“This is Not the End”: Advocates, Detainees Urge Students to Join Fight as More Refugees Released

25 January 2021
Image credits: Jennifer Chance

After multiple years in offshore and local detention, an additional 20 refugees detained in Park Hotel on Swanston Street were released on bridging visas on 21 January, according to the ABC.

They join the 45 refugees and asylum seekers who were released the day prior from both Park Hotel and the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA). However, according to former Park Hotel detainee Mostafa Azimitabar, 14 men still remain detained inside.

The refugees’ release comes after prolonged pressure from protestors, who have maintained a daily presence outside the Park Hotel since December. Organised by Stand Together For Justice, multiple sleep-outs, blockades and rallies have been held in support of the detainees. 

Activist Jess Tran says the campaign is open to everyone, and is primarily about maintaining a consistent presence outside the hotel. 

“Just being outside the Park Hotel prison and waving to the men is just so powerful, because they’ve been told their whole time being detained that no one in Australia loves them and wants them here,” they said.  

Community organiser and University of Melbourne student Srishti Chatterjee had a meal with the men released on Wednesday night. 

“I think of these people as my friends – we’d wave at each other, check up on each other, make hearts with our hands through the windows.

“It felt so overwhelming, and honestly a little unbelievable, to be able to hug them.”

However, the news is bittersweet. The men have been released on ‘final departure’ bridging visas, meaning they are ineligible for government support and unable to apply for more permanent visas or residency. 

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told Farrago that the temporary visas allow individuals to live in the community while they “finalise their arrangements to leave Australia”.

“They are encouraged to finalise their medical treatment so they can continue on their resettlement pathway to the United States, return to Nauru or PNG or return to their home country,” they stated. 

According to academic and community organiser Apsara Sabaratnam, while the release is an important milestone in the movement and a reminder of the effectiveness of community action, the men nevertheless remain “confined to a life of uncertainty” in Australia.  Sabaratnam is a member of the Refugee Action Collective (RAC), who have also held rallies calling for the release of the detained refugees. RAC is calling on the Morrison Government to give those released permanent protection visas and full access to Medicare, social security and higher education.

The men were initially brought to the Australian mainland from detention centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea to receive medical attention under the now-repealed ‘Medevac’ law in 2019. They were detained in the Mantra Hotel in Preston before being transferred to Carlton in December 2020. 

Abu Bakar is a stateless Rohingya refugee who has been in Australia’s detention system for seven years. He has been waiting seven months to see a brain specialist for his head injuries.

He stated that all the Park Hotel windows are kept locked and that there is no drinking water in the rooms, meaning they must go to the rooftop to drink. The windows are also tinted so Abu can see people outside but they cannot see him. 

“I spend most time [watching] people walk with their (sic) family or friends, but I am still in detention. Sometimes when [I] can see people outside spending their daily lives… I cry [to] myself.”

At the time of publication, Abu Bakar has not received news of his release.

According to Azimitabar, who suffers from asthma, detainees are also kept in their rooms 23 hours a day and common spaces consist of a small indoor gym and soccer nets without access to fresh air. 

“I don’t understand why they put me inside a room for more than a year without any proper medication for my PTSD,” he said. 

Other detained refugees also reported that rooms at Park Hotel are smaller and have poorer ventilation than those at Mantra.

Azimitabar told Farrago it was encouraging to see young people gathering outside the Park Hotel and encouraged more University of Melbourne students to get involved.

“Keep using your voice and showing up for us.”

According to Sabaratnam, there is still a “long way to go” to improve the lives of refugees whether in Australia or being held in offshore detention by the Australian Government. 

“If we don’t have that wholescale change, this kind of treatment will be meted to new waves of refugees that come to this country.”

*Image credits: Jennifer Chance


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