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A pinprick of hope

Asylum seekers in Australia are often treated like convicts for years at a time


Mehdi “Ali” at a park near his Minneapolis home Photo by Jim Mone/Genesis

A pinprick of hope

Mehdi “Ali” is finally free and living in Minneapolis, Minn., after spending nine years in detention. Yet he had committed no crime.

Mehdi, who uses “Ali” as an alias last name to protect his minority Ahwazi Arab family still in Iran, left home at 15 to seek asylum in Australia. He declines to get specific about the persecution he and his family endured. “What does it matter?” he says. “People have all kinds of reasons. When you have a life like me, going through age 12, 13, 14, you are just surviving, just living. And each time you have to face a surprise, and not a happy surprise, something you thought you’d never see, you think, ‘I’m this close to death. I’m going to die now.’”

He arrived as an unaccompanied minor on Australia’s external territory of Christmas Island in July 2013, just two days after the Australian government declared no asylum seeker could ever be resettled in Australia. Instead, people arriving by boat would be immediately transported to one of three offshore detention centers.

Australia’s government gave Mehdi and thousands of other asylum seekers no indication when they might be resettled. Canada’s asylum system averages 14 days between when an asylum seeker arrives and when he or she is resettled or deported. The U.S. average is 45 days. The Australian average dwarfs all others at 925 days, or 2½ years. Mehdi endured more than 3,000 days, even though it took the government less than a year to acknowledge he would be persecuted if he returned to Iran and granted him refugee status. Australia recognizes 90 percent of asylum seekers as refugees yet continues to detain them.

The conditions Mehdi and others endure have drawn strong criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Doctors Without Borders, and numerous policy and advocacy groups. Meanwhile, as of late May asylum seekers to the United Kingdom will be sent to Rwanda in an asylum arrangement fashioned after Australia’s, in violation of the 1951 Geneva Convention that the UK and Australia signed.

Jana Favero, director of Advocacy at the Asylum Seeker Resource Center, told Australia’s public service broadcaster SBS News, “It is absolutely bewildering why another country would try to copy something which is such a financial and moral black hole.”

Australia’s financial black hole shows that, since 2013, Australia has spent up to $9.65 billion to detain a few thousand people, the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law reports. Even though the number of asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru, one of the offshore detention center locations, had plummeted to one-tenth of earlier numbers, the cost of the program remained the same. So by 2021, it was costing Australian taxpayers $15,000 (all dollar amounts are in Australian dollars) a day per detainee, according to a Guardian report. The bill to detain Mehdi for nine years reached millions of dollars. The cost if he had been released into the community while his claim was processed would total $4,400 a year.

Australia has historically welcomed refugees from around the world. More than 1 in 4 Australian residents was born overseas. Most refugees to Australia arrive by plane after securing appropriate travel documents and a visa. In 2012, Australia welcomed 20,000 refugees with visas.

But people fleeing oppressive regimes and ethnic or religious persecution are unlikely to have access to the right papers. Instead, they pay people-smugglers and travel by boat to countries that signed the 1951 Geneva Convention and have an obligation to assist those who arrive. From 2008 to 2013, 50,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat, and 1,200 people drowned trying to reach Australia’s shores.

In 2013, then-Minister of Immigration and Citizenship Scott Morrison oversaw the beginning of Operation Sovereign Borders, a set of laws billed as a deterrent to the lucrative people-smuggling trade and an attempt to save asylum seekers from drowning at sea.

Besides not allowing asylum seekers to resettle in Australia, a 2014 legislative amendment committed the country to refoulement—returning asylum seekers to their country of residency, denying asylum seekers’ basic rights laid out in the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees.

Hanne Beirens, Director of the Migration Policy Institute in Europe, says of Australia’s and other countries’ asylum outsourcing, “My basic concern is that we’re carving away the pillars that territorial asylum rests on. The basic principle allows people to flee and seek safe haven. When offshore processing is used as a deterrent, asylum seekers take more dangerous routes and go underground, adding to uncertainty and possible exploitation and abuse.”

Mehdi and his cousin Adnan Choopani fled Iran to Indonesia and from there paid smugglers to take them to Australia. On Christmas Island, they were given the identifiers ANA020 and ANA023—numbers that replaced their names for nine years—and were moved to Nauru Detention Centre.

