- Interview by
- Chris Breen
Since 2012, Australia has sent 4,183 refugees to be detained in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru, in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia remains a signatory. As of October 2020, 290 refugees are in offshore detention while 870 have been resettled in the United States. One thousand two hundred twenty-six refugees have been sent to Australia and are living in the community on final departure bridging visas. This includes children and their families from Nauru brought to Australia as a result of pressure from the refugee movement.
However, there is another group of refugees who have reached Australian soil and are being detained in a continuous, indefinite lockdown. They were transported here under the short-lived Medevac Bill passed in early 2019, when the Liberal–National Coalition briefly lost its parliamentary majority. Although the law was repealed after ten months, while it was operative it forced the authorities to transport 192 refugees to Australia for medical treatment.
Liberal PM Scott Morrison always hated Medevac. In order to undermine the legislation and depict refugees as a threat, his Coalition government has made sure that most refugees brought here for medical treatment are being held in conditions that are, by many accounts, worse than offshore detention. The Department of Immigration sequestered hotels for just this purpose. The main two are the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne and the Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane.
Refugee advocate Chris Breen spoke with two refugees, Mostafa Azimitabar (Moz) and Ramsiyar Sabanayagam (Ramsi), who are indefinitely detained in the Mantra Hotel “alternative place of detention” (APOD) in Preston, Melbourne. In total, they have spent six years detained on Manus Island in PNG, and now over one year detained in Melbourne. Protests inside and outside detention are ongoing, as are other efforts to free them.
If you’re able, could you say a little bit about where you’re from and the impact this has had on the people you’ve left behind?
I studied teaching English as a foreign language. And I am a painter and a cook. But I didn’t finish my studies because I am a Kurdish refugee; I fled from Iran because my life was in danger.
I went to Indonesia by plane, and after about forty days, I came to Australia by boat. A few weeks later, I was transferred to Papua New Guinea and imprisoned in Manus Detention Center. I was tortured there, mentally and physically.
I developed asthma, and now I have breathing difficulties. I also have PTSD and different mental problems. And last year, on November 11, I was transferred back to Australia for medical reasons under the Medevac legislation. But since then, we have been locked up on the third floor of the Mantra Hotel, in Preston, with approximately sixty-five other refugees. Our lockdown is indefinite, and our future is ambiguous.
I am from Sri Lanka. In 2009, there was a war. My father, my mother, my brother, and my sister died in the war. I was eighteen years old when my parents died. I couldn’t continue studying, because I was alone. For a while, I was a bookshop manager and was looking for work. My family and neighbors had land, but my life was not safe — so I had to flee.
When I came here in 2013, I was twenty-two. I am now twenty-nine years old. After the fighting in Sri Lanka ended, I was put in prison, in the camp where all Tamil civilians were held for more than one year. The army claimed it was for our safety. It was a big concentration camp, exactly like Manus Island.
I still have a niece in Sri Lanka. When I left, she was four years old. Now she has grown up, she is waiting for me, and she asks, “it’s been a very hard time, when will you come back . . .?”
[Ramsi breaks off crying]
I’m sorry to ask these questions, I know it’s upsetting.
It was a war against the Tamils. He has shrapnel in his body still.
I came [from Manus Island] for medical treatment, to remove the shrapnel pieces in my shoulder and head. I wasn’t involved in the fighting. When my father and mother died from a bomb blast, I was injured at the same time. Shrapnel was lodged in my shoulder and head.
You’ve had shrapnel in you for seven years, while in detention. Have you received any treatment since coming to Australia? Is an operation scheduled, and can doctors remove the shrapnel?
No, they just brought me here and gave me tablets. After one year [in Melbourne], I have had one scan, but nothing else. Sometimes, it suddenly causes pain, depending on how I move. I don’t know when this will happen, but it can be suddenly painful for several minutes. The doctor says it’s okay to take out the shoulder piece, but that it will be very hard to take out the ones in my head. They have promised to talk to me more about what can be done to manage it.
Is there a reason why treatment has taken so long? And is it common that refugees have not received the treatment they were brought here for?
They always say they are waiting for the “list” or something like that. Everyone has different problems and is waiting for treatment.
It’s the same for everyone.
Can you tell me about the current situation for refugees detained in the Mantra Hotel?
