Growing up in detention: Casualties of Australia’s refugee system
Since they were 15, Mehdi and Adnan have been trapped – detained as “unauthorised” arrivals by an asylum system that will never let them resettle. Eight years later, they still ask: Why?
“My father’s friend made a decision for me — he put me on a boat.” Mehdi looks up straight at the camera, speaking via Zoom from a detention facility in Brisbane.
The same thing happened to his cousin, Adnan.
It was this life-changing moment that set the boys, then both 15 years old, on course for an adolescence in one of the most notorious refugee systems in the world.
It was 2013. Separately and alone, they fled to Jakarta, Indonesia, from their home country, which we are not naming for the safety of their families who are members of a persecuted ethnic minority.
There, both boys joined a group of asylum seekers on a boat to cross hundreds of nautical miles of rough, rolling seas, searching for safety in Australia.
Eight years later, they are now young men, locked up as “unauthorised maritime arrivals” by an Australian system that will never let them resettle. They want answers.
We sit on a video call and for the first time in their lives they share their story, ending in the inevitable question: Why? Why are they being punished for asking for help? Why are they still behind bars?
Are they criminals, refugees, or political pawns?
‘You are under arrest’
Mehdi and Adnan had no control over what was happening to them when their fathers’ friends put them on the boat. They didn’t realise their trip would involve people smuggling. And neither had any idea that the other was even embarking on the same journey.
In the beginning, the boys were held in separate camps in Jakarta before the traffickers piled them into buses in the middle of the night. They spent “12 hours or maybe more, off-road”, says Adnan.
Everyone was pushed off when the buses finally came to a stop. They were sent over a hill to reach a fleet of motorised canoes, and from there, made their way across the water in silence.
When the canoes reached a bigger boat that would take them to Australia, everyone was terrified. It was not what they had expected.
The boat was old and made of wood, says Adnan. “I started to tell them that I want to go back … I’m not feeling well, I’m sick.”
“People [were] shouting and screaming because they didn’t accept that … and then [the traffickers] threw the bags [up] and they were pushing people,” says Mehdi. “It was chaos.”
Adnan and Mehdi noticed each other the following morning. It was surreal — there, in the middle of the ocean, was family.
Four days of vast seas and tropical sun followed, with everyone crammed onto the deck of a salt-licked fishing boat. Mehdi and Adnan couldn’t eat or drink, they were so seasick.
There was a room at one end of the boat that housed the captain and a single cramped toilet. There wasn’t even a roof over the deck, says Mehdi, just a tarpaulin that the crew would drag overhead when it rained.
Mehdi remembers almost falling overboard on his way to the toilet one night in a storm so severe that the deck kept meeting the water, reeling on endless jet-black waves. Had he fallen in, no one would have heard him over the wind and pummeling rain.
Finally, as the sun was rising on July 21, 2013, the Australian Navy intercepted their boat. Armed officers boarded and sifted through the asylum seekers. They looked for pregnant women and babies first, says Mehdi.
Their boat was escorted to what they would later learn was Christmas Island, an Australian external territory 1,550km (963 miles) northwest of the mainland, home to an offshore Immigration and Processing Centre. The following morning they were allowed to disembark.
It was a euphoric feeling, the boys say; they had made it — they were safe.
“They put us in a line, they started to give each of us a number,” says Mehdi. After that, everyone was moved to a fleet of buses.
It was then, less than an hour after they had stepped onto Australian soil, that they were told they would never be allowed to resettle in Australia.
This announcement came as the result of a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea (PNG) by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which came into effect while the boys were in the middle of the sea. Under the agreement, all maritime arrivals to Australia without valid visas would be sent to PNG for processing and resettlement. Rudd made a similar agreement with Nauru the following month.
Manus Island in PNG, and Nauru, an island nation, are both situated to the northeast of Australia. Nauru is just 21 square kilometres (13sq miles) in area. You could walk for five hours around its rim and end up back where you started.
Both of Rudd’s agreements meant that no “unauthorised” asylum seekers who arrived by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. Mehdi and Adnan had no idea of the implications of this law at the time.
“They said that ‘you’re going to Nauru … and you will [be processed] there and you won’t be there forever’,” Mehdi recalls, “‘after that, there’s going to be a solution for you.’”
A bunch of papers were put in front of them. Mehdi says they were given no explanation as to what they were, but with little other choice, they signed them.