Nauru is an 8-square-mile sovereign island in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Australia. In the 1980s, Nauru was the world’s richest country per capita because of phosphate mining. But poor investments, like a $400,000 floating cocktail lounge in the Marshall Islands, plus administrative corruption and fraud decimated the $1 billion trust fund intended to support the 10,000 islanders.

Nauru’s residents now depend almost completely on Australian aid, including imported water arriving as ballast in ships picking up phosphate. In 2001, the country accepted a $10 million deal to house asylum seekers on their island.

The UK will pay Rwanda $148 million (U.S.) for the first 5 years. Legislation from Denmark’s Parliament passed last year permits third-party transfer of asylum seekers, and Israel likewise has reportedly reached agreements with Uganda and Rwanda to receive their asylum seekers, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea.

Two refugees who faced years of detention on Manus Island

Two refugees who faced years of detention on Manus Island Ashley Gilbertson/VII/Redu​x

Mark Isaacs arrived at Nauru Detention Centre in 2013, a week after its reopening after being shuttered for four years. He and a host of others had been hastily recruited by the Salvation Army to provide humanitarian aid to an influx of asylum seekers. His recent arts degree did not prepare him for the work. His coworkers included 18-year-olds whose only other job had been at McDonald’s and others who didn’t know what an asylum seeker was.

Isaacs spent a year on Nauru in four-week stints. The Salvation Army determined that longer stretches contributed to deteriorating mental health among the workers.

The detention center occupied the center of the island in the old phosphate mine, surrounded by gray pinnacles of limestone. Up to 10 men slept in a tent on stretcher beds, with refugees from warring nations such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Syria housed together. Isaacs said, “The detainees would ask, ‘What’s going to happen to us? How long will we be here?’” He and his coworkers could only answer, “I don’t know.”

The indefiniteness of detention demoralized the detainees and created despair and hopelessness. People began to hurt themselves and attempt suicide using broken light bulbs or swallowing laundry detergent. These were people who had already endured the horrors of war-torn countries and persecution plus dangerous ocean travel. Yet, now, on a tropical island, they were resorting to horrific acts of violence against themselves.

Thousands of incidents of self-harm, threatened self-harm, and traumatic withdrawal or resignation syndrome were reported on Nauru among the detainees. Sixteen people committed suicide.

Isaacs, now a Ph.D. student researching Australia’s immigration policies, says, “The asylum seekers think they’ve reached safety and think they’re owed protection because we’re signatories of the Refugee Convention. Instead, they’re transported to this remote island in extremely horrible conditions without any idea what will happen to them or how long they’ll be there for.”

They’re transported to this remote island in extremely horrible conditions.

When Doctors Without Borders left the island in 2018, it declared the mental health of the detainees was among the worst its organization had ever seen in all its years of caring for trauma and torture victims. They stated that “indefinite offshore processing predictably destroys the will to live on innocent human beings.” Their statements were supported by University of Greenwich Research Fellow Ryan Essex’s study published this year, warning other countries against implementing similar methods of detention.

“That was the big thing, watching them lose hope,” said Isaacs, “because that was what brought them to Australia in the first place, that pinprick of hope in a sea of darkness. And the purpose of the detention center is to destroy that hope.”

Former detainee Mehdi tells of a man who resorted to self-immolation. “Those who choose to kill themselves, they choose the most tragic ways,” says Mehdi. “There are easier methods than burning. Why do they do it? Because they feel numb, and they want to at last feel something.”

When asked about hope, Mehdi said from his Minneapolis home, “I really didn’t know what hope was until now. Is it related to the future? In detention, the days you try to move, those days are hope.”

Isaacs questioned why the people had to wait so long and why the asylum seekers were treated this way. “Ten years later,” Isaacs said, “the questions are still very pertinent.”

A 2015 scheduled court case questioned the detention center’s legality. Before the case was heard, the government suddenly switched the Nauru Detention Centre to an open model. Detainees moved into the local communities against residents’ wishes. The open model doesn’t improve the situation. One detainee told Isaacs, “It’s just a bigger prison.” Detainees hold temporary Nauruan visas and constantly fear being deported.

