United by shared hardships, a small community is building a place of support, solidarity and safety.
Brisbane, Australia – In the early hours of the morning, security guards at an inner-city motel and serviced apartment complex in Brisbane would begin knocking on each door. They were conducting a headcount, checking that everyone was still inside their room, and still alive, just as they had every day since the start of 2019.
This was Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central Hotel & Apartments, a makeshift immigration detention centre which the Australian government terms “an alternative place of detention” (APOD).
Until this week, it had been used to confine people like 32-year-old Iraqi Ahmad Albardan and other refugees and asylum seekers who were detained at either of Australia’s offshore processing facilities – Nauru and Manus Island, both around 4,000km from Australia’s shores – but had been sent to Australia for medical treatment under the country’s now repealed medevac law.
Last week, 19 men who were still being held at this centre after more than a year were suddenly transferred to the Brisbane Immigration Detention Centre (BITA). Thankfully, says Ahmad, 50 others – himself included – had already been released from Kangaroo Point in March.
They were released into the community on final departure bridging visas. These are granted to “transitory persons” – usually for about three months – while their immigration status is resolved or to allow them time to make arrangements to leave the country.
In the meantime, according to Paul Power, Refugee Council of Australia chief executive, the released refugees have the right to access public healthcare and are allowed to work. But, Power explained, such visas offer little in the way of long-term certainty as their renewal requires “personal intervention” by the recently sworn-in Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Department of Home Affairs told Al Jazeera: “Transitory persons are in Australia for a temporary purpose only. They will not be settled permanently in Australia. The grant of a final departure bridging visa allows transitory persons to reside in the community while they are making arrangements for their departure from Australia.”
The government has not stated its reason for releasing some of the detainees in March, and not others. However, in January, it also released 45 men from hotel detention in Melbourne. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said at the time: “It’s cheaper for people to be in the community than it is to be at a hotel or for us to be paying for them to be in detention.”
‘Rotting away in the muggy tropical heat’
A former soldier, born and raised in Iraq, Ahmad decided to flee his home country in 2013. “Iraq had turned into a land of war. There was no life to live there,” he says.
Leaving seven brothers, one sister and his parents behind, Ahmad was desperate to escape. He believed Australia would welcome him and give him the chance to live a new life in safety.
He now realises he made a grave mistake.
After he arrived in Australia in 2013, he tried to claim refugee status by applying for a permanent protection visa. Instead, the Australian government sent Ahmad to Manus Island detention centre in Papua New Guinea where he was to remain until a decision about his status could be made.
He was kept there for six years.
“It was six years of torture. The entire system is designed to make us suffer, to bend us to their will, to break us,” Ahmad says. “The conditions of the Manus Island detention centre were filthy. The ‘beds’ we slept on were thin mattresses kept extremely close to each other, there was no air conditioning and while you showered, you stood on concrete that was falling apart right beneath you.
“You are rotting away in the muggy tropical heat. There is no gym, no educational programmes, there is nothing to do.”
Ahmad adds that while detainees were allowed to leave the centre for a short period to go for a walk, doing so only instilled more fear in them, as refugees were sometimes attacked and robbed.
“They didn’t want us there, on their island. No one did.”
According to the Australian government, the chance of a refugee or asylum seeker successfully being granted a visa comes down to whether they have met all seven categories used by the UNHCR (the UN’s refugee agency) to select refugees for resettlement and provided all of the correct, certified documentation that is required.
‘We were in the middle of the ocean, completely isolated from the rest of the world’
“Every night I was on that island, I had nightmares. We were in the middle of the ocean, completely isolated from the rest of the world. There were a small number of medical staff but they didn’t give you medication just because you ‘couldn’t fall asleep’,” Ahmad recalls.
A year into his detention on Manus Island, Ahmad says he saw groups of locals surround his compound, armed with knives, iron bars and stones, threatening to kill the refugees inside.
“They were shouting: ‘Get out or we will kill you. We don’t want you here. Go back to where you came from’.”
There were only four security guards on duty that night, Ahmad says. At first, they tried to stop the men from entering the compound, but then a stone hit one of the guards and broke his finger. After that, he says, the other three guards hid in the compound, leaving the entrance open for the men to enter.
“One refugee was killed during the attack, right in front of me. He was my friend,” Ahmad says.
Moaz Mohammad, a 29-year-old Sudanese refugee, shares similar experiences.
A university student reading economics in Darfur, Moaz says he was forced to give up his dreams of graduating, leave his family and flee to Australia in 2013. After spending 27 days at the Christmas Island Immigration Detention Centre, Moaz was taken to Manus Island, where he was also held for six years.
“There are no words to describe Manus Island. It was full of hatred, disease and sickness. It was the last thing from an offshore processing centre – it’s a complete crime scene,” Moaz says.
“But not even that place could compare to Kangaroo Point. Kangaroo Point was hell.”
