Updated: Mar 8, 2021
To write or not to write, that is always the question when considering the plight of refugees. Will revealing their predicament make their life harder? Oftentimes it does. Will saying nothing help? How can it? An informed friend gave me good advice, he travels and writes about the darkest places in the world. I took his words to heart and determined to write, . He said,
“Tell the stories! Tell them as often as you can, even when the very telling makes you nauseous. If you don’t, things will get worse. It is the stories that persuade, touch hearts and push towards a tipping point.”
This is my seventh year of fighting for the freedom of these people. They have entered their eighth year of tragic and traumatic incarceration; they are shadows of their former selves; broken in spirits, bodies and tortured in mind. For this reason I stationed myself, cross-legged on the pathway opposite Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central Hotel, a place where vacancy signs never turn on. Once an ideal location for tourist access to Brisbane’s iconic river and South Bank, it is now perpetually booked out as an APOD. APODs or Alternative places of detention, are used to warehouse refugees. The cold, dreary weather epitomises the bleak misery of refugees incarcerated within.
All doors to room balconies are locked and the front balcony seen in the photo was blocked off soon after this was taken. Boarded gates and hastily erected makeshift partitions restrict the view of onlookers. Guards wander around writing reports on everything they see.
As I sat to consider this piece, I resisted the urge to regurgitate the horrors of the years - I am a horrified witness; besides, they are mostly public record. For years evidence of brutality has been easy to access. International pleas, rebukes and criticism, including numerous submissions to the International Criminal Court citing ‘crimes against humanity,’ have all been either ignored or dismissed. As have commissioned reports detailing heart-wrenching accounts of sexual/physical abuse, strategies of ‘deliberate’ harm, mental torture, breaches in duty of care, medical neglect and cruelty in its basest of forms. The exorbitant and highly controversial financial cost of Australia’s policy of incarcerating randomly selected groups of people (2,937) on distant islands is phenomenal, “around $9 billion over the period 2016 to 2020.” From the resultant isolation and scarcity of objective witnesses, catastrophic human rights abuses predictably ensued.
I came to sit in this place to listen anew, with fresh ears, to the men incarcerated here as well as others around the nation for Kangaroo Point is just one of the places Australia holds these people - there are many. I came here because this is happening on my watch, on my turf, in my city.
They famously began their Australian ordeal in offshore Pacific islands, Manus and Nauru, that were primarily set up as processing centres for asylum seekers in July 2013. Nobody then imagined that their suffering would last over seven and a half years. Of course their ordeal began long before this date but I focus here on the impact of Australia’s punitive incarceration.
In 2016 Paris Aristotle, a key architect of offshore processing, said he had ‘never anticipated the facilities would become long term warehouses for refugees without settlement options.” In 2017 he said, Australia’s offshore detention centres are “terrible”...”there is not a ‘skerrick of evidence’ they deter asylum seekers from boarding boats” ... “the Australian model is not an exportable one, it is not viewed with admiration, apart from by some quirky elements on the extremes.”
My first call. A broken lady. Maryam (I cannot use her real name) has been incarcerated for seven years and eight months. She was frustrated when I called having just returned from a medical appointment.
“The psychologists keep asking me about my past,” she said, “I am trying so hard to forget my past, it is like a crazy nightmare and they won’t stop asking me. I am a proven refugee, they have my story but still they keep asking because they say it is their job.”
“What is your name?
Why did you come to Australia?
Do you have children ...?”
I ask them, “why don’t you help me, why do you keep making me live my past again and again!”
“I was forced into marriage by my stepfather when I was 15. I am from Iran but they sent me to Iraq to marry a man double my age. I knew nothing about husbands. He was a violent man and I have scars all over my body from his attacks. He broke my shoulder, my nose and often beat me badly. My hand is scarred. I used it to protect myself when he stabbed me in the stomach with a knife. I ran from him with my son but when they realised they came to Iran to find us. I had to hide because I knew they would kill me. They found my son and took him back to Iraq. I still cry for him; he is thirteen now.”
“I felt so free when I left Iran, no more beatings, no more hiding. I caught a plane and later a boat and arrived in Australia on the 26th July 2013. The boat was broken and the weather was terrible; it was a terrifying journey. They took me to Christmas Island then Nauru. Nauru is hell. My mental health became so bad there that I was eventually brought to Australia seventeen months ago.
