Beyond the Park Hotel: Australia’s immigration detention network

Australia’s notorious Park Hotel made headlines last week after tennis star Novak Djokovic was sent there when his visa was revoked.

The incident shone a light on the plight of more than 30 refugees held there, some of them for years, but the country’s immigration detention system extends far beyond any one hotel.

Hundreds more refugees remain in other detention centres around Australia and in the notorious offshore processing system in the Pacific — and these refugees are of a specific category.

They all arrived in Australian waters by boat after mid-2013, when the country made a series of deals in the Pacific that would see any asylum seekers who tried to arrive in Australia by sea sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru for processing and resettlement.

Some of them, now recognised as refugees, were brought to Australia under a short-lived medical evacuation scheme in 2019 – these are the people held in places such as the Park Hotel.

Others remain stuck on PNG and Nauru.

Island prisons

Iraqi refugee, Mustafa Salah, was just 14 when he was taken to Nauru with his father. They had left Iraq after threats to their lives and travelled to Australia by boat from Indonesia.

The Nauru camp was fenced in on all sides, packed with mouldy, plastic tents with temperatures inside reaching as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).

The tents have seared themselves into Mustafa’s memory.

He slept in them for “exactly one year and a half and 15 days” before he and his father were given refugee status and moved into accommodation in the Nauru community.

Mustafa remembers seeing people set themselves on fire in desperation. He saw people sink into depression, waiting for the freedom they feared would never come.

Eventually, in mid-2021, Mustafa and his father were brought to Australia because his father needed medical treatment, but more than 200 refugees and asylum seekers still live on Nauru and in PNG.

One Afghan father, whose name has been hidden for the safety of his family, has been recognised as a refugee and is desperate to help his family, but he is stranded in the PNG capital, Port Moresby, without the right to work.

He travelled to Australia in 2013 and “after three days the Australia immigration transferred [him] by force to Manus Island”.

He was held in a detention camp that was as widely condemned as the one on Nauru.

In 2017, the camp was found to be illegal and closed, and its detainees moved to accommodation in the local community.

Two years later, the Afghan refugee says he was taken to Port Moresby, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Almost 40 percent of PNG’s population lives in poverty.

While the refugees are theoretically free to come and go, the threat of attack and abuse from the local people means their lives are almost as restricted as they were inside the camps.

The “most immediate” reason for the danger refugees find themselves in on PNG, says Ian Rintoul, a spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition in Australia is that “the refugees actually stand out… and for local people in PNG, they believe that they’ve probably got some money or a mobile phone… so they’re immediate targets in that respect.”

Another detainee on PNG, 29-year-old Sudanese refugee Yasir Omar, says that he cannot sleep at night for fear of being attacked.

“In the middle night, I wake up, I check around and I check my window, and I see exactly what is going on outside,” he said.

“… [Papua New Guineans] look at us, you know, like nothing. Like nothing, like we are not human being. No respect… they swear at us all the time.”

According to Yasir, the refugees on PNG live in accommodation paid for by the Australian government. Single people also get just over 100 Australian dollars in cash each week, and about the equivalent in basic supplies so they can cook for themselves.

Detention compounds

Meanwhile, almost 60 maritime refugees are being held in detention centres across mainland Australia after being moved there from Nauru or PNG, mostly for medical reasons.

Their imprisonment, like that of the refugees on Nauru and PNG, has been repeatedly condemned by human rights groups both within Australia and internationally.

Detaining people for nine years simply for trying to get to the country by boat is illegal, says lawyer Daniel Taylor, who represents a number of refugees in Australian immigration detention alongside his colleague Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran.

“Under international law, it’s arbitrary imprisonment,” Taylor said.

“International law requires a proportionality and a reason for detention,” he adds, such as the need to determine refugee status, or consider any security issues.

But these men are recognised refugees, and because most have been held for almost nine years and many of them were brought to Australia by the Australian government, there is no security risk, he added.

Detaining a recognised refugee is also illegal, Harendran says, noting that under the 1951 Refugee Convention “a refugee… needs to be granted freedom of movement as part of them being accepted as a refugee.”

Keeping the refugees in indefinite detention has also proved “extraordinarily expensive”, according to Australia’s Refugee Council.


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