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission: “Australia has obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive and whether they arrive with or without a visa.”
The commission also states that because Australia is a party to the Refugees Convention, “Australia has agreed to ensure that people who meet the United Nations definition of refugee are not sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened.”
However, the Australian government states: “The ultimate decision to process a request and grant a protection visa rests with Australia’s Immigration Department.”
‘Manus Island was better than Kangaroo Point’
After six long years on Manus Island, Moaz and Ahmad were allowed to come to Brisbane for medical treatment – Ahmad for his deteriorating mental health as a result of his detention; and Moaz for a physical injury to his leg. They both arrived in 2019, feeling hopeful that a better future might lie ahead. But, instead, both men were detained once again – this time inside the Kangaroo Point “hotel”.
“For over a year, I wasn’t allowed to take one step outside of my room. I wasn’t allowed fresh air, sunlight, to study, to exercise or even to go for a walk. We didn’t have any basic human rights,” Ahmad says.
Officially, the Australian government says it accepts a duty to care for refugees in detention, including the provision of appropriate food. A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs told Al Jazeera, “There are a range of services provided to detainees accommodated in APODs, including access to dedicated indoor and outdoor exercise and activity areas.”
“Detainees in APODs have access to appropriate food (accommodating dietary and cultural requirements), educational programmes, cultural, recreational and sporting activities, internet and computer facilities, televisions, and clean, comfortable sleeping quarters.”
However, Ahmad, a Muslim, disputes this. He says the meals provided to the refugees at the Kangaroo Point centre were a form of “mental torture”. For more than 12 months (from 2019 to 2020), he says Muslim refugees were not given certified halal food.
“I didn’t want to starve to death so I didn’t have a choice. It’s not like they listened to me or cared whether our meals were halal or not, they didn’t understand, they didn’t want to,” Ahmad says. “They treated us like we were nothing – not even human. We were like wild animals kept in cages.”
Moaz says the worst thing about Kangaroo Point were the windows inside their rooms.
“Whenever I looked outside the window, I would see people outside, walking in the sunshine, driving their cars, sitting in coffee shops and restaurants – this was the hardest thing for me.
“On Manus Island, you didn’t see any of that, you couldn’t see what was happening outside of the building, which was honestly better. Being in Kangaroo Point felt like a cruel joke. We were locked up in rooms where we could still see other people freely living their lives right in front of us.”
A spokesman for the Department of Home Affairs told Al Jazeera: “Daily management of detainees, whether in a detention centre or APOD, is carried out with primary consideration given to the safety and security of all individuals, staff and the public.”
However, immigration lawyers in Australia say the government is taking far too long to process requests for asylum and residence visas.
According to Australian social justice law firm, Maurice Blackburn, the Australian government knowingly “left refugees to languish in detention for years under the guise that they might eventually be sent offshore”.
Stating that this constitutes “false imprisonment”, principal lawyer at Maurice Blackburn, Jennifer Kanis says: “The Commonwealth is going to great lengths to delay the outcomes for the children and families who were detained on Nauru and Manus Island.
“People seeking asylum have already experienced delays in accessing important healthcare because of the Commonwealth’s offshore detention policy.”
Maurice Blackburn has commenced a pro-bono class action against the Australian Commonwealth seeking compensation for people seeking asylum who, they say, were unlawfully detained at Australian immigration detention centres between August 27, 2011 and February 25, 2020.
“We will be asking the court to determine what a reasonable timeframe should be for the approval of a visa. In our view, a reasonable time frame is two working days to six months, not years, as we have seen on repeated occasions with detainees.
Describing the act of leaving vulnerable people who are seeking asylum in an indefinite state of detention as “patently cruel and wrong”, Maurice Blackburn hopes this case will lead to recognition from the Australian government that a fairer approach to the processing of asylum seekers is “urgently needed”.
‘After more than six years of being locked in a room … how can I be happy?’
On the afternoon of March 1, this year, two guards knocked on Ahmad’s door and told him he had to pack up his things and prepare to leave. He had no idea where he was being taken, he says; no one told him anything.
It was not until 6pm that day that Ahmad was told he was going to be released from the Kangaroo Point centre.
“It’s all still a blur to me. I just remember walking out of the fence with no guards following behind me, no Australian Border Force (ABF) officers waiting for me on the other side. My body collapsed to the ground,” he says.
“I fell to the ground and wept. I couldn’t believe this was happening, that I was finally free.”
Moaz says his feelings were mixed.
“After more than six years of being locked in a room and kept from the world, how can I be happy? How can I be happy while the friends I have made are still locked up?” He has no idea, he says, why he was released while others were not, which has led to feelings of guilt and bewilderment. “I wasn’t told anything about why I was chosen to go free or anything about what fate my friends still locked up in there were going to have.”
Currently living in a friend’s home in Brisbane, Moaz’s tone when speaking about his new-found freedom and hopes for his future is bittersweet. He hopes the Australian government will one day treat refugees and asylum seekers in a more humanitarian way.