“I am not okay. I always stay in my room, mostly just thinking. I don’t watch TV, I don’t want to see life because I am in here. I smoke now. I pray. I pray to every god, muslim, Buddha, christian .. everything but I don’t really have a religion now. I just want to get out of here. I did nothing wrong!
I am too scared to sleep in my room, I sleep in my cupboard because I feel safest there. When security comes to the do the night-time headcount they know where to find me.”
“I have stomach problems, it bloats too much and I cough too much. In Nauru they told me I had asthma, they gave me a prescription but did not have the medication there so I never got it. For one month I have been coughing so much at night time that I cannot breathe and my room mate needs to come help me. Australian International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) are contracted to provide care. “When I complained to the IHMS doctor he gave me Strepsils.” “I really need to be free. I need a safe and normal life.”
Maryam is held in the Broadmeadows Residential Precinct (BRP), Melbourne. This APOD is approximately 300 metres away from the main detention centre, Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA).
Another call. A shattered young man. “I was very fit when I first came, I was always careful myself, with the food I ate and I didn’t smoke. I tried to keep myself strong, even during years on Manus I exercised when I could and did my best to look after myself.” He was a strong, fit 90kg when brought to Australia for treatment, he now weighs 74kg. His clothes no longer fit properly.
At a recent medical appointment a doctor asked, “what have you done to yourself, your body is so damaged for somebody of your young age.”
“I was on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea,” he answered.
“Oh, I see,” was the reply, “I understand.”
He had called me after this appointment to say, “Bev, I think I will never get to see you again. I don’t think I will live to have a life outside this place. I am ill and I think I will die in here.”
He was recently hospitalised. Prior to this he slept for days and nights on end until suddenly he could not sleep at all for days on end. His mind was/is shutting down. “I don’t want to see myself in this situation anymore,” he told me, “really I don’t have hope for life anymore.” IHMS persistently pushed him to take medication. “They want me to sleep all my days away and be like this forever,” he said. Often he called and told me he had ‘too much pain’ in his eyes and body; he gets terrible headaches. He also has heart and kidney problems.
This day when I rang he told me he was ‘too empty to speak. They have killed everything inside of me,” he said, “I feel like a dead man, I have no words today.”
Prior to hospital he had not taken lunch or dinner for sixty five days, he was not on hunger strike, he preferred to “be alone.” He had run out of conversation. His only sustenance came from snack food made available to the men 24 hours a day: Cornflakes, Coco Pops, bread, peanut butter, tea and coffee and such like.
On Thursday November 26th, the Australian Border Force (ABF) told him they were taking him from Kangaroo Point to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA). He told them he could not go; he was scared to go. “I cannot see fences anymore,” he said, “my mental health is not good to see fences again.” Having spent years in the Manus Island centre gazing at the ocean and world beyond through cage walls this is understandable.
Refugee supporters called a snap action rally to stop his forced removal. I was able to provide information for media releases and local Federal Member of Parliament, Terri Butler responded to my late night messages and immediately sent a concerned email to the Minister for Immigration. ABF, unmoved by his fears, threatened to remove him by force if he did not willingly comply. Protestors slept outside the hotel all night but failed to prevent a 5am transfer however, their efforts were effective. Instead of placing this man in an isolation room or on High Watch (24 hour monitoring) ABF took him to BITA and then to hospital. He spent many hours in emergency before being transferred to a ward.
All watching eyes were on the hospital to see if they will fulfil their duty to this patient and refuse to discharge him back to a system that is widely known to ‘cause mental suffering’ or if they would kowtow to the demands of the ABF. Founder and president of Doctors for Refugees (D4R), Dr Barri Phatarfod, warned the hospital that detention facilities are “largely unsafe and inappropriate post-hospital discharge locations. She noted the attendant triggers, such as high fences, heavy security, pat downs and isolation that might, foreseeably, make this man relapse.’ Dr Peter Young, a Consultant Psychiatrist who took on the role responsible for oversight of mental health services to people in Australian and offshore detention centres from 2011 to 2014, made his views on this matter very clear when he wrote, “Health staff who continue to work within this system and do not speak out, support and collude with it. By accepting government imposed restrictions they breach their professional responsibilities.”
