“Eight years too long”: Medevac refugees detained at Adelaide transit centre moved overnight

Advocates have been calling for the release of Medevac refugees who have been held for almost two years in a suburban Adelaide detention centre. (Image source: Tyberius Larking)

By Anisha Pillarisetty | @nishkinsilk

Almost two years after being brought onshore for medical reasons, ten refugees being held at the Adelaide Immigration and Transit Centre (AITA) were moved at 3am Wednesday, May 5 to be detained at Melbourne’s Park Hotel.  

The founder of refugee-led community group Refugee Voices, Ahmad Hakim, said the move will separate the men from their friends and family and will cause more damage to their mental health.

The men had been apprehensive about being moved again, and two of them said they do not want to be separated from their families in Adelaide.

The men spent around six years in off-shore detention before being transported to AITA in Kilburn under the now-repealed Medevac Bill.

Members from Adelaide’s Refugee Voices had been meeting outside the centre over the past two months to protest the indefinite detention of these men. 

From behind an opaque security fence, past a fenced-off carpark, the Medevac refugees led chants of “eight years too long” and “freedom”.

According to the government’s 2020 annual report, an average of nearly 1500 people were detained onshore, of which roughly a tenth were moved from offshore detention for medical attention.

Abbi, who dreams of representing Australia in cricket, is one of the ten refugees being held at the Adelaide centre.

He was detained on Manus Island for seven years before being moved onshore for medical reasons.

A speech was read on his behalf to protesters gathered outside the centre.

Abbi said he had to flee Afghanistan because of the genocide that claimed the life of a family member.

“I didn’t say farewell to my younger brother. I didn’t want to face him as I left. I don’t know why but whenever I speak to my family, I can’t stop the tears,” he said. 

Abbi has been detained at the Adelaide centre for seventeen months and said he wishes he could fulfil his parents’ dream of calling them to say he is finally free.

“It’s tough being separated from my family, but I never complain to them because, I think, I don’t need them to suffer like me,” he said.

Abbi said being moved onshore had given him hope that he would no longer need to be followed by security guards or queue up for meals.

“But . . . the same suffering continued,” he said.

“I have almost lost all my hope.”

Adelaide human rights lawyer Claire O’Connor SC said the prison-like environment of these centres deteriorates the mental health of asylum seekers. 

“Many of them come from places where they’ve already experienced fear and persecution,” she said.

O’Connor said Australia is the only Western democracy without a Bill of Rights.

“We have a situation in Australia where its lawful to detain someone forever without them having committed a crime,” she said.

“If you had a Bill of Rights, you couldn’t treat people this way without a trial.”

Indefinite detention of asylum seekers in cases where there are no significant risks to the community is at odds with international law.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2019 report recommended that long-term detention should only be considered in extreme cases. 

The report recommended shifting legislation from mandatory detention to considering various options within the community, tailored to each person’s case.

The report said length of detention was a key concern for not only those being detained but also the centres’ staff.

“Many people also reported that the . . . uncertainty of their situation was contributing to or causing their mental health issues,” the report stated.

The report showed the average length of time in detention has increased since 2013, and in 2019 it was almost a year and a half.  

The Department of Home Affairs responded to the Commission’s report in August last year.

It disagreed with the recommendations mentioned above, stating that monthly reviews determine that each person’s detention is “lawful and reasonable”.

The Department said requests for intervention in the process of granting visas will only be referred to the Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke if they meet the guidelines.

It said the Minister is not obliged to act on these referrals, whether or not they meet the guidelines.

Refugee Voices have recently formed an Adelaide group and are encouraging applications for volunteers, especially those with lived experience.

Hakim said emailing or calling the Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews and respective federal MPs would add to the push to free asylum seekers being held in detention centres.

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