“But I fear this is too naive of me – too naive to believe the government will give each and every refugee rotting away, not just inside Kangaroo Point but on the islands, the same chance to be free.”
The men do not have family in Australia, but were able to have a “reunion” of sorts with the activists who have been campaigning for their release for the past two years.
Prominent social justice activist and spokesperson for the Refugee Solidarity Meanjin group, Dane de Leon, a 27-year-old Filipino-Australian woman, has been attending rallies and advocating for the release of the Kangaroo Point refugees since mid-2019. She says she was introduced to some of the refugees inside the centre “through friends”. As they are not allowed visitors, she kept in contact with them via text messages.
“At 5 in the morning on March 2, I got a text from one of my friends inside the Kangaroo Point centre saying he was about to be released. I got up, got dressed and drove to the place where they were taking him to process his papers. There were only around a dozen of us there waiting outside because it was such late notice.
“Witnessing their moment of freedom was the most memorable and by far the best moment of my life.”
Dane found purpose in organising rallies and keeping in close contact with the refugees, both released and still detained, through texting. She says her work goes far beyond showing up to a protest with a placard and megaphone in hand.
“Change doesn’t happen in a conference room at a table surrounded by the same-looking people,” she says. “Real change happens when the power of the people is stronger than those actually in power.
“It’s bittersweet thinking about the refugees that weren’t chosen to be released and are still locked up …. It was really just a random selection of who gets to be free and who doesn’t. So, my feelings were a mix of outrage and grief. But I told myself to take the time to be grateful that there were even refugees being released at all.”
In true Australian fashion, Dane says the first place they took all of the refugees after they were released was a suburban pub, where they enjoyed a hot meal and each other’s company for the first time in eight years.
Brisbane-based independent photographer Lux Adams had a camera ready at the scene to capture the unmitigated joy of both the refugees and the advocates who tirelessly campaigned for their freedom.
“Their release was euphoric to witness. I only managed to capture a few photos that day because first and foremost, I was there as an activist, so we were completely swept up in the moment more so than documenting it,” Lux says.
“It’s difficult taking photos of people crying in embrace when you’re also the one crying.
“These men had little to do but stare out that window for such a long period that they knew each of us just by looking at us. They expressed that seeing us there day in and day out gave them hope and made them feel like they had company. Even in those moments when it felt fruitless, knowing our presence kept them going made every second of it worthwhile.”
‘These refugees were more or less dumped’
Lux and Dane say that now is not the time to be complacent and that many hurdles lie ahead.
The bridging visas granted to Ahmad, Moaz and the rest of the released refugees are, they say, a clear indication the Australian government does not want them to settle permanently in Australia. With these visas generally being valid for three months only, Ahmad and Moaz have few options. If they don’t go home, they may well end up being sent back to Manus Island after their time is up.
“I feel like my life is currently in limbo,” says Moaz. “Yes, I have been given my freedom but, now, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. I cannot go back to my home country and I cannot go back to Manus Island, not again.”
As for Ahmad, he also says going back to his home in Iraq is not an option if he is to live a life free from violence and terror. “I am really just trying to heal right now. Spending all those years locked away on that island took away my soul. I am only now learning how to build myself back up, with the help of the beautiful friends I have made here.”
With all the uncertainty that lies ahead for these refugees, the Brisbane community is desperately working to find permanent, secure housing for them to build a new life for themselves. Two prominent Brisbane-based refugee activist groups, Refugee Solidarity Meanjin and Refugee Action Collective, created a crowdfund on social enterprise fundraising platform, Chuffed, which has currently raised over AUD $55,000 (US$42,000).
“There is no support being given to these released refugees by our government. There are no social or case workers by their side, no assistance on how to get a job or a driver’s licence, not even any support on how to use public transport,” Dane says. “For some of this time, some have been living with us. I had two refugees living with me in my family home – and this was the same scenario for the others.”
These refugees were “more or less dumped in scattered accommodation with next-to-no financial aid”, adds Lux.
“The released refugees are currently not allowed to study, not even to complete the most basic of training, which dramatically reduces their likelihood of employment,” says Lux. “They came here as Medevac refugees so they have underlying health conditions, in addition to the trauma of having been locked up for up to eight years. We can’t wait for the government to gain a conscience, so we keep relying on the community stepping forward.”
As for what the next steps will be, Lux and Dane say this comes down to the refugees finally being given the chance to heal.
“They weren’t able to heal in a place that made them sick and broken so now that they’re out of there and able to begin this journey, I think their healing is really what’s most important,” Dane says.
“Logistically, it’s up to the community to show up and be there for our friends. Whether that’s driving them somewhere they need to go, helping them buy groceries or connecting them to a health professional.
“We have already proved that we are the ones spearheading this entire movement, so it’s up to us to have certain structures in place to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Not once more.”