ABF place medical professionals and facilities in a terrible position. When a refugee enters a hospital ward it becomes another prison. A conscientious doctor might, with his patients best interests at heart, tell ABF that he/she must have visitors if they are to heal but he would quickly be put in his place. Serco guards sit outside the entrance doors, visitors are not allowed and gifts of food, clothes or snacks are denied. As other patients’ visitors come and go their powerlessness is reinforced in this new setting and they are once again reminded that they have no rights and that any hope of being treated like a normal human being is futile. Hospitals must not allow themselves to be used to further entrench despair. Politics does not belong in places of healing.
Sadly the man was returned against his will to detention. Seven guards handcuffed him, held his arms very tightly and marched him out to the van waiting to return him to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA). His handcuffs were removed before entering and he collapsed to the ground when marched in. Onlookers filmed this video.
This young man is very ill. He fears for the future because he knows that his mental health is severely damaged. There is no doubt that it is but then they are all damaged by detention and in urgent need of care.
Another call. Another medically neglected man. Ben (not his real name) is young refugee. He has been detained for seven years and eighteen months. He is currently held in a high security detention centre that is also occupied by ex prisoners who, if they were not born in Australia, are taken to detention straight after the completion their sentence to await deportation decisions. Refugees are often shuffled around between hotels and detention centres according to the number of spaces available.
Ben also stays alone all day in his room. Occasionally he will listen to music or talk with friends but he has neither the energy or the inclination to do much more. “I just prefer to be alone now, I don’t want to talk anymore, I just stay in my room and never go out and everyone just leaves me alone.” “I have been in prison for seven and a half years,” he told me. “When is enough?”
He cannot sleep well. He tries but it is impossible for him to sleep through a whole night. he does not take any medication now. In Manus he was given Seroquel for his mental health, Diazepam and another medication for sleep. In Manus case managers used to bring cannabis into the compounds to help people to not stress but he did not like to smoke it.
He came to Australia in August 2019. Doctors in Port Moresby had ordered an ultrasound and found that he had a lump in his liver. He was in a lot of pain but nothing was done. His condition is still untreated. “They have forgotten me,” he said. He has not been given medication for the pain. "It is most painful if somebody touches that part of me,” he says, he cannot do gym or anything like that anymore.
“I cannot focus. I wake up, smoke, look at instagram for a little while and maybe Facebook, then I smoke again and eat. That is my usual day. I am so tired. I can do nothing. I am mentally exhausted and have never been like this before. I don’t have any hope. I don’t want to wake up in the morning but I can only sleep five or six hours each day. The days are very long.”
“This is my life. All I can do is watch and see. When you cannot change anything, if you have no power you just have to sit and watch. I wish freedom for everyone. Freedom is the best feeling in the world. Freedom is the most valuable thing in the world. Life has no meaning without it. A bird in a cage is no longer a bird. “
He spoke about ABF employees there. “One used to come and tell us anything to keep us calm. We do not trust them or believe them in here. They tell lies to us.” I told them, ‘you have damaged us! You have broken our souls! ... I am asking for humanity!”
"Why do you make false promises to people and break people’s hope?”
I came to Australia when I was twenty five, now I am now thirty two. They have taken my best years away. I respect these people because they are a human beings, not from fear, I am a refugee! I ask why do you keep me here?” Why don’t you help us? They have no answer.
Having lived to experience persecution and now being forced to endure the agony of indefinite detention this young man is intensely aware that his youth is running out. The last vestiges of his strength and resilience have been systematically robbed.
“They do not treat us like human beings! When they wanted to change my compound they put me into isolation for three days. I had done nothing wrong. I had no phone on the first day. The room had white walls, a toilet, a camera. They pushed food through a hole in the door. There was nothing to do in there and nobody can hear you when you scream and yell because the door is so heavy!”
“Again, they put me into isolation but this time it was because I tried to kill myself. I spent one month in in this compound with people who had come from jail. It was another tiny compound with just a shower and toilet.”
