Confined to one floor of a suburban hotel that remains open to guests, detainees worry about the risk of disease.
Melbourne, Australia – It was the morning of Farhad Bandesh’s 39th birthday when he received the phone call confirming his freedom.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Farhad is one of 65 refugees who have been interned in hotels in Melbourne by the Australian Government for the last 18 months.
Through a long and complicated legal process he was granted a temporary visa on 11 December 2020, and described his new found freedom as “a gift”.
This week, it was announced that most of the dozens of men interned in another hotel would also be released on temporary visas.
The fight for freedom for men and women like Farhad has been years in the making.
Farhad set out on his journey for Australia in 2013, fleeing potential prison time in Iran for his role as a Kurdish activist.
“I wanted to be one of those who are going to do something for [my] people and I had to leave my land,” he told Al Jazeera.
Instead, he would be detained by the Australian government for the next eight years.
“I came by boat to Australia and I thought: ‘This is the end, I’ve got my freedom forever’,” he said. “And it happened after nearly eight years, I reach my freedom.”
The Refugee Council of Australia reports that under Australia’s controversial “offshore processing” policy, more than 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been interned in detention centres on Manus and Nauru Islands, remote territories in the Pacific.
The policy is designed to ensure refugees and asylum seekers do not enter Australia. But that does not absolve the Australian government of certain responsibilities under international law, experts say.
Describing his six years on Manus Island, Farhad told Al Jazeera that “the people are beautiful, the nature is amazing but the detention was really crazy for us. Something like a hell.”
Farhad was eventually transferred to mainland Australia under the controversial “Medevac laws”.
The legislation upheld the Australian government’s duty of care for refugees and asylum seekers in off-shore detention and meant they could come to Australia for medical assistance.
Farhad was transferred to Australia to receive treatment for a shoulder injury and poor mental health. He says that while given dental care, he did not receive medical assistance for the shoulder injury.
Instead, once in Australia, he was confined to a room in the Mantra Hotel in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city. So were 65 other men.
Here, he said they had to “fight for basic human rights like fresh air and sunshine”.
Finally, he was granted a temporary visa and is allowed to live and work in Melbourne, assisted by a team of lawyers through what he described as a “really complicated” legal process.
While Farhad is fortunate to have been freed, the Australian Government continues to detain refugees and asylum seekers in detention centres and hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as in prison-like conditions on Nauru Island and in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
It was during a trip to some of these detention centres that former Australian football captain Craig Foster learned for himself the appalling conditions facing refugees and asylum seekers.
He described hearing stories of suicide attempts, anguish, poor mental health and degrading treatment of humans and said he “was beyond appalled at the conduct of [my] country which I had represented as an international football player, as a national representative including as captain.”
Foster, who is now a leading media personality and refugee advocate with Amnesty International’s Game Over campaign, says the Australian government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is “cruel, degrading and inhumane” and “reflects extremely poorly on Australia’s contribution to the world”.
He says that the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia in the last two decades has been “particularly horrible” which he calls a “black spot” on Australia’s history.
Foster also worries that the Australian model of treatment of refugees and asylum seekers – what he refers to as “legislating away their rights” – sets a dangerous global precedent.
Instead, he wants Australia to show leadership in the humane treatment of refugee and asylum seekers, especially as refugee numbers around the world continue to grow.
Foster described the moment of Farhad’s release as “bittersweet” given that many others remain incarcerated.
He believes that more people need to hear stories such as Farhad’s.
“The more Australians understand what has gone on,” he said, “the more Australians will determine that this should both end and never happen again”.
Protests calling for the release of the men in the hotels in Melbourne have been continuing on a daily basis, most recently outside the Park Hotel in the inner city.
Recently, one protest incorporating speeches from local community members and performances of hip hop artists, led to clashes between activists and police, who were determined to shut the protest down.
Jacob Grech, one of the protest organisers, said that the reason he wanted to confront police was because “we have 60 plus refugees being held in prison, in a disused hotel in the middle of Melbourne. That in itself is an abomination.”
“We are here to support them,” he said. “Every little drop helps, putting pressure on the government.”
The Department of Home Affairs – which oversees Australia’s national refugee policy – said it would not comment on the release of 26 more men from the Park Hotel.
However, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton told local radio that it was cheaper to house the men in the community rather than hotels.
This is the most beautiful moment of my life and one that I would like to share with you all. After 2,737 days locked up in detention – I am free.
Thank you to all of the amazing people who helped me to stay strong.#GameOver pic.twitter.com/Y5HjFrN9U0
— Moz (Mostafa Azimitabar) (@AzimiMoz) January 21, 2021
Twenty six refugees who were locked up in the Park prison have got their Bridging Visa today. Congratulation to all of our friends pic.twitter.com/bvWFLfiB9c
— Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) January 20, 2021
Dutton’s comment underscores the staggering cost of Australia’s refugee programme, including the six million Australian dollars ($4.6m) reportedly spent to house and attempt to deport a Tamil family of four on Christmas Island in 2020.
The department also told that Al Jazeera that the visas issued to the recently-freed men are a “final departure bridging visa” which allows “individuals to temporarily reside in the Australian community while they finalise their arrangements to leave Australia”.
It added that “no one who attempts illegal maritime travel to Australia” would be permanently settled in the country.
In line with the policy, Australia has previously agreed refugee relocation programmes with Cambodia and, most recently, the United States. The fate of that deal remains uncertain with the change in the US administration.
As such, while Farhad may have his freedom for now, his future in Australia remains uncertain.
Yet he told Al Jazeera that he wanted to use his new-found freedom to continue to support his refugee “brothers and sisters”.
“They shouldn’t be there any longer. And they have the right to be with us,” he said. “I won’t give up until everyone is free.”
He says it is a waste of skills and waste of time of the people locked up and asks why the government cannot “open the gate” of freedom for others as well as for him.
“When you are free you say, ‘this is really easy, why [didn’t the government release me before’,” he said. “The border of freedom and prison is just tiny.”
Yet despite now being able to do regular things such as go shopping or catch a tram, Farhad said the trauma still continues, in particular, from the six years he spent interned on Manus Island.
“The pain still is with me and it will be with my friends as well.”