‘It destroyed my happiness’
The boys were held on Christmas Island for nine months.
Because they were travelling alone, their incarceration began with an age assessment. Mehdi was found to be a minor but it was decided that Adnan was an adult.
Mehdi remembers guards coming to his room, ordering “pack your stuff”, before taking him to a room with two Department of Immigration and Border Protection officers. “One was asking the questions, the other was just looking at me, just checking my face, just was staring at me all the time,” he says.
After Mehdi, Adnan went through the same process. But the officers thought him to be 10 years older than he was. “Probably because my skin was a little bit dark and I was tired, and I was super sick,” he says.
Both had given permission for objective medical tests to be done to determine their age, but they say the officers refused. “It was just completely up to that person,” Mehdi says, moving his hands as he speaks. “Let’s say he does not like Adnan’s face … he will be like, OK, you’re lying.”
With this one decision, Adnan — then a vulnerable 15-year-old — was sent to be locked up with grown men.
When contacted about Adnan’s case, an Australian Border Force (ABF) spokesperson told Al Jazeera, “The Department does not comment on individual cases or matters subject to ongoing litigation.” In a separate email, an ABF spokesperson said, “Age Determination Assessment Process (ADAP) … interviews are conducted by two trained officers. Where the two assessing officers differ in their outcomes, the non-citizen is afforded the benefit of the doubt and assessed as more than likely a minor.”
In early 2014, when they were 16, the boys were moved to Nauru and a few months after they arrived, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection reassessed Adnan and found him to be a minor. He was moved to join Mehdi in the unaccompanied minors section of the family processing centre – Regional Processing Centre 3 (RPC3).
Gabby Sutherland, who taught Mehdi and Adnan when she worked on Nauru with the international NGO Save the Children, remembers them as “gentle”.
Mehdi was a keen footballer, and also had “a lot of ideas and a lot of opinions about things”, she said, while Adnan was full of thoughts about the meaning of life and how the world worked. “I can remember him helping me clean out a storeroom,” Gabby said, “he was just always wanting to have a little chat.”
Save the Children representatives were stationed with the unaccompanied minors to provide care and make day-to-day decisions. But according to Tracey Donehue, a teacher working with the NGO at the time, their guardianship was “tokenistic”.
“The boys were still kept in a cage within the camp. Having an adult there didn’t change that.”
The “cage” was a sectioned off area of RPC3. It was bare — just a maze of white plastic tents, compartmented into tiny rooms with flimsy beds and no space for even a chair or a place to prepare food, Gabby says. Outside the mould-prone tents, the ground was covered with white rocks.
“There were rats, insects, it was really scary. It was horrible,” says Mehdi, “horrible.”
“It was really hot, the air conditioner wasn’t working at all,” he adds.
Gabby remembers the tents flooding in torrential rain. “There was no privacy and they were locked in a prison-style camp with no-climb fences and security guards everywhere.”
Jenny Leahy, an education manager for a school teaching English and a few other skills under Connect Settlement Services, a company providing welfare, employment and education to refugees on the island at the time, feels that “it was child abuse from the moment they were sent there”.
A spokesperson for ABF said, “People are held lawfully in secure, safe, humane, and appropriate conditions. All persons are treated humanely and with respect for their dignity at all times. Sufficient food and water, as well as appropriate accommodation, ablutions facilities and medical care are provided”.
Ian Rintoul, a political activist and spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of people seeking asylum in Australia, said that while billions of dollars have gone into detention on both Manus and Nauru across the years, very little has reached the refugees.
When contacted for comment, an ABF spokesperson told Al Jazeera, “The Australian Government continues to support the Governments of Nauru and PNG, through contracted specialist service providers, to implement arrangements.”
The only time unaccompanied minors like Mehdi and Adnan could leave their compound was for meals, to spend an hour at night in the family camp, and for a short period during the afternoons to go to the school in another centre – RPC1.
RPC1 was in stark contrast to RPC3, the boys said. “[It was] the main compound where all the expats were located and all the management offices, all the education,” says Adnan. “[They had] air conditioners, privacy.”
“We were in the tents, they were in the rooms,” adds Mehdi.
Often, Mehdi and Adnan would go to the school for the air-conditioning and the food, which was better than at their camp.
