'Playing games with us': the medevac men languishing in hotel detention

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Australian Human Rights Commission describes conditions in Brisbane and Melbourne hotels as ‘extremely restrictive’

Medically evacuated refugees protest against their detention at the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne.
Medically evacuated refugees protest against their detention at the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne. Photograph: James Ross/EPA
Medically evacuated refugees protest against their detention at the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne. Photograph: James Ross/EPA
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Last modified on Wed 16 Dec 2020 01.17 EST

Nearly two years after the medevac bill passed against the will of the Morrison government, the vast majority of the 192 refugees and asylum seekers who were evacuated to Australia for medical treatment are still being detained.

Australian Border Force has a separate internal process for medical transfers. Patients brought to Australia under that system are now nearly all in community detention. They are provided with housing and are subject to curfews and other supervision but are otherwise free to come and go.

The medevac bill was passed in February 2019 and repealed in December 2019. Most of the men who were medically evacuated during that period, however, are imprisoned in two hotels in Brisbane and Melbourne, designated as “alternative places of detention” but not publicly listed by the Department of Home Affairs. Others are held in onshore detention while a very small number were released to community detention in the early months of medevac’s operation.

But the policy can change in sudden and mysterious ways. Last week, five medevac detainees flew to the US for resettlement. Another five men were released into the community on bridging visas. Some of them had hearings pending in the federal circuit court, in which lawyers were arguing for their release.

David Burke from the Human Rights Law Centre said the rationale is not yet clear. “Whatever the reason for these releases, they clearly show there was no reason for the Morrison government to have locked up any of these men in detention. These men and women, who were brought here after already enduring six years of offshore detention, have lost another year of their lives for nothing.”

On Monday, detainees at Mantra hotel in Preston were informed by ABF that the contract with the hotel is ending and they will soon be moved to another, unspecified, place of detention. Some advocates say it could happen as soon as Tuesday.

Ismail Hussein, from Somalia, was evacuated in October 2019 and brought to Mantra hotel. He looks out at suburban Melbourne from the third floor of the hotel.

“It’s more difficult than what we experienced in Manus Island,” Hussein said. “Maybe one hour of gym – that’s the only time that I am not in my room. The rest of the day, I’m lying on my bed or sitting on the chair.”

Hussein, 29, said the stifling atmosphere has deteriorated even further. The men were dismayed by recent news that a group of 10 refugees from Nauru were transferred from the island and then rapidly released into community detention in mid November. “They are playing games with us,” he said. “The last weeks, no one even got out of the rooms. It isn’t protest, it is just despair and depression.”

The medevac legislation required the minister to consider the views of independent doctors in determining whether a person should be sent for medical treatment in Australia. Once they’re here, all transfers to community detention must be approved by the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton or immigration minister Alan Tudge.

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to requests for information in time for publication. However, the acting immigration minister, Alan Tudge, told ABC radio in July that half of the people evacuated had completed their treatment, but they would continue to be detained. “We always said that this was a backdoor way of people getting into Australia so we resisted it,” he said.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) last week released a scathing report based on its inspections of detention facilities in 2019.

It made special mention of people transferred from Papua New Guinea and Nauru for medical treatment, citing particular concern about the waiting periods to access the healthcare they required.

“The commission holds grave concern for the physical and mental health of a large number of these people, who have been in closed detention for long periods,” said the human rights commissioner, Edward Santow.

“Especially given the Covid-19 pandemic, anyone who does not pose a significant security risk should be released into community detention.”

The commission described the conditions in hotel detention in Brisbane and Melbourne as “inadequate” and “extremely restrictive”, and stated that the hotels “should only be used in exceptional circumstances and for very short periods”. Some people have now been detained there for more than 18 months.

It noted that the average period of detention in Australian facilities is increasing, and by September it had reached 581 days – a period that is in “orders of magnitude greater than in any comparable jurisdiction”.

The Department of Home Affairs agreed, in whole or in part, to only nine of the commission’s 44 recommendations.

Australian detention facilities are normally monitored by the AHRC, the commonwealth ombudsman and the Australian Red Cross. Inspectors from the United Nations were also due to visit this year, following Australia’s ratification of the optional protocol to the convention against torture. However, all suspended onsite inspections at the onset of the pandemic.

Hussein hoped to get medical treatment in Australia, but instead, he has not been outside in sunlight since March. He said he has requested, unsuccessfully, to be sent back to Papua New Guinea. He has no energy left.

“I am not leaving this room,” he said.

“They accepted us as refugees, and to come here by medevac we had a security screening and we all passed that. I think of it every day. Why did I deserve this? What is our crime? But there is no answer. I believe it is only prejudice.”