Free our friends: activists keep up the fight for release of Medevac refugees

Kim Matousek protesting in front of The Park Hotel. Image: Jack Meehan
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A group of passionate protesters have become regulars at Carlton's Park Hotel, which has become an inner city jail for asylum seekers brought to Australia because they need medical care. Jack Meehan and Alessandro Rosini report.

Activist Kim Matousek’s anger boils over at the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, now being held at the Park Hotel in Melbourne.

She’s recently finished a 30-day hunger strike, which she says was just a fraction of the eight long years many of the Medevac Bill refugees—people transferred from offshore detention for medical reasons—have reportedly spent in indefinite detention.

There are at least 35 detainees in the Melbourne hotel.

An advocate for asylum seekers since 2017, Ms Matousek has attended the daily demonstrations outside the hotel since they began.

“I’ve done everything that I think I can,” she said.

“What I would like to know from the City of Melbourne is, you call it a refugee welcome zone—why are my friends locked in APODs [alternative places of detention]?”

Protesting the detention of Medevac asylum seekers. Video: Jack Meehan

Detainees flown to Australia under the Medevac Bill were relocated from the Preston Mantra Hotel to the Park Hotel in Carlton—within Melbourne City Council’s area—during December 2020.

More than 45 detainees were released from the Park Hotel in January, according to the ABC. Ms Matousek began her hunger strike to demand that all detainees be released.

However, more people were relocated to the hotel from Kangaroo Point, Queensland, and remain in detention, SBS reported.

Fellow protester Kathryn Renowden said the men who had been released from detention departed with little support from the government.

“I think they are just spat out into the world. What is provided is totally inadequate,” Ms Matousek said.

She said the money spent on detention, instead, could have been used to settle the asylum seekers in the community.

It is unbelievably cruel. Over the last decade, they [the Australian Government] have wasted over $20 billion of taxpayers’ money.

Melbourne City Cr Rohan Leppert said the conditions for those held at the Park Hotel were “horrible”, with “borrowed light” and “no natural ventilation”.

“This is torture happening right in the City of Melbourne,” he told the Future Melbourne Committee meeting.

He and fellow Cr Olivia Ball put forward an Advocacy Motion to the council on February 16, which aimed to push federal ministers to release the asylum seekers.  

However, an amendment moved by Lord Mayor Sally Capp and Deputy Mayor Nicholas Reece – which removed the requirement for them to advocate strongly for release—passed with a vote of six for and five opposed.  

Cr Leppert said the resulting motion was “watered down”.

“The amendment does not facilitate support for the men in the Park Hotel at all. It is a very weak statement.”

Free our friends: activists keep up the fight for release of Medevac refugees
Kim Matousek on a hunger strike in a protest for refugee rights. Picture: Jack Meehan.

Hotel protester and film student Shea Cartledge-Giovinazzo said the actions of the mayor and the deputy mayor were disappointing.

“Nicholas Reece and Sally Capp had the audacity to sit there and listen to [speakers who were] … sharing lived experiences of their own families who were refugees and say ‘we really liked this person’s speech’ and ‘we really liked what this person had to say, but we’re not going to change anything about what we’re doing’ …  we’re not going to forget about that,” she said.

Ms Renowden said the policy did not stop people from coming to Australia.

“They’re just treated appallingly and cruelly, but they’re still going to come,” she said.   

Ms Matusek said the indefinite detention was “ludicrous”.

“The Australian government is trying to shove our friends offshore to another country, yet they won’t even allow them to go to New Zealand.”

Cr Capp and Cr Reece were contacted for comment.