Gabby remembers a time when she made a big tray of sausage rolls. “Mehdi came into my classroom because he smelled his way in there.” Mehdi took about four of the rolls, she says, and then couldn’t stop eating even when he was painfully full. “It was just the sheer pleasure of eating something that tasted so yummy because he’d gone years without eating any food that tasted any good,” she says.
Classes lasted a few hours before guards would escort them back to RPC3.
Everything the boys did was under the supervision of guards and other staff, and while some of them were good, says Mehdi, others treated them poorly.
Many of the more empathetic staff members contracted to work with the asylum seekers and refugees were slowly “weeded out” because they couldn’t stick it out, said Ian, who has spent 22 years monitoring refugee rights and Australia’s border policies.
“There was also a … constant monitoring of [staff members’] Facebook, of emails, of whether you showed any form of sympathy with the people who were in detention,” he said. “A number of doctors were summarily sacked and put on planes the same day.”
Adnan and Mehdi remember the guards at Nauru taunting them or saying unkind things.
“There’s a hell of a lot of ex-military and ex-prison, ex-police,” says Ian. “Unfortunately, you get a lot of … ‘we knew how to deal with you people in Afghanistan’ … or Iraq or whatever.”
Adnan remembers when, in 2015, eight guards from Nauru’s emergency response team posted racist, Islamophobic content on social media while on leave. These men, who were reportedly hired for their cultural “sensitivity” by Wilson Security – the company contracted to handle security in Nauru’s detention camps – were initially suspended. But two months later, seven of them were “counselled” and sent back to the island. Wilson Security stated that these allegations were “thoroughly investigated in public forums by independent parties. None of the allegations were found to be true”.
There were also reports of child abuse at Nauru. In 2016, 2,000 files leaked from the island and published by the Guardian exposed “assaults, sexual abuse, self-harm attempts, child abuse and living conditions” in the island’s detention centre.
Mehdi says life at the camp severely affected his mental and physical health. “They destroyed my happiness.”
By law, unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in Australia are under the guardianship of what was known in 2014 as the minister for immigration and border protection. At the time, this post was held by Scott Morrison, the current prime minister of Australia. As immigration minister, he chose to send unaccompanied minors to Nauru.
When asked about Australia’s responsibility for these minors, a spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs, into which the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has now been subsumed, said that once the children were offshore, “the Government of Nauru (GoN) is responsible for regional processing arrangements in Nauru and for individuals under those arrangements.” They did not comment on why the decision was made to send these children offshore in the first place.
‘They took our dignity away’
In late 2014, Adnan and Mehdi were given refugee status and later let out of the camp into the community. Unaccompanied minors who left the camp were housed in groups under the care of an adult, but most of the time, they were left to their own devices.
Going out into the community was terrifying, they say, and the local guards they had come into contact with in the detention centre only made it worse.
In one instance, recorded in the Guardian’s leaked Nauru files in 2015, Mehdi remembers an argument with a local officer inside the detention camp.
“He said, ‘if you go out, I’m going to kill you,’” says Mehdi.
But it wasn’t only the threats that endangered their mental health. This was also the beginning of an indefinite period of what is commonly called “processing” — a time Adnan and Mehdi describe as “limbo”, during which many unaccompanied minors are not even made aware of the travel documents and visas they are entitled to.
Education is another challenge. Many refugee children avoided the Nauruan school outside the camp because of bullying and harassment by local students. Mehdi and Adnan say they did not attend the school at all.
When Tracey knew Adnan and Mehdi, they were just like any child at an Australian high school, she said. “They were just lovely … charismatic, cheeky kids … you know, gave me some grief … [but] no malice whatsoever, just entertaining themselves … They were just lovely boys.”
Tracey believed the educational rights of unaccompanied minors on Nauru were denied. No vocational training was made available to unaccompanied minors, nor were dedicated English classes or access to quality high school education. They weren’t entitled to Australian high school certification — even though Save the Children followed the Australian curriculum.
According to Jenny, university education was available on Nauru through the University of South Pacific based in Fiji, but the lack of proper schooling and adult guidance set the unaccompanied minors up to fail.
Eventually, the refugees began protesting. Hundreds of them — who worked as car mechanics and painters or in construction and other manual labour jobs — stopped working, says Mehdi; parents stopped sending their children to the local school, people walked in groups with signs shouting for their rights, or refused to speak at all.