There are around sixty-five refugees here. We spend the whole day — twenty-four hours — in our room. We don’t have any sunlight or fresh air. We worry about our future and miss our families. We haven’t seen them for seven years — it’s been a very hard time. We were brought here for medical treatment, but we have not been given it. It’s torture for us. It’s very, very hard to spend all day here.
I spend twenty-three hours a day inside my room. I spend one hour walking the narrow corridor, going to the kitchen to drink tea or to another room, to play ping-pong. Nothing else. We are deprived of sunlight. For six years, we were on Manus, and our future was very uncertain. Now, we have been transferred to Australia for medical help, but there is no treatment — instead, we are being punished.
The Australian government calls us criminals — the minister for immigration, Alan Tudge, called us child abusers. I was profoundly shocked and depressed when I heard the minister talking like this.
He wanted to blame us for political gain, and he wants to confiscate our phones, to disconnect us from people, and to bury us alive inside this place. But many thousands of people have protested to stop them confiscating our phones and computers. It’s not a small victory — it’s an important one. Because of people’s actions, our voice was heard, and we still have our phones.
When I have my phone, I feel it’s a lifeline. Being in touch with others helps me feel I’m alive. It’s also a part of my resistance, which depends on my ability to be in touch with my friends and family. When I talk with them, sometimes I feel I am not in detention. And talking with supporters in Australia, including nurses and doctors and lawyers helps me to not give up.
Are you still unable to open your windows? And when you say you spend twenty-three hours a day in your room, is that a rule put in place by Serco [the private company that runs Australia’s detention security] or Border Force?
We can open the window about ten centimeters, but that’s not enough for air to get in. I can go outside my room any time, but only to the corridor on the third floor. I prefer to stay in my room all the time because the officers are always outside. I don’t like to see them.
We can’t go outside for exercise. There is one very small place, they call it a gym. We can only go there for one hour per day.
How has the risk of COVID-19 affected people detained in the hotel?
From March 24, we were banned from going to MITA [Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation] for exercise. Now we no longer have the option of going for a walk inside that detention center. I remember the date because it was my birthday. Since then, I have been scared that every day when the officers come inside my room, they will bring the virus.
Every day there are forty-five security staff, for both day and night. They also go to work outside the detention center. And when they come back, they talk closely to us.
I’ve seen them using masks and gloves incorrectly many times. They only started to use masks properly last month — before that, they didn’t. And I really felt that I would be at risk of dying if I catch this virus. I have breathing difficulties. But they don’t care at all that they are risking our lives here.
I’ve heard that after people receive treatment at the hospital, they are put in solitary confinement for two weeks on return. It sounds like punishment. Is it supposed to be a COVID-19 measure?
If someone goes to the hospital even for an hour, when they return, they are put inside the isolation room downstairs for two weeks. At the same time, the officer who transported them to and from the hospital continues working with us on the third floor. If quarantine is necessary, it should be for everyone. If it is really for COVID-19, why do the officers return and work here with us?
There has been a lot of self-harm inside the hotel [one in four refugees in an APOD have self-harmed]. Is your mental or physical health deteriorating in detention, especially if you aren’t being treated?
Our mental health is deteriorating, day by day. I have seen a few people who have become very depressed. They are really upset. Instead of helping them, they took them to another detention center. I feel it’s like a punishment. I suffer from breathing difficulties, so I also really feel uncomfortable when I see officers around me, too. That’s why I’m always inside my room.
[Moz has previously informed Chris that he has PTSD. He was assaulted during the Manus siege. An officer hit him hard, from behind, with a metal pole. A doctor who is a friend of his suggests he may have suffered an undiagnosed stroke as a result.]
Have you been able to see a counselor or a psychologist?
There is an IHMS [International Health and Medical Services] treatment room — but I call it a torture room. The way they talk to me makes me feel uncomfortable. They know about my problem, but haven’t done anything for it. And a couple of IHMS staff have said that as long as I am here, I cannot get better. Freedom is the only answer.
The other thing is that officers can enter our rooms several times a day, for different reasons. I feel uncomfortable especially at 6:30 AM in the morning, when they come in every day to do a head count, to check that we are inside the room, or bring some documents.
Sometimes we are sleeping. The door is close to the bed, and they open it and make noise at nighttime. It’s worse than being in jail.
How does the Mantra Hotel compare to Manus Island?
Manus was a little bit open, so you could move around. It’s worse here than on Manus because we can’t go anywhere. We don’t have anything, we can’t do anything. They [the government] say this is a four-star hotel — but this is mental torture for us.
