Melbourne, Australia – It was the morning of Farhad Bandesh’s 39th birthday when he received the phone call confirming his freedom.
“I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
Farhad is one of 65 refugees who have been interned in hotels in Melbourne by the Australian government over the past 18 months.
Thanks to a long and complicated legal process, he obtained a temporary visa on December 11, 2020 and described his new found freedom as “a gift”.
This week, it was announced that most of the dozens of men interned at another hotel will also be released on temporary visas.
The struggle for the freedom of men and women like Farhad has been going on for years.
Farhad embarked on his trip to Australia in 2013, fleeing a potential prison sentence in Iran for his role as a Kurdish activist.
“I wanted to be one of those who will do something to [my] people and I had to leave my land, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Instead, he would be held by the Australian government for the next eight years.
“I came by boat to Australia and I said to myself, ‘This is the end, I have my freedom forever,’” he said. “And it happened after almost eight years, I achieve my freedom.”
The Refugee Council of Australia reports that under Australia’s controversial “treatment abroad” policy, more than 4,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been held in detention centers on the Manus Islands and Nauru, remote territories of the Pacific.
The policy aims to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers do not enter Australia. But that does not exempt the Australian government from certain responsibilities under international law, experts say.
Describing his six years on Manus Island, Farhad told Al Jazeera that “the people are beautiful, the nature is amazing but the detention was really crazy for us. Something like hell.
Farhad was eventually transferred to mainland Australia under the controversial “medical evacuation laws”.
The legislation upheld the Australian government’s duty of care towards refugees and asylum seekers in detention abroad and meant that they could come to Australia for medical assistance.
Farhad was transferred to Australia for treatment for a shoulder injury and poor mental health. He says that although he received dental treatment, he did not receive medical assistance for his shoulder injury.
Instead, once in Australia, he was confined to a room at the Mantra Hotel on the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city. So were 65 other men.
Here he said they should “fight for basic human rights like fresh air and sun”.
Finally, he got a temporary visa and is allowed to live and work in Melbourne, assisted by a team of lawyers in what he described as a “really complicated” legal process.
Although Farhad is fortunate to have been released, the Australian government continues to hold refugees and asylum seekers in detention centers and hotels in Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as under prison-like conditions on the island. island of Nauru and Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea.
It was on a trip to some of these detention centers that former Australian football captain Craig Foster learned firsthand about the appalling conditions facing refugees and asylum seekers.
He recounted hearing stories of suicide attempts, angst, poor mental health and degrading treatment of humans and said he “was more than appalled by the conduct of [my] country that I had represented as an international footballer, as a national representative including as captain.
Foster, who is now a prominent media figure and refugee advocate for Amnesty International’s Game Over campaign, says the Australian government’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is “cruel, degrading and inhuman ”and“ extremely poorly reflects Australia’s contribution to the world ”.
He says the plight of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia over the past two decades has been “particularly gruesome”, which he calls a “black spot” in Australian history.
Foster also fears that Australia’s model of treating refugees and asylum seekers – what he calls “legislating their rights” – is setting a dangerous global precedent.
Instead, he wants Australia to show leadership in the humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, especially as the number of refugees around the world continues to rise.
Foster described the timing of Farhad’s release as “bittersweet” as many others remain in prison.
He thinks more people need to hear stories like Farhad’s.
“The more Australians understand what happened,” he said, “the more Australians will determine that it should both stop and never happen again.”
Demonstrations demanding the release of men in Melbourne hotels continue daily, most recently outside the Park Hotel in the city center.
Recently, a protest incorporating speeches from members of the local community and performances by hip-hop artists, led to clashes between activists and police, determined to end the protest.
Jacob Grech, one of the protest organizers, said the reason he wanted to confront the police was “we have over 60 refugees being held in jail, in a disused hotel in the middle of Melbourne. It is in itself an abomination.
“We are here to support them,” he said. “Every little drop helps, putting pressure on the government.”
The Home Office – which oversees Australia’s national refugee policy – said it would not comment on the release of 26 additional men from the Park Hotel.
However, Home Secretary Peter Dutton told local radio that it was cheaper to house men in the community than hotels.
It is the most beautiful moment of my life and the one that I would like to share with all of you. After 2737 days in detention, I am free.
Thank you to all the amazing people who have helped me stay strong.#Game over pic.twitter.com/Y5HjFrN9U0
– Moz (Mostafa Azimitabar) (@AzimiMoz) January 21, 2021
Twenty-six refugees who were locked in Park Prison got their transitional visas today. Congratulations to all our friends pic.twitter.com/bvWFLfiB9c
– Behrouz Boochani (@BehrouzBoochani) January 20, 2021
Dutton’s comment highlights the staggering cost of Australia’s refugee program, including the six million Australian dollars ($ 4.6 million) reportedly spent on housing and attempting to evict a Tamil family of four on Christmas Island in 2020.
The department also told Al Jazeera that the visas issued to the recently released men are a “permanent departure visa” that allows “individuals to temporarily reside in the Australian community while they finalize their arrangements to leave Australia.”
He added that “anyone who attempts to travel illegally by sea to Australia” would not be permanently settled in the country.
In line with this policy, Australia has previously approved refugee resettlement programs with Cambodia and, more recently, the United States. The fate of this agreement remains uncertain with the change in the US administration.
As such, while Farhad may have his freedom for the time being, his future in Australia remains uncertain.
Yet he told Al Jazeera that he wanted to use his newfound freedom to continue supporting his refugee “siblings”.
“They shouldn’t be here anymore. And they have the right to be with us, ”he said. “I won’t give up until everyone is free.”
He says it is a waste of skills and a waste of trapped people ‘s time and asks why the government cannot “open the door” to freedom for others as well as for itself.
“When you’re free you say, ‘It’s really easy, why[thegovernmenthasn’tfreedmebefore””hesaid“Theborderbetweenfreedomandprisonistiny”[legouvernementnem’a-t-ilpaslibéréavant»»a-t-ildit«Lafrontièreentrelalibertéetlaprisonestminuscule»[didn’tthegovernmentreleasemebefore’”hesaid“Theborderoffreedomandprisonisjusttiny”
Yet although he is now able to do regular things like shopping or taking a tram, Farhad said the trauma continues, in particular, from the six years he spent in boarding school on the island of Manus.
“The pain is always with me and it will be with my friends too.”