In 2015, the Nauruan government passed laws that made most public protests illegal, with a jail term of up to seven years for political protesters.
Time passed, but Mehdi and Adnan still had no idea when they would get off the island.
Then, in April 2016, a young Iranian man named Omid self-immolated in front of representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
While this was happening, Adnan, then 18, had gone to the Menen Hotel where Connect Settlement Services, and Jenny’s school, were stationed. “[He] came into the school, and he was holding a sign against his chest … he was sort of indicating he wanted to stick it to his chest,” Jenny says.
“I looked up and he had sewn his lips together.” Like the sign he held, pleading for them to be freed, sewing his lips together was another gesture in protest at their continuing detention on the island.
“I can remember taping that sign to him with tears running down my face,” she says. “These were boys, just boys.”
Adnan sat in front of Connect Settlement Services’s office with his sign and his lips sewed shut and Mehdi sat with him.
“I didn’t say anything, we did not talk,” says Mehdi. “The Australian workers tried to talk to us … ‘Come to us,’ you know, ‘talk to us,’ ‘don’t do this.'” But they didn’t reply.
A few hours later, someone called the police and the boys were pulled forcefully from the ground and thrown into a police car.
“When we got [to the station] they stripped us … completely naked, not even underwear, handcuffed and put us in a [cell],” says Mehdi, his eyes hardening. “They put a crazy or drunk, anxious local man with us.”
All three of them were standing, handcuffed, as the cell was too putrid to sit down in. “He was spitting at us, he was swearing at us, he was pushing us, he was hitting us.” The local officers just watched them, standing behind the bars, says Mehdi.
“They took our dignity away … and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
In 2017, nurse and midwife, Jacinta O’Leary, worked for the International Health & Medical Services (IHMS), the provider contracted by the Australian government to provide healthcare for the refugees on the island. There was no justice for refugees on Nauru, she said.
There was corruption within the Nauru police, she added, and since it was such a small population everyone knew at least one policeman. “So they’re not going to come out and defend a refugee.”
Injuries from violence against refugees by Nauruan locals was something Jacinta often treated at her clinic.
Among the abuses suffered, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International documented instances of alleged rape, physical assaults and robberies, many at knifepoint. One man told Amnesty about a time when a Nauruan man had thrown a large rock at him, kicked him off his motorbike, and beaten him after he fell.
In another incident, Adnan was beaten up for an accident that happened on the road behind him. “The guy thought that [I was] involved,” he said. The man followed Adnan into a shopping centre, attacked him, and then followed him home. “I couldn’t even report it because he was a police officer,” he said.
The Nauru police did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on these allegations.
Although many agreed that the Nauruan community is generally welcoming, violence against the refugees was a significant issue. Gabby felt it was incited by the Australian government’s creation of a “them and us” atmosphere.
“The Nauruans are rightfully angry with the influx of refugees imposed on them by two corrupt governments, their own and the Australian government. The island is the size of Melbourne Airport.” Too small for more than a thousand people seeking asylum, she says.
“Once the people seeking asylum were released and became refugees, the Nauruans probably felt like they had to defend their country. Obviously, not every refugee was non-violent, too.”
In response to these allegations, a spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said, “The Nauru Police Force has put in place various measures, including introducing a Community Liaison Officer programme, to help transferees in Nauru feel safe.”
But even official programmes and systems meant to help did not necessarily do that, sources tell Al Jazeera.
For instance, when it came to healthcare, Jacinta said, the system that was set up for refugees was, in itself, a tool for torture.
The Nauru hospital was dilapidated, smelly and dirty, she said. There were “cockroaches, mosquitoes — everything leaks”. There are no systems of governance and no audits, she said.
But it was Jacinta’s only referral hospital, so she had no choice but to pass patients on to a facility she knew was not safe. She also found that if she tried to push an issue up the ladder, it would not get resolved. “I spoke to the senior medical officer,” she said. “He said to me, ‘Look, you can raise issues with me … but you need to know that I can’t do anything, all I can do is kick the ball down the road.’”
The situation pushed Jacinta to break her confidentiality agreement in 2017 and become a whistleblower, leaking information to the Guardian about refugee women on the island being refused abortions.
Jacinta added, “I have seen Scott Morrison say ‘there are more doctors and nurses on Nauru than there are in most regional towns in Australia’, and that’s actually probably a true statement.
