Why are they locked up? Refugees plea for freedom

Why are they locked up? Refugees plea for freedom
Spencer Fowler Steen

Refugees and asylum seekers detained indefinitely by the federal government at the Park Hotel in Carlton have shared their harrowing experiences of extreme neglect and the denial of their basic human rights during the past nine years.

Since Medivac laws were passed in 2019 allowing the transfer of sick asylum seekers from offshore detention to Australia, more than 30 refugees and asylum seekers have been locked up at the Park Hotel for months – some for more than a year.

Adnan – who fled Iran due to political persecution when he was just 15 – is an asylum seeker currently detained at the Park Hotel after being granted refugee status in 2014.

Now 24 years old, Adnan has spent his youth in detention, and suffers from severe post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) which contributed to him trying to take his own life last year.

But it did not come as a surprise to him that after being admitted to hospital, he was moved straight back into immigration detention.

In an interview with Inner City News, Adnan said he had stopped seeking medical attention because it was “not helpful at all.”

“To be honest personally I stopped the medical stuff because they are not helping me at all,” he said.

“They are not independent; they’re working with the Immigration Department. So, I stopped seeing them a long time ago. My mental health is suffering. There are no services for us here.”

Arriving at the Park Hotel five months ago from another detention centre in Melbourne, Adnan said his feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness had been made worse by the fact detainees had been fed food infected with maggots and mould.


“It’s just disgusting. Windows here are blacked out. We have a small smoking area, but most of the time we are just sick in our bedrooms,” he said.


“They [other refugees at Park Hotel] are also suffering and we’re really getting mentally affected from this long-term detention, and we’ve all been recognised as genuine refugees, so it’s really unfair to keep us in detention.”

For Ismail, another refugee locked up at the Park Hotel since December 2020, the situation he fled from in war-torn Somalia in 2013 was better than after he was transferred to detention in Australia.

“The most important thing is our freedom, we’re tired here, and we struggle, and the situation we’re in now it seems like death is better than the torture they put us through,” he said.

“If they poisoned us, it would be better. I hope they do something before it’s too late, and it’ll only be a matter of time before someone takes their life.”

“Just let us go, we’ll look after ourselves. We have people who have offered us their homes and we can rebuild our lives and we can contribute to the country and pay tax. Just let us go.”

Ismail said he had also experienced maggots in his meals, adding that the food seemed to get worse when they complained, which was compounded by limited to no medical attention.

“If you have a mental disorder or depression, all they give you is sleeping tablets,” he said.

The plight of the Park Hotel detainees was brought back into focus last month after the world’s number one ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic was held there after the federal government cancelled his visa due to his unvaccinated status.

Mr Djokovic did not use his international platform to advocate for the release of the 30 or so men who have been locked up, who subsequently have fallen out of the public eye while their mental and physical health deteriorates.

What hope do the men at Park Hotel have of being freed?

Local activist Apsara Sabaratnam said most of the men who had been released so far had required hospitalisation because their medical conditions got “really severe.”

“That’s where the cases are won, when the lawyers can prove medical negligence on part of the government,” she said.

“It’s an incredibly arduous process and it’s slow.”

Ms Sabaratnam said the recent Djokovic saga highlighted those legal avenues for the men to be granted visas were extremely limited.

“There are test cases being won, but one refugee at a time.”

Other refugees and asylum seekers at the Park Hotel have been granted visas to live in the US, Ms Sabaratnam said, while others had been released by the federal government at random without explanation.

“Sometimes the government just decides to release a number of people without any rationale as to why they’ve chosen particular people over the other group of men,” she said.

She said real change would only come from legislative reform by ending mandatory detention, and by ensuring that the Minister for Home Affairs did not have sweeping powers to detain and release people arbitrarily.

The federal government has spent more than $8.3 billion on offshore and onshore detention since 2014, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.

This does not include the tax revenue and the economic benefit of granting visas to asylum seekers entering Australia.

Meanwhile, the government is preparing to introduce austerity measures in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Park Hotel activism gathers international attention

Local activist Peter Green said the day after Mr Djokovic was brought to the Park Hotel, two activists used a cage to climb up onto the awning above the entrance and drop a banner that read “Abolish Detention Centres”.

He said the two women were up there for 10 hours, with police forming a line around them that night to prevent demonstrators from disrupting other police who were removing the two activists with a scissor lift.

“After [the two women were brought down], my friends got in the cage,” Mr Green said.

“The police pushed the cage over with them in it. A man, Tom, had red welts on his back from the police tipping it over.”

“The police picked up the cage and put it in the scissor lift and drove off with it.”

He said not long after, The New York Times featured an image on page one of its website of police arresting the two women on the roof while surrounded by a wall of police.

Mr Green has since located the cage and brought it back for the demonstration outside the hotel on January 28.

Dubbed “The Cage Project”, Mr Green said he and other activists invited anyone to spend eight minutes in the cage to represent eight years for the detainees held at the Park Hotel.

Councillors call out human rights abuses

At a February 2021 City of Melbourne Future Melbourne Committee meeting, councillors lashed out at the Federal Government’s detention of people at the Park Hotel, labelling it as a “gross violation of human rights”.

But councillors were divided over a motion which originally expressed “grave concern” at the provision of medical and mental health support for people detained at the Park Hotel and called for their immediate release into the community.

Cr Olivia Ball, who holds a Masters and PhD in human rights, argued against a “watering down” of the motion which asked the Lord Mayor to advocate on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers detained in the municipality to the federal government.

“Are we not prepared to condemn gross violations of human rights here in our neighbourhood?” Dr Ball said.

“What is that saying if we retreat from a simple condemnation of what’s indisputably, and unequivocally, a human rights violation?”

However, Cr Phillip Le Liu did not support the original motion, instead choosing to support the amended version which did not require businesses, organisations, and individuals in Melbourne to act in support of people seeking asylum.

“[A]t the end of the day, it’s [the detention of refugees] not our remit, it’s the federal government’s,” he said.

Councillors Sally Capp, Nicholas Reece, Jason Chang, Roshena Campbell, Phillip Le Liu and Kevin Louey voted to support the amendment to the motion, while councillors Rohan Leppert, Olivia Ball, Jamal Hakim, Davvyd Griffiths and Elizabeth Doidge voted against the amendment.

Cr Leppert said he was “bitterly disappointed” that the motion was amended but said if it was a choice between supporting this “form of words” or nothing, he would vote for it through “gritted teeth”.

“Whatever is resolved tonight, that fight for their [asylum seekers in detention in Melbourne] will continue and the fight to uphold human rights of everybody must continue, and that is everyone’s business,” he said.

The council considered the amended version of the motion and ultimately all councillors voted in support of it, apart from Cr Le Liu, Cr Chang and Cr Campbell who abstained.

In response to questions from Inner City News, Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the council had since requested additional mental health support and medical services be provided to refugees that remain detained at the Park Hotel in Carlton. 

 “There was a council motion calling for an immediate determination of their cases, which I have raised with the Home Affairs Minister,” she said.

 “We’re continuing to work with a wide range of stakeholders to provide those detained at the Park Hotel with safe access to physical and digital library resources.” 

If you or anyone you know needs help:

  • Lifeline on 13 11 14
  • Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
  • DirectLine Victoria drug/alcohol counselling on 1800 888 236
  • MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
  • Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
  • Yarning SafeNStrong on 1800 95 95 63
  • Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
  • Headspace on 1800 650 890
  • ReachOut at au.reachout.com
  • Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) on 1800 008 774
  • HeadtoHelp on 1800 595 212
  • Brother to Brother on 1800 435 799 •
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