Medevac Mayhem – Freedom for some and the others left behind

Hands reaching out of cell bars making heart gesture
Image Source: Photo by Rajesh Rajput on Unsplash

Confined to hotel rooms, no access outdoors and no certainty as to what the future holds – this is the bleak reality for the people and families who remain in hotel detention across Australia.

Under the Medevac Bill, refugees in need of medical care were transferred from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia to receive treatment. With people suffering with disorders including heart conditions, diabetes, trauma and anxiety, many if not most did not receive the medical attention they required.

Over a year on from the Medevac repeal in December 2019, refugees still held in detention are living in its shadow. CEO of Refugee Voices, Ahmad Hakim celebrates last month’s win that was the release of 46 Medevac refugees being held in the Park Hotel in Melbourne, but it begs the question of what will happen to those who remain detained.

“A window of hope has been opened, but only to a few people and they’ve been left out, they want answers – why haven’t they been released? They’re under a lot of mental health pressure, adding to their frustration,” Mr Hakim said.

A family currently in detention in Darwin, were taken from Nauru in February 2020 and told that there was medical care waiting for them in Australia and they would be released into the community there. A year on and they have not heard anything since, “they haven’t received medical help… nothing, they’ve been forgotten,” Mr Hakim said.

Mr Hakim says that the situation inside these hotels is bad, “these people are not on vacation, the government is using civil property as a prison”.

“They have their room and the corridor, that’s it. They don’t have fresh air and can’t open the windows,” he said. For the thirteen men still detained in the Park Hotel in Melbourne, their only hope towards freedom is looking out at their supporters from their tinted windows.

Mr Hakim reflected on his experience as a refugee coming to Australia with twenty dollars in his pocket, starting from zero, to completing university, to starting his own organisation – and he wants others to have the same opportunities. “Their dreams have been taken away, just because of who they are,” he said.

The Australian government’s treatment of the ‘Medevac’ refugees is not something that has come out of the blue, according to Dr Claire Loughnan, Social and Political Sciences academic at The University of Melbourne. It is a trend that she calls “a gradual contraction in responsibility to refugees”, a trend typical of wealthy countries.

Dr Loughnan said that not only is there an ethical obligation to these people, there is a legal one too. The latter being one that is too often swept under the rug.

“once they are here, it is incumbent upon states to offer them welfare and support services – education, public housing, not unduly disadvantaging them, ensuring that they are able to live a meaningful life here. Those obligations are intrinsic to the Refugee Convention but they’re often not talked about as much.”

The rights that serve as the fundamental principles within the Refugee Convention include non-discrimination, non-penalization and non-refoulement. Not only are these law, but they are the criteria for meeting basic minimum standards, and Australia is not meeting them.

“When you start to frame refugees as illegal, undeserving or a real threat, it becomes much easier to construct the narrative that withdraws rights from those people – because they’re no longer seen as deserving subjects of human rights,” Dr Loughnan said.

Mr Hakim blames the current failures of the immigration system on the racism and bigotry demonstrated in Australian politics and the media. Commending the efforts of lawyers and activists who are standing together with organisations like Refugee Voices in seeking justice for detained refugees, he hopes it will motivate the Australian government to implement a fairer immigration system.

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Lara Shearer

Lara graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Arts (Hon.), with majors in journalism and human rights and went on to complete an Honours year in Journalism. Lara is a podcast producer for Triple R, was a contributing writer to Esperanto Magazine and has done freelance writing. With a passion for storytelling and moving people, she has an avid interest in documentary filmmaking and podcasting. Lara was drawn to The Advocate because she doesn't want a cog in the machine role, she wants to be part of something special and thus have a positive impact.

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