“But my response is: you can put a thousand doctors and a thousand nurses on Nauru, but if they don’t have a functioning, effective system within which to work, they’re basically useless.”
Absolutely no control over your life
As the years passed, Mehdi and Adnan felt their minds and their bodies deteriorate under the pressure of the endless uncertainty, of not knowing when or indeed if they would be released from Australia’s immigrant detention system.
In February 2019, the Australian government passed a medical evacuation law, known as Medevac, for refugees in offshore detention to be transferred temporarily to Australia for medical treatment.
These transfers were often for ailments that were caused by detention itself, said Nick McKim, deputy leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate.
Before Medevac, “time after time, those recommendations [to transfer patients] were being refused by the government,” he said. After Medevac, “it was much more difficult for the minister to prevent refugees from being transferred.”
It was under this law that Mehdi and Adnan, at age 21, were finally brought to Australia.
First, they were held in Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation and Fraser Compound (BITA). For the first few weeks, they were excited. Maybe, just maybe, they would be released.
“Other people came and they got out after a few weeks or a few months,” says Mehdi.
But time passed, and they were still there.
Neither of the boys let their families know just how much they were struggling. As they unpack their story over our five weeks of interviews, I notice them doing the same with me: sharing little of their day-to-day stresses but offering larger glimpses of things that bring them joy.
Adnan says he liked to cook in Nauru when they were at least free to cook for themselves, feeling his way through combinations of flavours and textures. Mehdi loves philosophy — from Kant to Hegel to Dostoevsky. They have both taught themselves most of what they know and enjoy, including music: Mehdi plays guitar, Adnan sings.
When COVID hit in early 2020, Adnan and Mehdi were moved to a Brisbane hotel at Kangaroo Point, which had been chosen by the government a year earlier as an “alternative place of detention” or APOD.
It was hurtful, Mehdi says — being kept locked up indefinitely in a building from where they could see and hear people who were living freely on the streets outside.
They had no space to walk around, only narrow balconies attached to their rooms and the small car park at the front of the building. “I’m a human being … and I’m just surrounded by a cage,” says Mehdi, his voice strained. “Day and night, this is my life.”
The hotel was overseen by guards employed by Serco, a company that handles essential public services for governments around the world.
“Because there are no cameras like [there are in] BITA … [some of] the guards are really racist and really mean,” says Mehdi.
When contacted for comment, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said “allegations of any staff … misconduct are investigated” and that “cases that may involve criminal, corrupt and/or serious misconduct” are referred to the police.
There is also the element of deliberate dehumanisation, said Ian.
“It’s all small things. You’ve got absolutely no control over any aspect of your life,” he says. For example, they have to ask for permission to buy clothes or a mobile phone.
“Every aspect of your life, you’ve got to appeal for the most pathetic bits of help. For medical treatment, you go over and over again, back to the same doctors to be sent away with your two panadols. I think it’s very difficult to get across the scale of the dehumanisation that they are subjected to.”
As the COVID pandemic developed, there were serious concerns that Kangaroo Point Central Hotel & Apartments may become an infection hotspot, even though the Australian government said it had put infection control measures in place. Fears were heightened in March 2020 when a guard tested positive for COVID.
Mehdi says the pressure put on them by the conditions and the continued limbo in which they were living was immense.
“Let me give you a picture. Have you ever been to a zoo?” he says, leaning into his words. “When you see a lion in a cage. Can’t you feel the sadness he carries?”
Living without hope of release
Finally, in April 2020, Mehdi cracked.
He walked out of his room, carrying a sign with the words “Let me be free my life is in danger” written on it.
“I was just holding it above my head and walking around the balcony,” he says. “[The staff] came to me and I was completely silent. I didn’t say a word.”
Then one or two nights later, he started to shout. Slowly, other asylum seekers joined him, and his shouts grew into a powerful, hotel-wide protest.
Australians began to gather on the street outside the hotel to show their support, staging peaceful protests of their own, on and off throughout 2020.
Adnan remembers one time when he was verbally harassed for a peaceful protest. It was Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand for soldiers who died in wars and peacekeeping missions.
“I was holding my sign on the balcony, and [a guard] told me … ‘you should be ashamed of yourself, this is Anzac Day.’ I told her, ‘What are you talking about? I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m just holding my sign,’ and she told me, ‘Shame on you, go back to where you [came] from.’”
