Listen to this story:
In 2013, Mehdi Ali fled his home country, where he was a member of a persecuted ethnic minority, and made his way to Australia. He was 15 years old. But while he was crammed onto an old wooden boat enduring rough seas, terrifying storms and harsh tropical sun alongside other asylum seekers, the Australian government was making a series of deals that meant maritime arrivals would never be allowed to resettle in the country.
After his boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy, Mehdi was taken to an offshore detention centre. Since then, he has grown up in one of the most notorious immigration detention systems in the world. Only Australia’s minister for immigration, Alex Hawke, or minister for home affairs, Karen Andrews, could grant him a visa and end his imprisonment.
During his time in detention, Mehdi has written many letters to the minister for immigration, but has never received a response.
Here, he writes to him again.
To the minister,
I have questions, which no one is answering for me.
When I ask the Department of Home Affairs, when I ask the Australian Border Force officers, when I ask the Serco guards who oversee the hotel where I am now detained, they tell me: “Well, we don’t know. We’ve got no power. It’s not up to us. We cannot answer these questions.”
Whatever I tell them, they say, “Your life is in the hands of the minister.
“No one can answer your questions except the minister.”
Well, I have never spoken to you, minister, but if you’re going to read this, I have some questions for you. I’m not asking you to release me, I’m just asking you to answer.
I came by myself to Australia when I was 15 years old and asked this country for safety. For almost nine years, I have been locked up in a cage without proper healthcare, education or basic human rights – either in offshore or onshore processing centres.
I spent the first nine months on Christmas Island, an Australian external territory located 1,550km (963 miles) northwest of the mainland. Then I spent about six years on Nauru, a tiny island nation to the northeast of Australia. It was a journey of trauma, tragedy, misery and frustration. I witnessed terrible, terrible things – children being detained, a man setting himself on fire, and so on.
I was not treated like a human being, like a person. You treated me like I was dangerous.
How could you take a child and lock him up for almost nine years with nothing?
It feels bad. I couldn’t get an education. It is a basic right for kids in any country but I didn’t get any education. All I got is suffering, diseases, mental health problems.
There was no way of knowing when it would end. During the years on Nauru, there were rumours that people would be released. Some were. But all that ever gave me was false hope.
Instead, I was assaulted – by local people, by police officers, even by the Australian staff who used to work there.
When my friend Omid self-immolated – he died two days later after it took more than a day for him to be medically evacuated to Australia for specialist treatment, my cousin, who was also on Nauru, and I went to peacefully protest in front of the Menen Hotel where Connect Settlement Services – a company providing welfare, employment and education to refugees on the island at the time – was based. I was about 17 at the time.
We sat there peacefully.
The Australian staff came out and asked us to stop. They tried to talk to us but we did not reply. Then, after a while, the police came. They handcuffed us, took us to a cell and stripped us naked. They put a drunk and anxious local man in the cell with us and watched as he assaulted us. We didn’t respond because we felt they wanted an excuse to charge us with something. Eventually, they released us.
Several years later, when I was 21, I was brought to Australia under the Medevac Bill, which allowed for refugees in offshore detention to be transferred temporarily to Australia for medical treatment. That was more than two years ago now. I have been diagnosed with PTSD. I have anxiety attacks and trouble sleeping. I have insomnia, minister.
I remember one time when I almost died of pneumothorax – a collapsed lung. I had been speaking to a friend on the phone but suddenly couldn’t breathe. I was taken to hospital. It was a rare condition and really dangerous. The medical students at the hospital would come to try to study my case. They would ask me questions.
They don’t know why it happened, but I think it is because of the stress I have endured, because of the state of my mental health. I still have trouble breathing now.
Minister, I have served my time in a cruel system, and I have tried to ask for justice. But there is no justice for me. No one is answering my questions. No one is telling me what is going on.
I stopped thinking about getting out of here a long time ago because to think about it tortures me. I live with uncertainty. I’m not talking about metaphysical uncertainty but about the sort of reasonable certainties most people can take for granted – that they will wake up tomorrow and go to work, that they will stay in the same place.
I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. You might let me out, you might send me somewhere else, the staff might come to my room and take my belongings. Anything might happen, I just don’t know. And it is absurd. This whole thing is absurd.
Minister, the law in Australia says that “children must only be detained for the shortest appropriate period of time”. So why are you turning away from the law?
I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m exhausted.
I am exhausted.
I have been held in the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation and Fraser Compound (BITA), I have been held in Kangaroo Point Hotel, I have been held in Meraton Hotel, then I came to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) and then they brought me to Park Hotel, Melbourne’s notorious detention hotel.
Now, I have been in Park Hotel for a couple of months.
They treated me worse than a criminal when they brought me, handcuffed, from Brisbane to Melbourne, even though I have never committed a crime.
We are treated worse than criminals because criminals get to have trials, they get sentenced for the crime they committed. I did nothing wrong, and yet I don’t even know when I’m going to get out.
Since I came to Park Hotel several things have happened. There was a fire. Then you detained Novak Djokovic here and the facility was surrounded by cameras. There were journalists wanting to speak to me. Since then, I’ve been busy with the media – giving interviews, writing, protesting.
It is a method by which I try to survive. It is part of my resistance. I cannot stay quiet when someone is so cruel to me – and I am not afraid of them any more.
I am in this one room all the time, watching these walls and these walls are full of pain. I am surrounded by dozens of walls. All I have is a window to see what life is like outside of this room. It is a life I cannot have. I watch people, I see their freedom. All that is between me and that freedom is a piece of glass.
I am in a cage, but I see a tree, I see people walking, I see cars, I see everything. Out there, there is life, and in here, it is hell.
When I’m released, minister, I’m going to take a long walk. As far as I can.
But no one will tell me when that will be. No one will tell me what my sentence is. No one will tell me when I am going to get out of here.
It is enough. It doesn’t make sense any more. You closed the borders, you protected the borders, you made this policy but it’s been nine years – it’s enough. Finish it.
The majority of the asylum seekers who arrived by boat since July 2013 have been released. So minister, why is there still a handful left, almost a decade on. As sacrifices? To make an example of them for the sake of policy and personal interests?
I can’t get any answers to these questions because no one is listening.
Minister, if you have any sense of humanity release me, release us.
Let us go.
From a desperate young man, who lost his childhood in detention.
As told to Zoe Osborne.