Refugee activists are sceptical about seeing action on human rights after another group of refugees were transferred from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) centre to Christmas Island last month.
Despite a change in government, new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said the Morrison government policy on boat arrivals would continue under his leadership.
“The Labor Party’s position is very clear – we support boat turnbacks,” he said before the election.
On May 3, activists protested to prevent the transfer of 12 detainees to the Christmas Island detention centre by blockading the MITA centre.
Medical student Em Wilson, 25, who attended the protest, said attitudes toward refugees were openly neglectful in Australia.
“Australia’s treatment of all refugees has been pretty unconscionable and, what’s worse, I feel like Australia knows that,” they said.
Christmas Island was reopened in August 2020 by the Morrison government and currently holds about 212 people, 90 of whom had protection, refugee or humanitarian visas.
The Australian Human Rights Commission 2021 report found the Christmas Island detention facility should be immediately decommissioned.
The new Immigration minister, Andrew Giles, has a history of acting for refugees and was part of a legal team in 2001 that represented the asylum seekers aboard the MV Tampa.
Little hope for policy change
However, Wilson said activists were sceptical the changes in government would result in any significant policy change to protect asylum seekers.
“It just feels like they’ve made a couple of concessions,” they said. “Even if governments sort of release people with their tail between their legs, they do respond to direct action.”
Bayside Refugee Advocacy and Support Association secretary Katie Shafar said spending years in detention caused severe damage to refugees.
“The cruelty is beyond belief. We treat our animals way better than the way we treat people,” she said.
Working as a nurse for more than 40 years, Shafar has volunteered with detainees in Nauru and those in MITA, and said she had seen firsthand the physical and mental damage inflicted on detainees.
They’ve got what we call co-morbidities – PTSD, severe anxiety and depression, sometimes psychosis as well, and the medications are a joke.
Shafar is critical of the International Health and Medical Services, contracted by the Department of Immigration to work in detention centres, and had seen dosette boxes containing a plethora of drugs given to detainees as a form of chemical restraint.
“They didn’t even know what they were taking,” she said.
Of the detainees eventually released, Shafar said many “live in limbo”, with no permanent visa status, no rights to work, and no access to Medicare or education.
A life of frightening uncertainly
Neil Para, a Tamil refugee who fled Sri Lanka in 2012, is one such refugee without permanent protection. He lives in Ballarat with his wife Sugaa and their daughters, Nivash, Kartie, and Nive. They were living in detention before being granted visas.
In 2014, the Para family’s visas were revoked. They have since lived in a state of uncertainty without sufficient means to support themselves.
Para is optimistic that the Albanese government will be more “considerate and compassionate” toward refugees.
“My dream is always to give my family a peaceful and happy life. That is my first priority,” Para said.
He volunteers with various organisations, including the State Emergency Service and the local primary school. Sugaa volunteers at an aged-care facility, and their eldest daughter offers online English lessons to other refugee children.
“I always wanted to be a police officer, that’s my dream. I can only apply when we become citizens. My wife wants to be an aged care worker,” Mr Para said.
Climate activist and writer for the Green Left, Felix Dance, also attended the MITA protest and said despite Labor’s win, more needed to be done to protect and support refugees.
“Everyone needs to stay vigilant; we haven’t won yet.”
Before the election, Labor promised to grant visas to 19,000 people already recognised as refugees in Australia. However, others are still living in perpetual detention.
Naser Moradi, from the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, fled Afghanistan and arrived in Australia by boat in 2012. He remains in detention at MITA in Broadmeadows.
Moradi said life in detention was taking a toll on his physical and mental health, but he tried his best not to lose hope.
He is a self-taught artist, and his works primarily reflect his experiences in detention. His art expresses both his suffering and hopes for the future.
This lack of government protection for refugees and asylum seekers has forced individuals to find different ways to provide support.
Australian’s interest in providing support to asylum seekers surged following the mass evacuation of Afghans from Kabul in 2021.
Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia community development manager Nicole Watkins said global crises prompted people to get involved.
“Global crises tend to bring people out, and they want to support. They want to help,” she said.
Through a group mentorship program, CRSA connects newly arrived refugee individuals or households with local community groups.
“The program is about building relationships and getting to know people and working out how you can really support them,” Ms Watkins said.
Even during the heavy restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, CRSA found people were still committed to the program and providing support to their local refugee groups.
“They just were really innovative in their way that they engaged with people and found ways to support them,” Watkins said.