“I am so alone in this place. I miss my mother and my father. My mother has diabetes so I worry about her. If it was safe for me to go home then of course I would go. It isn’t. I asked if he had ever told them about Manus island and everything he has been through and he said “No.” He wants to save his mother from knowing about his pain.
The Australian government were warned Back in 2013, the Australian Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights warned the Australian government. It found, based on the substantial evidence before it, that Australia's regional processing legislation ‘violated many of its human rights obligations.’ The Liberal National Coalition government still pushed for ‘tough border protection policies,’ strategising for a ‘hostile’ reception for people fleeing danger by boat, from places like Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Indonesia, nations that have not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Many ask why they do not just go back home. If they could have returned to homelands they would have. As Warsan Shire’s famous poem, ‘Home,’ aptly says, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark...unless home chases you, unless home is the barrel of a gun, unless home chased you to the shore, unless home told you to crawl through the desert, wade through the oceans...” Those from among this cohort who were able to return to homelands left long ago. Some, those from nations that allow forced returns (refoulement), had no choice. Those left standing remain powerless in limbo, stateless, endangered, fearful - they are trapped.
Another call, another broken lady. Liza (I cannot use her real name) is from Iran, she has been incarcerated for seven years and eighteen months. She is also in Melbourne’s BRP (APOD).
“I tried to keep myself strong; I will never be the person I was before. I have become sick both physically and mentally... terrible headaches, back pain, kidney and vein problems. I had many lumps in my breasts, both sides and had a biopsy. They told me there is no problem but I cannot trust they are telling the truth. I have seen no kindness from Australia. They sent me for a MRI because Doctors 4 Refugees asked the IHMS doctor for a review of my pain. I was traumatised when I asked Australia for help, I had been abused and beaten, there is no respect for women in my country. I am human, I am someone but they cannot see my value.”
“Yes I escaped by boat, I had no choice; I had to risk my life and get on a boat, as a woman I was not safe in Indonesia. I ran from my country for many reasons. I fell from one hole to another hole. If I could go back of course I would go back, but I cannot be safe there. My family do not know much about my situation because I have to lie to them and friends on the phone. I contact them less and less now because I feel sick after we speak.
I and five others were on the very last flight from Christmas Island to Nauru. On the day they decided to send me many guards pulled me up, holding my hands very tight before and behind. An immigration lady, wearing a hijab, told me ‘you have no choice, you have to go. They gave me a tablet and I still cannot remember much about the trip. They took me to Nauru by force and when I first saw Nauru I went in shock and fell down. I was very vulnerable so they put me in RPC1 which is for people who are high risk of self harm before being sent to RPC3.
RPC3 has rocky ground; extreme heat reflected from the rocks and hurt the eyes. Ants, lizards, mice, cockroaches rats, dogs and cats ran freely. I caught dengue fever from the mosquitoes. One tent had 12 room areas divided by plastic; there were no fans or air conditioners; they were very mouldy, dusty and dirty. I lived in this tent for six years (photo above) I have terrible memories of that time. In the rainy season water flowed everywhere. It was as high as our knees and everything in our tent became wet. We had to ask for toilet paper and personal items and we walked 1 kilometre to shower and public toilets. After 2 minutes in the shower they cut off the water. Men regularly touched our bodies for security searches. Sexual harassment happened all the time.”
“I came to Australia because of my health sixteen months ago. “Every time I go to MITA for medical appointments they take us by van in case we run away [laughs]. It is 300 metres away from BRP. Our bodies are searched by hand and by machine when we arrive and again when we return. Imagine how many times we have to be touched! The guards tread through our rooms four times a day with their dirty shoes to do a head count. Imagine hearing loud boots in your room every morning, one guard touched my head to see if I was under the blanket and it gave me a panic attack.”
“These things are like a movie that is forever playing in front of my eyes. I make food but have not appetite to eat it, nothing makes me happy. I have no motivation in life to be hopeful. It is like a chess game, I am blocked in check mate, I cannot move anywhere. The Australian government has blocked me. They do what they want with us. We have no control of our lives. I am a victim of politics.”
