be “locked up more”.

Late last week a guard at Villawood tested positive to Covid-19. It is unclear for how long he was infectious while working at the centre. Questions from The Saturday Paper – to Border Force, centre management company Serco and healthcare provider International Health and Medical Services – have gone unanswered.

    

This week, Imasi was told he is the only close contact of the infected guard. He was ordered from the centre’s gym and immediately placed into quarantine. He was not allowed to take his own belongings. He is being held in a high-security cell. There is no window. The lights are automatic: they cannot be dimmed or turned off. For the first time since Covid-19 arrived in this country, Imasi has been given a mask. He is told to put it on and stand away from the door when food is delivered to the floor of his cell.     

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition Sydney warned in July of a super-spreading event at Villawood. He now tells The Saturday Paper there are reports the guard was in the centre and infected for five days. “Serco guards are meant to be tested every three days. That raises an issue in and of itself. It is inconceivable that this infected guard has not had contact with other detainees or other guards. Nobody will say how many guards are not turning up for work. They are trying to keep it quiet. In Melbourne [at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] they could tell me clearly there were 30 or 35 guards not coming to work because of contact with a confirmed case.”

Rintoul says it appears only Imasi and one other detainee have been quarantined. The other detainee was sent to external accommodation. People living in immigration detention don’t often report symptoms, he says, because they know they will end up in a cell. “That is the experience in Sydney and Melbourne: if they go to a nurse with a sniffle, their feet don’t touch the ground. Straight into isolation and they stay there.”

 

By his own accounts throughout the week, Imasi is not doing well. Initially, he could not sleep. Now he says he is “sleeping and waking, sleeping and waking”. He does not know the difference between night and day. He has no energy to eat. Over the phone, his voice is hollowed by the hard surface of the cell. When there is a lull in our conversation it is too easy to imagine the sound of its silence.

“I feel like I have been picked up from 500 people, only me. It doesn’t make sense. They say they see me on the camera shake his hand or something. That is not my mistake but now I have to pay the price. I talk to every guard. It is my life here. I talk to everyone because they are like my family … I have not been on the outside so why do I have to suffer? I don’t have a problem if they need to keep me in quarantine. I respect that. But not here. Put me in a hotel and I am happy.

“I don’t see any compassion here. I see only punishment. I am in a high-security area where they send troublemakers. I feel like I am in prison. It makes feel like I am no good. It is designed for torture. I am talking to walls. There are cameras everywhere, in my room and outside. It makes me paranoid. The room is designed for punishment, it is not for quarantine. It makes me feel like I have done something wrong – like I am the most wanted man in the world. I am going crazy here. I need help. Can you call the minister?”        

Since he arrived in Australia there have been five separate reports to parliament and many legal challenges to try to secure Imasi’s freedom. Hal Ginges, lawyer and legal advisor for the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group, represented Imasi in an application for a jurisdictional review late last year. The review set to challenge a decision by the minister’s delegate that Australia was not obliged to grant Imasi a protection visa. The application failed.

In his judgment, Judge Douglas Humphreys concluded that: “Whether or not this applicant was Australia’s problem, he has become Australia’s problem. The applicant is, and remains, in a state of limbo, having failed to meet the criteria for the grant of protection or any other visa over a 10-year period. The applicant remains in detention and unless there is an intervention by the Executive, will remain in detention indefinitely…

“There is a significant cost to the community of keeping the applicant in immigration detention, far greater than the cost of supporting him in the community with extensive supports to ensure he is not a threat to the community and can live his life as best he can.

“At some point the Executive will need to find a solution to what is at the moment, legally, an insoluble problem. To simply ignore the problem and for the applicant to remain in detention for another 10 or 20 years or potentially longer is an outcome that sits uncomfortably with Australia’s commitment to Human Rights. In 2015, Flick J stated that the applicant’s circumstances were ‘not enviable’. Wigney J in the same case commented … that the statement by Flick J was perhaps ‘an understatement’. It remains so five years later.”

Ginges tells The Saturday Paper that initially Imasi was buoyed by the judgment. “He could see that somebody with some authority had compassion and was imploring the Executive to do something about his impossible situation. But as the months have gone on his optimism has drifted down to a state of desperation and despair. And now, this…”

 

The cell in which Imasi is confined, Ginges says, is used for people at high risk of suicide. “He is really in segregation. You wonder why he is placed in this cell. It is hard to believe there couldn’t be some other arrangement made. If they are seriously concerned about his compromised Covid-19 status then surely they can find some other place within the complex. It is hard to know why he couldn’t be simply returned to the room he had in recent times, with arrangements made that he stay there. To me this has the flavour of being some kind of extraordinary punishment.”

The lawyer continues: “I should think keeping Imasi in a cell is a contravention of human rights laws. It is going to aggravate his already delicate mental health and to my mind it comes within the ambit of what one might regard as torture.”

Another refugee advocate has described Imasi as “the man with no future”. His legal avenues appear to be exhausted. His only hope now, it seems, is intervention by a minister.

 

On the phone, Imasi’s voice falls flat. He says he has been lying on the floor of his cell for hours. He speaks slowly, then at a rush. “I have been locked up. I have no freedom. I have nothing. And now they do this do me. This is the worst time I have spent in my whole life. I had my own routine. I had my own bed. Now it is like I am homeless again. I feel like I am rubbish. I have nothing. They take everything from me, my own clothes, my shower. These small things are very important to me. My belongings are important. They are the only ones I have. This is like torture on torture. They put me in a small cell. It makes me more damaged. I can’t sleep. I can’t turn the light off. It is automatic. It is high security. There is no curtain. No privacy. This cell is for people who want to end their own life. If you are not sick and they bring you here – then you will be sick. Are they going to kill me in this place?”

Imasi has been detained for 11 years and nine months in this country. We detained him, an orphan, a stateless young person. We detained him without allegation or charge through the end of his teens and his 20s. Now we are holding him in a windowless cell for an unspecified time. We will probably continue to hold him in that cell as his mental health disintegrates. This is how we treat people. 

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke

(02) 9899 7211

(02) 6277 7770

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "‘I am talking to walls’".

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Sarah Price is a Sydney-based writer.