Six other refugees in Australia have been granted visas and released from immigrant detention, giving them temporary freedom as they struggle to stay or seek a more permanent home in a third country.
The Home Office has granted visas to the six men, five of whom were held in a Melbourne detention center at the Park Hotel, which has become a hotspot for COVID-19 infections.
A sixth refugee has been held in a separate detention center in Brisbane.
All six were released with a special visa category, which would allow them to stay temporarily in Australia while they made arrangements to leave the country. They were previously held in detention centers in the Pacific and were subsequently medically evacuated to Australia in 2019.
The visas granted to them are not avenues for permanent resettlement in Australia. But when they expire, refugees can apply for an extension.
One of the refugees, Jeeva, told Al Jazeera he was still in shock after learning of his release. His name has been changed to protect his privacy.
“[Wednesday] afternoon [at] an hour, I knew, ”he recalls. “They just told me [that] ‘the minister approved [my visa] so we will put you [free]. ‘”
Jeeva had 45 minutes to pack before she was taken to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) to collect the rest of her belongings, and finally dropped off at a hotel.
“Words cannot describe” freedom, he said, adding that he could finally breathe some fresh air and walk without security guards.
“I will eat my traditional food,” Jeeva said, adding that he could not cook his native Sri Lankan food while in detention.
“Easier to free them”
The timing of the release couldn’t be a coincidence, according to lawyer Noeline Balasanthiran Harendran. Harendran and his colleague Daniel Taylor represented the six refugees.
A similar situation arose in November, when three of Harendran and Taylor’s clients were also granted bridging visas, just days before their hearings.
Harendran said in both cases the government likely found it easier to grant visas to Medevac refugees rather than respond to the arguments she and Taylor made.
The case rests on a simple requirement under international law for the Australian government to assess the safety of refugees returning to regional processing countries: Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
The refugees who were released had all been previously held in Australia’s notorious regional treatment system in the Pacific, before being taken into shore-based detention in Australia as part of Medevac, a medical evacuation program of short duration.
They were at risk of being referred for regional treatment, a system that was widely condemned as gravely dangerous, so they were asking for the right to a non-refoulement assessment before being transferred. Refoulement is the act of forcible return of refugees to a country where they may be subject to persecution.
Such an assessment is an obligation under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Australia is a signatory, Harendran explained.
“If a person fears for their life, we have to give them an assessment,” she said.
“A procedurally fair assessment, where my client has a safe and secure method of speaking, where he is legally represented, where he has an interpreter and where there is judicial review. “
Instead, the government granted the six refugee visas.
‘Elephant in the room’
The elephant in the room, Harendran said, is what these releases say about the government’s confidence in regional treatment itself.
“Obviously, there’s a problem with regional treatment if you don’t want to do non-refoulement assessments,” Harendran said.
If only one non-refoulement assessment is done and Nauru and PNG are considered unsafe for that person, she said, that could mean the end of regional treatment.
“[It] would mean that Nauru and PNG would not be a safe place to send our refugees, ”she explained.
For now, just freedom
But for the immediate future, Harendran said, the goal is simply to gain freedom for his remaining clients.
She and Taylor are preparing another round of cases to file next month, with the same argument.
Meanwhile, 75 of the Medevac refugees who were held for regional treatment are now ashore in Australia but still languishing behind bars.
A refugee still detained at the Park Hotel, Mehdi Ali, recalled one of the refugees released on Wednesday crying as he left.
“I was like, ‘What’s wrong? Don’t cry, man ‘, I gave him a hug and said,’ don’t cry, just get out … go ahead and don’t even look behind [you],'” he said.
The refugee told Ali that he could not be happy with his freedom while people were still inside.
Mehdi said those who remain can only suffer.
Another refugee, Amin Afravi, who is detained at the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation and Fraser Compound (BITA), said he could “feel” the pain of his fellow refugees still behind bars.
“People feel really bad,” he said. “When they see someone being released and they are stuck in detention for no reason, and there is no explanation.”
“They kill people slowly”
Al Jazeera contacted the Interior Ministry about the six refugees who were released on Wednesday, but a ministry spokesperson said “the ministry does not comment on individual cases.”
“Australian government policies have not changed and illegal sea arrivals will not be addressed in Australia.
“Those released from immigrant detention receive transitional support through the Status Resolution Support Services program, including social worker support, housing and financial assistance. “
Meanwhile, activists are still calling for the release of all Medevac refugees like Mehdi and Amin who remain in immigration detention.
Ian Rintoul, political activist and spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, said that “as welcome as the releases are”, the lack of explanation increases anxiety and stress levels for those who remain.
“If it’s OK to release six more then it’s OK to release everyone, there’s really no justification for holding people back any longer,” he said.
For now, Amin has said he is “just trying to survive”, focusing on what he can control.
“They are slowly killing people in detention,” he said.
“If you lose your mind, there is nothing in this world [that] can bring your mind back. And people are losing their minds[s]. So what is the difference between a corpse, a deceased person and someone [who has] lost his mind?