Who are these people? They are people ‘with faces, names, families, hopes, dreams and aspirations just like you and me,’ who sought asylum from Australia, a nation that is not only a signatory of the Refugee Convention, but also assisted with the writing of it. When Europeans fleeing the World War Two Holocaust were turned away on ships and back to danger the world’s compassionate response was to agree this must never happen again. The Refugee Convention, was born in 1951 from this decision. Australia voluntarily ratified the Convention in 1954 and the ‘1967 Protocol,’ that widened its scope of protection to all refugees in 1973. Essentially, Australia committed to ‘abide by the principles and obligations set out, i.e. treating refugees in accordance with legal and humanitarian standards.’
Why are these people in Australia? They were brought here under the landmark Medevac bill which passed in early 2019. Some came before Medevac but were added to the cohort. Prior to Medevac refugees waited years, sometimes up to five, for transfer for medical treatment. This Bill stopped politicians interfering with medical assessments and enabled urgent medical transfers. It also allowed members of a refugee’ family unit to be transferred with patients. It gave the Minister of Home Affairs seventy two hours to review and, if deemed necessary, refuse transfers. Prior to the passing of this Bill every medical evacuation had to be fought for in courts. The process was incredibly expensive and very cumbersome.
Medevac came into being after the Australian government, the Liberal National Coalition, lost control of the House enabling opposition Members of Parliament to gain the numbers needed to pass it. The government repealed the legislation after winning the next election. National security concerns were cited to persuade Australians of the need for repeal. In truth the government has since been working hard to force offshore refugees into settlement in other nations.
Over eight hundred refugees have passed rigorous character tests to resettle in the USA. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, during a meeting with former President Trump told him, “we know them very well” and “they are good people” Some have gone to Canada, Norway, France, Sweden, Finland and other nations. The criminalising and dehumanising rhetoric used to malign refugees in recent decades contrasts greatly with the warm welcoming reception they have received in other nations. Urban myths depicting refugees as welfare grabbing miscreants also fail on closer inspection. In my experience people arriving from nations without income support structures are instinctively creative and intuitive. Most of the refugees I know, have a strong entrepreneurial bent. They are not only eager to work they are willing to work hard.
Another call, another shattered man. Alexi (I cannot use his real name), has been incarcerated for seven years and seven months. Sixteen months in Australia and seventy three months in Papua New Guinea.
He weighed 74 kilos when he was first brought from Manus Island, he now weighs 64 kilos.
“I only need to eat once a day,” he told me. We have nothing to do here, we are in our room 24 hours a day, we don’t need much food.” He hadn’t taken any food when I spoke to him.
“There is no activity for us and none of us feel good. Maybe if we felt better we could eat, but we cannot. We sit on the couch in our room all day. Sometimes I might watch some news.”
“In Manus Island we took the tablets they gave so that we didn’t think. I took quetiapine for over eighteen months in Manus, to help me with sleeping (he showed me a packet that had one left in it). I don’t take it anymore. I had different medications, some for nightmares and some for sleeping. I had too much stress in Manus and I could not stop thinking.”
Alexi had three years of acute pain in his large intestines before coming here. His right hand has shaken uncontrollably for five years. He has a sickness that but cannot remember the name of it.
He was evacuated from Manus Island to the Pacific International Hospital (PIH) where doctors told him the specialist care he needed was only available in Australia. “They need to put cameras inside of me to see my problem,” he says. “I am worried about my intestines of course,” he says, “but I am really worried about my shaking hand.” Sometimes when he tries to trim his friend’s hair it is very hard or he cannot do it.
Twice he was given an appointment. “A guard held my hand so hard and there were guards in front and on my side and I could not handle it. I could not be taken outside like a criminal, my mind could not take that after all this time. Actually it broke my heart and I could not walk with them. What have I done wrong? They know I am not a criminal. I told them please take me like a human being. I have waited so long for help with my illnesses but this was too much for me.”
“I don’t understand why they keep us like this; let us go outside,” he said. “Let us walk and have some kind of life. Let us go to church or to a library or shopping; we could leave in the morning and come back at 6pm - they could put a GPS thing on our legs.”