With deteriorating mental health, Mehdi and Adnan spent two years in detention in Brisbane under a short-lived medical evacuation program. Attending doctors used the opportunity to highlight the devastating consequences of indefinite detention, some even breaking the law by refusing to discharge children to return to detention centers. The medevac program was repealed 10 months after it began.

Mehdi and Adnan were then transported to a hotel in Melbourne. Early in the pandemic, the Carlton Hotel housed returning Australians for their mandatory quarantine. After a COVID outbreak between guards and those in isolation, the owners changed its name to the Park Hotel and held more than 30 asylum seekers for two years. The detainees had no access to the outdoors and could not open their windows.

When asked about his time inside the hotel, Mehdi asks why he should focus on that. “That was such a short part of my time in detention.”

Then, in January 2022, when unvaccinated, first-seeded Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic was housed in the same Park Hotel awaiting a decision about his visa status, the media camped outside. The detained men made banners saying “9 years 2 long.” Mehdi used his hard-fought-for Twitter account to highlight the injustices imposed on the detainees. Mehdi became the face of the asylum seekers.

The Australian Federal Court quickly heard and ruled on Djokovic’s status and deported him. His four-day stay garnered intense media coverage of both Australia’s draconian COVID policies and its treatment of asylum seekers. Soon after, Australia accepted New Zealand’s 9-year-old offer to resettle offshore asylum seekers as well as the U.S.’ offer to receive some of the detainees. They released others into the community with temporary visas. Within two months, the Park Hotel was empty, three days before a federal election was scheduled.

Mehdi and his cousin were released to the United States, where Mehdi says he’s been welcomed with open arms. When asked when he would be available for an interview, he texted, “I am free.”

“But,” he says, “I can’t be really free while there are still people on Nauru.” Australia still detains 112 asylum seekers and refugees on the island and 105 asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea.

A man in a room at the Park Hotel in Melbourne

A man in a room at the Park Hotel in Melbourne Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

Meanwhile, on another continent, the UK’s recent embrace of Australia’s detainment model has brought swift criticism from various corners. Migration Policy’s Beirens said, “Sending asylum seekers offshore is not inherently wrong if the accepting country has an asylum system working and if the incoming people have an opportunity to integrate. As recently as last year, however, Rwandans sought asylum in the UK. What will happen to those fleeing Rwanda? It will become a refugee carousel.”

Beirens says the advent of the UK’s offshore asylum detention as well as Denmark’s agreement and Israel’s reported deal with Uganda and Rwanda to offshore their asylum seekers, and Australia’s ongoing policies point to a greater number of political parties wanting to determine territorial integrity. “The Geneva Convention gives a sense of undermining the country’s ability to control who enters. The right to asylum undermines or contradicts the country’s ability to control who comes in,” she said.

The solidarity for Ukrainian refugees seen in Europe and worldwide encourages asylum advocates, but it also brings a dose of caution. Beirens is happy for the welcome Ukrainians have received, but she warns, “Having solidarity because of a political crisis is not necessarily best. At the same time, there’s always potential for crises to generate a mind shift.”

If detaining asylum seekers indefinitely is expensive, resettling them in-country can be an asset to the community. The Center for Policy Development states, “Refugees are more than twice as likely to establish their own businesses, compared with the broader population.”

Meanwhile, Mehdi wonders if talking about the injustices he endured is wrong. “What if the government thinks the propaganda will bring advantages and show how powerful they are? They might see it as a successful policy. Who cares about billions of dollars? Who cares about a few people harmed or not?”

Alexandra Mikelsons works for a mercy ministry in Geelong, Australia. She deals with people of all types, and said that Australians must start caring about the asylum seekers as people—sons and fathers and brothers and families who are just like their fathers, brothers, and sons. These refugees have lost years of their lives, with no compensation or acknowledgment of error or mistreatment, she explained.

What’s next for Mehdi? “I don’t know. Let’s see,” he says. “ Like when you’re in the middle of the ocean. You stop planning for life.”

He has practical goals that are necessary for living. He bought a guitar and will talk with a guitar teacher soon. “Each time I practice, I try to figure something out. But I have no big plans,” he says.

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