For the first time, Adnan’s voice fills with anguish as he speaks.
On another occasion, two guards walked towards Adnan while he was shouting and holding his sign. They called him “a dog”, says Mehdi.
In the Department of Home Affairs response to the allegations of racism and violence levelled against some Serco staff, the spokesperson said the Department expects Serco guards’ actions and behaviour to include “integrity, honesty and impartiality”.
“Kangaroo Point [was] a nightmare, it [wasn’t] good for me,” says Mehdi.
At one point, he asked an ABF officer working there if he could be sent to a hospital or even BITA. He was forcibly moved to the high-security part of BITA. Adnan was taken to the general area of BITA and for a while they were separated by a towering wire fence.
When asked about this, an ABF spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “Decisions in relation to appropriate detainee placements are undertaken after careful consideration of a number of factors, including the operational capacity of each facility and the need to ensure the safety and security of all detainees in immigration detention.”
Separations have been common for Adnan and Mehdi throughout their eight years in detention. They have taken huge risks, even putting their lives on the line, to stay together. In this instance, they feel that their separation was a strategy to punish them for initiating the protests.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told Al Jazeera, “The Department of Home Affairs acknowledges that people are entitled to express their views through lawful and democratic means such as peaceful assembly. However, there is no tolerance for any protest activity that is violent or aggressive and places detainees, staff or others at risk of harm.”
Eventually, Mehdi and Adnan were taken back to Kangaroo Point.
The protests continued throughout 2020. Reports emerged of deliberate mental torture and skyrocketing rates of self-harm.
Then in early March 2021, more than 50 of the refugees still at Kangaroo Point were released into Australia temporarily pending resettlement in a third country. Mehdi and Adnan, along with 17 others, were held back. The boys are now being detained at BITA.
Mehdi and Adnan feel that this too was punishment for their involvement in the protests.
When asked about this, an ABF spokesperson said, “Immigration detention is an administrative function under the Migration Act 1958. It is not used for punitive reasons.”
Since then, there has been no indication as to when, or indeed if, they will be released.
Mehdi and Adnan say their bodies are weakening under the mental strain of being held in detention. A few months ago, Adnan nearly died from a panic attack — “You are lucky you survived,” his doctors told him — while Mehdi was hospitalised with a heart rate of nearly 200 bpm and later with pneumothorax. They are now 23.
Art is something that has kept Mehdi going throughout his time in detention. He loves classical music, jazz and blues — and has taught himself classical guitar using sheet music on his smartphone screen.
But even outlets like music or art are restricted. Mehdi recalls a painting he did during common room time, with the word “VISA” written across it. After he painted it, he was told he was not allowed to “paint words” on his art.
“They’re heartless,” says Mehdi. When the officers wake them up, they knock hard on the door or “they put the light on our face.”
They have both been diagnosed with PTSD, he adds.
In July, they marked the eighth anniversary of their first day of detention with more peaceful protests, which they livestreamed to a growing online audience of people who want to see them freed.
Australia’s political agenda
The political agenda behind Australian immigration detention has been widely documented.
Successive governments have used what many describe as “systematic torture” to push people to return to their countries of origin. This is rooted in the belief that a hardline policy on refugees is favoured by Australian voters, said Nick McKim of the Australian Greens.
“The onshore immigration detention system in Australia is based on the same principles as the offshore detention system,” he added, “because the government is trying to use the onshore system again to coerce people into leaving Australia.”
To justify this hardline approach, successive governments have popularised the rhetoric that asylum seekers are dangerous, which have been “used for really cynical fear campaigns,” says David Burke, legal director of the rights of people seeking safety and refugees team, at the Human Rights Law Centre. “The discussion is completely detached from the reality of the situation, the reality of what people are facing, the reality of the actual policy decisions that need to be made … [the issue is] just being used as essentially a political football to try to sway votes in an election.”
It is an expensive strategy. For the 2019-2020 financial year, the cost of onshore immigration detention, where Mehdi and Adnan are now being held, was 361,835 Australian dollars (US$266,519) per person. For those in APODs, such as the Kangaroo Point Central Hotel & Apartments, it costs 471,493 Australian dollars (US$347,291) per person.