“Let us be free, we need to recover. Instead of just giving us tablets and letting us live like dead men, let us recover - we need to recover”
Why are these people depicted/treated as criminals? An important question. The people held in hotels (APODs) and other detention facilities around Australia have committed no crime. But, in In October 2013,Scott Morrison then Minister for Immigration, demanded that government departments and media refer to boat people as “illegals.” Previously they had been referred to as ‘irregular maritime arrivals.’ He also demanded that those held onshore be referred to as ‘detainees’ instead of’ clients.’ Those transferred to offshore processing were to be called ‘transferees.’
The Australian parliamentary website confirms they sought asylum legally. Those I am talking with sought Asylum legally. When they began their journeys, leaving homes and homelands, when they boarded and disembarked from boats onto Australian shores they, according to our Parliamentary website, had a legal right to seek asylum in Australia after having fled by any 'available mode of transport.' It says the same today. ’
During a November 2013 Senate Estimates Committee interview Senator Kim Carr re-iterated the fact that ‘it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia.
Senator Carr also established the fact that these people had not committed or been convicted of an offence.
After almost five hours of conversations I returned home. I knew the men were broken both mentally and physically before I came to Kangaroo Point but had not previously asked for the more intimate details of their ailments, some of which I decided not to share publicly. Some of the current urgent medical conditions needing attention include: Arachnoid cysts, eye surgery, orthopaedic surgery (to restore use of a refugee’s arm), heart surgeries, kidney surgeries, untreated kidney stones, urgent tests for a preliminary diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, abdominal surgery... there are many diabetes related issues ... These people have a right to health.
Australia is a party to the International Covenant on Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). To reiterate, when a nation ratifies a treaty they voluntarily accept legal obligations under international law. Essentially, Australia has covenanted to recognise that the ‘inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world. That these rights ‘derive from the inherent dignity of the human person; that we ‘recognise the right of everyone to the enjoyment the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.’
The next day I returned around midday. The erratic nature of their sleep patterns makes it difficult to time phone conversations. Many wake to grab something to eat and then retire again to their rooms. I rang around the various centres again.
Another call. Another depleted man. Daniel is from Sri Lanka. “It is hard for us to be detained among criminals,” he says, “whatever they did wrong brought them to this place but we,” meaning those brought from offshore islands, “we, have done nothing wrong ... we broke no laws, we did no crime, yet have been prisoners for many years, longer than most of their sentences.”
“Everyone is mentally exhausted here. Our heads are always worried. We do not know how long they want to keep us like this. I have seen people sitting and laughing for no reason. They suddenly burst into laughter. At first I wondered why, then I realised they are mentally very bad.
Most people do not come out of their rooms much. Some other people go and lay down on the concrete under the sun and stay there for a long time.
He was evacuated to Australia in August 2019 with serious mental health issues. Faced with the mental agony of prolonged indefinite detention in Manus Island he tried to take his own life.
“I thought I would get better in Australia but that was not what happened. “They held me in the Mantra hotel in Melbourne for nine months. I stayed in my room twenty three hours a day. I was already very ill when transported here but they locked me up in a place where we did not see sunlight or enjoy fresh air. I became much worse and did not want to see another day.”
In May 2020 he tried to hang himself. He spent one week in the Royal Melbourne hospital, without a phone. Police had taken it apparently. He was then transported back to Melbourne’s Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA detention) held alone for four days in a small isolation room. It had a camera, shower and toilet; food was poked through a hole in the door.
The hospital had told him he didn’t have covid and they had no active cases at that time so he questioned the need for isolation. The officer told him they wanted to watch him in case he tried to kill himself again. In Manus and Nauru refugees were thrown into jail for attempting to kill themselves, In both on and offshore detention, suicide attempts are seen as a cry for attention and punished with isolation.
Next he was moved into quarantine for fourteen days. His own phone was also returned to him. Quarantine was a relief after isolation. He could walk around and talk to other people. He could eat food with them around a table.
After quarantine he was returned to the main MITA compounds.
“I am very tired of this caged life,” he says, “I want to start to build a life again. I have always wanted to have a family, if I was free I would have had children by now, instead I am alone.”
“It is also very difficult to practise my religion here, I am a Hindu and my religion often has special times of fasting where we eat only vegetables. We cannot do that here. Vegetables are either mixed in with meat or they have just a bit of salad. That is very hard for me.”
