Australia has released nine refugees from a detention centre in Melbourne’s infamous Park Hotel, the same property where Novak Djokovic was detained earlier this year.
Activists said at least four other refugees were also released from other detention centres in Melbourne and Brisbane in what appeared to be the government’s attempt to deflect a “burning issue” ahead of federal elections in May.
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The refugees, released late on Friday, are now being housed in temporary accommodations while they prepare for the next stage of their lives, activists added.
“I think… the government doesn’t want to have a burning issue over Park Hotel as it goes into the election, and the slow release [of refugees] is a way of simply taking a little bit of the pressure off,” said Ian Rintoul, a political activist and spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.
In January, the government had revoked the visa of 34-year-old tennis star Djokovic, who had arrived to play in the Australian Open, placing him in detention at the Park Hotel under Australia’s tough pandemic entry restrictions.
Djokovic’s detention ended up highlighting the plight of refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom have spent years in Australia’s notorious detention centres.
Freedom feels surreal
One of the refugees who were freed, Ismail Hussein, told Al Jazeera he was only given 15 minutes to pack and leave the hotel.
“I was having a bad day, I was so depressed. I didn’t leave the room all day,” he said. “[I was] laying on the bed and then two security guards came to me [and] said there’s [an Australian Border Force officer] downstairs… to meet with you.”
The officer told Hussein he had been granted a visa, and that he must pack his bags. Hussein said he did not even have time to say goodbye to his friends at the hotel.
He said he was taken to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), a Melbourne immigration detention centre, to collect the rest of his belongings and was finally dropped off at a suburban Melbourne motel.
Speaking from his room in the new motel, Hussein said his freedom feels surreal.
“I couldn’t even sleep last night,” he said. “Every minute, every hour I was waking up… I was shocked, unable to believe, looking around [to see if this is ] the same room or [a] different room.”
Refugees like Hussein, who came to Australia by boat and was detained for almost nine years, do not have “a secure future in spite of the… fact that [they] are finally free,” Rintoul said.
“The people who are released find themselves in a very insecure situation, either in community detention still, or on six-month bridging visas, which need to be extended every six months,” he added.
Hussein said he was put up at the motel for four weeks, at the end of which he will be left entirely on his own. He was given 150 Australian dollars ($109) by the government and was told “there will be another $150 coming next week, and that will be it”.
“We have to find our own accommodation, find our own employment, and find a way to survive in here,” he said.
But all that matters now is his freedom, he said. “I have confidence in myself, I believe in myself… I have a lot of friends who support me.”
Hussein said he is worried about other refugees still held in Park Hotel.
“I feel very excited, I feel happy… But it’s a bittersweet… I left [my friends] behind. The sorrow in their eyes, how sad they were,” he said. “It broke my heart.”
Hossein Latifi, one of the refugees still detained inside Park Hotel, said his heart “was jumping so fast” when the security officers came to get Hussein and others.
“I was nervous and I said to myself: ‘God, please. We need good news tonight,’” he said. “When they [refugees] heard only nine people [were being freed], they got very disappointed.”
With every release, Latifi said, things only get worse for the refugees left behind at Park Hotel.
“I have been stuck [in] this situation for almost nine years. I cannot say to myself: ‘I will be out tomorrow.’ Nothing about tomorrow, there is no guarantee about tomorrow.”
Activists are now calling for the release of all the remaining refugees held in the Park Hotel, as well as other maritime arrivals being detained in other detention centres around Australia and in the Pacific.
“There’s no reason why the torture should be dragged on any longer,” said Rintoul. “There is no reason beyond simply the government’s inhumane refugee policy which keeps maritime arrivals in detention. They should be released and allowed to resettle and build their lives in Australia.”
Latifi said it was extremely expensive to detain refugees in Australia’s immigration detentions, and that the taxpayer money could be used for the good of Australians.
Activists say it costs about $458,500 a year to hold one refugee in a detention hotel.
Hussein said he is still “processing” the fact that he is free. “Hope life will be kind to us,” he said, adding that he is still praying for his friends left behind in Park Hotel.
“I am begging [the government] to let them go to freedom before it’s [too] late,” he said. “I just hope they let them go… I’m begging the government to do the right thing.”