On Manus we were allowed to have an excursion to the beach twice a week. And after three years, we were allowed to go to the beach every time that we wanted to go outside. But here, we are completely locked up.
In some ways, it’s much worse than Manus. Manus was dangerous; there, I felt unsafe. Here, I don’t feel someone is going to kill me. But I feel more pressure. I feel like someone has put their feet on my head and is pressing down on me. There are more facilities, for sure. I have TV, I have a refrigerator, I have a bathroom, I have a shower with hot water. But I don’t have anything else. I am a prisoner.
We are not comfortable, we can’t go anywhere, and we don’t feel happy. It’s hard to explain, but it’s very, very hard to spend time here.
What are your memories of Manus?
I arrived in Australia on July 25, 2013 by boat. They sent me to PNG by plane. Then, for the first three years, I was in Oscar compound. Everything was white. You know, 1,500 people were sent to Manus. There were ten rooms, and fifty people were living in each small room, with twenty-five bunk beds. It was horrible.
It was very hard. Our room was a tent. We couldn’t sleep inside during the day, because it was too hot. It was very, very hot — we couldn’t even sit there. Outside was also very, very hot; we couldn’t sit there, either.
There was no shelter outside, and the sun was very, very hot. Can you imagine five hundred people in two lines, moving very, very slowly, without shelter, waiting for lunch or dinner?
The relocation deal [made by then PM Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama shortly prior to Donald Trump’s election in 2016, to resettle refugees in America] is due to wind up in March. Is there anyone in the Mantra Hotel who is due to go to America?
They are lying and playing with us. At first, they said we should be settled in PNG. Then, they said that America would process us. But processing has been going on more than three years. I still don’t know if I will be transferred. It’s a very, very slow process. People are just really tired.
I hear that one person has been given a positive assessment to go to America — but he’s still here. I don’t know why they haven’t sent him to America, or what is the meaning of this kind of delay.
You said you were fearful for your life on Manus. What made you afraid?
Because they [locals] shot at us a few times. Once, when they attacked us, they killed one of our brothers, Reza Barati.
In November 2014, Reza Barati was killed. At that time, the old security guards, local security forces, police, and some people from the navy attacked us. We were crying that we don’t have rights — but they were very angry at us, and we didn’t feel safe. While they were shooting, they were saying “go back to your own country.” But I told them that we didn’t agree to come here. Australia brought us here.
Then, in November 2017, they cut our supplies of food, water, power, and security — everything. For twenty-four days, we stayed there with no electricity and no water.
Was that because you protested against being moved to a new location?
Yeah, exactly. They [PNG Immigration] told us we would be sent to a new place after five years. But we said we that we didn’t want a new prison — we wanted to be set free. So, they left us for twenty-four days without food or water. We tried to collect rainwater. After that, police and immigration destroyed all our water and all our food. Everything was thrown away, to try and force us to the new location.
When we say we didn’t have water for twenty-four days, some people don’t believe us. But we dug holes to get to groundwater. It wasn’t clean, so we had to boil it. It was a very difficult time.
We drank boiled groundwater. We didn’t have any electricity, and sometimes we didn’t eat. But we were all together, sharing what food we had. We managed like that.
You endured a twenty-four-day siege, and you staged a mass hunger strike. They were brave protests. What do you think they achieved?
They spent billions of dollars torturing us, breaking our hearts, and separating us from our families. And now, because their policy is based on separating people and locking them up, they don’t want to lose that power. They want to continue their cruelty, to gain political support by continuing this policy. They put our young people into cages — they are attempting to use our lives to gain votes. That’s why they don’t care about human rights.
But when I see people protesting outside this building, I feel that they are like my family. I feel that they are completely different from the government.
Why do you think the government locks you up, what is the political gain?
I think because they have driven a fear [of refugees] into the nation and tried to convince the Australian people that refugees are less than human. It makes it easier to justify the atrocities and abuses they are inflicting upon us. And it’s like a signature move. They spread fear to win votes.
The government says it deters refugees from making the voyage to Australia. Is that true?
In my homeland, I didn’t know anything about it [the policy of mandatory detention]. I was in danger, and when people are in danger, they don’t know where they will escape to or where they can go.