“I hope that now the Australian people have experienced Covid lockdown that they will have sympathy for us. We have been in lockdown for almost eight years.”
“The good thing about lockdown for us is that the Victorian government gave us a $40 credit card, which helped us buy internet data. There is no Wifi here. Usually we are given 60 points each week that we can use in the canteen. One week out of every month I buy a Lebara card and get between 45-60gb of data so I can talk with friends. Other times I might use my points to buy snacks.”
“I have a lot of support in the community. I tell my caseworker, "if you give me freedom I have a lot of support on the outside. I will look after myself. She tells me that only the Minister can make the decision to free me.”
“When I see people in the community fighting for us tears fall from my eyes. Their love is unconditional. I really want to thank everybody for thinking about us.”
Another call. Another man without hope. Jimmi (I cannot use his real name), was a professional football player. He played and trained players internationally.. He has been incarcerated seven years and eighteen months thus far. The finer details of his story cannot be spoken of publicly at this time. However the years of personal suffering and sickness from Nauru, now Australia, on top of witnessing the suffering of others has taken a terrible toll on him. He tells me of his sadness for an older refugee from Afghanistan who had cancer. He had months to live and could not return to his homeland but ABF kept telling to go home and refused to release him to spend his final days in the community with friends. He was eventually taken to Australian detention but Jimmi has lost contact with him now and is not sure if he is still alive or not.
Jimmi has not been able to play football since the death of his best friend in Nauru. Fariborz, who was 26 years old, died in front of him. “He was a very good boy, we played football together every day and also, when allowed to go into the Nauruan community, organised league teams, made up of men from different nationalities on the island.”
I first heard of Fariborz some months ago whilst attending a protest outside the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel. His mother, who now lives in community detention in Brisbane, spoke, with broken english, of her desperation.
The ABF had ignored the family’s call for help.. Fariborz had been a medical student and was very fit but had begun to experience worrying chest pains and was increasingly unwell. They had nobody but Australia to turn to for help, Nauru’s medical facilities are famously basic. After his death ABF put his body in a refrigerated van next to his mother’s accommodation for almost four months. They refused to bury him in Australia despite the fact that he has family here. For four months his mother sat by this van and wept. Eventually Australia agreed to bury him here but refused to allow his mother to attend the funeral... they later relented.
Prior to listening to this story I was videoing and taking photos of the protest (see video) but was so overcome by both the sadness and callous indifference of the Australian government that I had to walk away. I carry so many terrible stories but the thought of having to live with my son’s dead body next to my room levelled me. Every time I think I have heard the worst from these offshore hells another terrible story emerges.
The unimaginably cruel treatment of Fariborz’s family, culminating in his death, deeply disturbed his already vulnerable younger brother. They were very close. He too needs specialist care now and it is not hard to imagine the brokenness of their mother.
Another call, another broken man. Murrie (I cannot use his real name) has been incarcerated for seven years and eight months. Seventeen months in Australia and seventy three months in Papua New Guinea.
He had just finished eating lunch so I asked him about the food. “We have a new menu now,” he said, “before the food was smelly but is fresher now, they bring it from outside.” For over seven years they have eaten food from plastic take-away containers, used plastic utensils and plastic or foam cups.
He was brought to Australia from Papua New Guinea for urgent medical treatment fifteen months ago. The year prior he was in so much pain he could barely sleep. Doctors in Port Moresby’s Pacific International Hospital (PIH) had told him he needed surgery. He was given medication for pain but ceased taking it because he believed it could actually make his condition worse. It was addictive too, he told me, “and it has many side effects.” He was in Australia for over a year before getting help. At last his physical pain is gone.
I asked about his life. “I sleep around five hours per night, I try to stay positive and friendly to everyone,” he says “but don’t have close friends here, we are all too tired and sad. I am really tired and I don’t like to wake up in the morning and see my days here anymore. They have taken my life away. Everyone is down now, we are done! It is so hard to be positive and have hope in this limbo. We are the walking dead in here! I cannot watch movies or TV anymore, everything is meaningless in this place.”