It is also explicitly racist, said lawyers Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran and Daniel Taylor of Sydney West Legal Migration Pty Ltd, who represented Mehdi and Adnan earlier in their detention.
Under Australia’s 1958 Migration Act, only a certain group of asylum seekers are classified as “unauthorised maritime arrivals” and subject to immigration detention.
“If [a European] had gone on the same boat, paid the same people-smuggler, the same amount of money … took the same journey arriving in Christmas Island the same way, [they] would [have been] allowed to come into Australia,” said Noeline.
This is despite an obligation under the 1951 Refugee Convention to protect all people who seek help on Australian shores, including “a duty to consider claims for international protection fairly and efficiently, and to provide … a minimum standard of living which is humane and dignified”.
The issue is that Australia hasn’t fully codified its obligations under the Refugee Convention into its domestic law, so it can be in breach of those international obligations without being in breach of domestic law, explained Senator McKim.
When contacted for comment, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said, “The Australian Government’s policy is clear that no one who attempts illegal maritime travel to Australia will be permanently settled here.”
For Adnan and Mehdi, and others who came to the Australian mainland under Medevac, the situation may be even more complex.
The Medevac bill was given royal assent in February 2019 during a window of opportunity before Morrison’s re-election in May 2019.
“The government was really annoyed and angry that they’d lost a vote on what for them was such a critical political issue,” said Senator McKim, “and as soon as the numbers changed in the House of Representatives they moved to repeal the law.”
The Home Affairs minister at the time, Peter Dutton, claimed that people who were brought onshore under the policy would “displace” Australians who would be “kicked off” healthcare waiting lines, a statement backed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Fewer than 200 refugees and asylum seekers were transferred to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island offshore detention centres for medical treatment before the bill was repealed in December 2019.
Ian accused the Morrison government of systematically discriminating against this group.
David said that “the Morrison government has entirely unnecessarily held them in detention for much longer periods than others who were brought here for medical treatment.”
As Jana Favero from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) told the ABC, “Others who arrived before them and after them also for medical reasons and medical treatment are not in detention.”
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said, “Individuals temporarily transferred to Australia from Papua New Guinea (PNG) or Nauru for medical purposes did not arrive in Australia on a valid visa and are legislatively barred from being granted a visa by the Department.”
Many of the Medevac refugees say they still have not received the medical treatment they were promised. Even if treatment is offered, said Noeline, it is often useless as the cause of the illness is typically detention itself.
This is particularly true for those who were transferred to Australia for a mental illness.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said, “Healthcare services for detainees are broadly comparable with those available within the Australian community under the Australian public health system,” also noting that “the Department ensures detainees are provided with a range of activities and education sessions to help keep them mentally and physically active and engaged.”
Mehdi and Adnan met a range of psychiatrists and doctors from different organisations. Their medical assessments explicitly linked their mental health to their detention.
An ABF spokesperson told Al Jazeera that regular reviews, monitoring and inspection of immigration detention facilities are done both internally and externally.
“The department is legislatively required to report to the commonwealth ombudsman on individuals who have been in detention for two years and for every six months thereafter. The ombudsman’s assessments of the circumstances of these individuals are tabled in Parliament alongside the response to any recommendations.”
Meanwhile, Mehdi and Adnan do what little they can in limbo.
Noeline compared it to being in lockdown for eight years — the amount of time that Adnan and Mehdi have been detained — but without the ability to cook for yourself, the option to get deliveries, access to family, or privacy. There is also no indication as to when it will end.
The best hope for change is if Australians speak out on the issue, said David from the Human Rights Law Centre. “Contacting your local Member of Parliament … joining rallies, signing petitions … are a good way to show that large numbers of people oppose this.”
Polls show that the majority of Australians support a compassionate approach to refugees, both in the community and in detention. But Labor and Liberal’s stances on refugee policy are unlikely to change, said Senator McKim. “Ultimately, I think we need more people to … vote for parties and candidates that don’t support the current system,” he said.
For now, Adnan and Mehdi continue to wait, wondering when, or indeed if, they will be allowed to start their lives.
It’s the simple things they long for the most, they say. Things that the average 23-year-old wouldn’t even think about — cooking a good meal, taking a walk, having privacy, not having to deal with guards or regular shakedowns.
Feeling desperate, they have decided it is time to break their silence.
“We just want to tell the world what they’ve done to us,” says Mehdi.