It’s like the bushfires that happened in Australia [over summer in 2019–20]. Many people took refuge in other places and didn’t know where they were going. When I left, I really didn’t know where I was going. When I arrived in Australia, I had never heard anything about Manus or Papua New Guinea. Then, they said that the rules had changed, and people who arrived after July 19 would never be resettled in Australia.
In February last year, to undermine the Medevac legislation, the Coalition started to lock up those who came to Australia under it. But today, some of those people are living in the community. Does Australian refugee policy feel like a cruel, unfair lottery?
Exactly. I am aware of many who came after July 2013, who are living in the community. Some of them are working. Some of them married. But the Australian government has chosen to torture us, just for political gain.
COVID-19 has stopped people from coming in to visit. Even though visits are now allowed in jails, they are still not allowed in detention. How has this affected you?
Visits were good because they’re face-to-face. We can share stories. That was a little bit of support for us. I’ve missed that for a long time, thanks to COVID-19.
They have stopped us from seeing our friends and family. Hopefully, we can see them soon. At the moment, it’s not allowed.
How important are the protests, and what do you think it’s going to take to win your freedom?
I feel protests bring knowledge and awareness to the society. Many people probably don’t know about my situation; but when people protest, I feel it sends a message to society, that people inside this building are suffering. And when people hear our voice, and they care, and it helps us to be free.
That’s why we are doing it. We are all together, Moz and I. We are protesting for freedom. Australian people don’t understand our situation, and some even think we are criminals. But we want to throw that off.
After they learn about us, they support us and come to protest for us. In Brisbane right now, there are more than seven hundred people fighting for us. Before that, we thought that we were alone and with no support. But now, we feel like there is a little bit of help. This time, I really want to say thank you for that.
A number of us who protested outside recently received massive fines. I was charged with incitement. Do you think this was because the government wants to stop the protests, to stop people from seeing what’s going on?
Exactly. The Australian government wants to prevent people knowing about this cruelty. When people learn, they care and they are listening to us. Many people in Melbourne are now aware of this situation — they are hearing our voice and I am sure it helps us get closer to freedom.
What can people outside detention do to help you get free?
Well, I would like people to join us for protests, and ask all the politicians in Australia to let us live with our family and friends in society. We have enough support outside — we don’t need any from the government. After seven years of imprisonment without having committed any crime, we just want to be free. It’s not impossible — it’s our right to be free.
What do you want to do when you have finally won your freedom?
We had a plan before, but they spoiled it. I want to learn, to finish a course, but my English is not good enough. I feel like they have totally spoiled my life.
I don’t know what will happen when we go outside. We talk about it, but we don’t know when they will release us. If you are in jail, you know that after one year, for example, you will be free. We don’t have any information like that.
Even criminals in jail are supported to study — but for us, it’s not allowed. When I am free, I want to continue my studies. I would like to help people, to save people. I feel I could help people who have depression or who want to kill themselves. I would like to hold their hands and talk to them. I could talk about what I’ve been through for seven years and tell them that life is beautiful and precious.
After seven years in detention, what makes you say that life is beautiful?
For my whole life, I’ve never been free. But I feel freedom from the window. I sense that it is the most precious, precious thing that anyone can have in their life. The reason I am alive is because I feel it is very beautiful, and I want to continue on. I always like to be positive, because I am strong like a lion.
Sometimes I paint. I am not allowed to paint inside my room, but I can outside, in the other room. I like to record songs. I like to write poems or articles. And I like to talk with people, especially outside. We have many supporters, and they are like my family now. I feel like these things keep me alive.
After everything you have been through, what gives you hope?
I’ve come close to dying while in detention. But one day, we will be free, and I will see my nephew. That’s what I am waiting for. I want to look after them. That is why I am alive.
I have hope because I believe that in every situation, even in a very sad situation, it is possible to be positive. There are many reasons, but one of the big reasons is because of the wonderful people outside who are fighting for us.
Before we end, do you have a message for people who will read this?
Before we end, do you have a message for people who will read this?
What I want to say is this: I don’t have a problem with anyone outside this building, from Australian society, who doesn’t like refugees. The problem is that the government hides the reality from them. I want people to see clearly what the Australian government is doing. I want them to see that the government is torturing us.
I think we will be free when thousands of people come into the streets. I don’t believe we’ll be freed by the people who have kept us in cages for years. That doesn’t make any sense to me. I believe I will get my freedom from the people.
I believe that, too.