I asked if he preferred to be in the BITA detention centre or in the hotel. “In detention four people must share a room and you cannot think or have privacy. Here I can be alone, I need to be alone. now”
I asked what he hoped for. “Bev,” he said, “the big things that I want for my life now are to walk in a street. I want to see a Sunset. I want to live like a normal person and for people to see me as a human. Eight years is too much!” I could have been a father by now. I could have been married. I am not a criminal, I have done nothing wrong! I just want to be a human being. It is killing me. I want to start to live!” These men can only move between room to lounge, canteen and back to their rooms again. They only leave for medical appointments, no exercise, no excursions.
I usually avoid asking probing questions, preferring light conversations that distract from the endless monotony of their days. Seven years ago we had different conversations, but who knew then that they would be held for so long. Asking a simple question like, “Hi, how are you? seems almost insulting when you know people are wasting away.
Another call, another wasted man. “Here in Kangaroo Point, we don’t have any ups and downs, we have downs and downers. It is a miserable place and we are being wasted.”
“Groups of guards open the gates. Six guards help to distribute food. Two people check what you food you have ordered and bring the containers to you if there is enough left. Those who order early get the food they actually want. One day I went to get a knife and there were five Serco guards watching. There are around one hundred and thirty Serco and MSS security guards stationed at the hotel, around fifty to sixty five per day and night shift. Mostly they do nothing. They do a head count twice a day. Some might come and ask how we are, but they already know the answer. Some distribute food. MSS guards used to stand and light cigarettes for the smokers, no lighters are allowed. They have recently installed an electric lighter here so that job is no longer necessary. Smoking has been banned on the front balcony and there is a new designated smoking area downstairs.”
“Everyone here has been worn down to nothing by the endless monotony.”
Another call, another struggling man. Abel (I cannot his real name), has been incarcerated for seven years and five months. Sixteen months in Australia and seventy three months in Papua New Guinea.
“We don’t like to leave our rooms.”
“If we go to the balcony a guard will write a report about us; they write down everything we do,If we go to lunch or if we don’t go to lunch.”
“We stay in our room so that we don’t see Serco guards or MSS security people everywhere we go. They write reports on us so they can prove they are doing something and worth their money. Everyone is profiting from keeping us here, the restaurants outside, the rented cars, the guards, the couriers ... they don’t want us to be free because they get paid if we are here.”
When I speak to the men I try to encourage them with the news that there are many battles happening that they cannot see with their eyes. It is true. There are many thousands of Australians here and overseas involved in the fight to end this terribly dark era and to right the wrongs of recent decades. Truthfully no encouragement changes their daily despair or monotony. They no longer have the strength to stir hope because hope has been dashed too many times.
We have seen many victories over the years but not enough. Fighting for refugees is an endless and exhausting battle. Many long term advocates are worn thin from this brutal arena. Every time we think we have heard everything another heart wrenching story surfaces. The emotional toll is huge. There are always new people joining the advocacy throng, shocked and dismayed by whatever revelations opened their eyes. I understand their despair for I was once a Liberal voting, Christian who believed the ‘stop the boats,’ rhetoric. My vote, I realise, was inherited and my world view had become incredibly blinkered.
I wandered obliviously into a detention centre in 2014 knowing only one side of the story. There had been a riot in Manus island. Australian guards had opened the compound gates to approximately two hundred locals with eyes red from betel nuts, armed with machetes, knives, sticks and guns. Later news stories revealed they had little understanding of the status of these men and had thought they were criminals making trouble. A Salvation Army worker gave men a key to the internet room so they could call on BBC UK and BBC Persia for help. They were terrified and thought they were going to be killed. So damaged were these refugees after the furore that resident Salvation Army workers and Centre guards stood and wept over their injured bodies. They did not have the medical facilities immediately available to treat them all. I first met those evacuated to BITA for emergency medical treatment and within weeks it was clear that the people I sat with for coffee and a chat with were nothing like those portrayed in the media stories about them. Over the years many of those I first met were released into the community and have become as family to me. I have stayed in their homes and they have stayed in mine; I consider it a privilege to know them.
My greatest hope in writing this is that others will be also be horrified by the endless horror story these people are trapped in. I also hope that people will understand that seven and half years of powerlessness and hopelessness has stripped them down to their core. I do not believe they can survive being incarcerated for much longer. I believe we have reached the End game.