Melbourne, Australia – Activists and refugees in Australia have welcomed the release of four men held in immigration detention in the city of Melbourne, but say authorities must now free the dozens of men remaining in state custody, particularly at a city hotel where half the detainees have caught COVID-19.
Among the men released with temporary visas on Saturday was Afghan asylum seeker Ahmad Zahir Azizi.
The 37-year-old, who had spent eight years in detention, including six years in an offshore detention facility on Papua New Guinea, told Al Jazeera he could barely believe he was free.
He said he was relishing breathing fresh air and feeling the sun on his skin.
“First I [went] to the mosque … when I was walking I looked [back], I was thinking maybe security [was behind] me!” he said, laughing.
Azizi is now waiting for identity documents and a bank account. While he is happy at his release, he said he wanted the Australian government to provide the same rights to those remaining at the Melbourne’s Park Hotel, where many detainees caught the coronavirus last month.
Their release brings to 178 the number of asylum seekers freed from immigration detention since December 2020.
Campaigners say 81 refugees are still being held. Forty of them are at the Park Hotel.
Most of them had been brought to Australia from the offshore processing sites in PNG and Nauru in 2019 due to concerns over their health.
One man who remains at the Park Hotel said people still in detention suffer when someone is released.
One said he was tormented by questions of why he had not been afforded the same rights. “What is the difference between me and them?” the 32-year-old asked. “Why not me?”
“You don’t know when you [will] get out … If [the authorities told] you ‘next two, three months’, you will be happy. You’d say, ‘Oh, two, three months is nothing.’
“But they want to keep you in the dark. So you don’t know anything. That makes you very depressed and unhappy. They want you to suffer.”
Graham Thom, a refugee adviser for Amnesty International Australia, agreed.
While he welcomed the release of the four asylum seekers, he said, “The arbitrary nature of these decisions, which leaves approximately 40 men still detained as COVID-19 spreads through the hotel, is unacceptable.”
He added, “All those asylum seekers still being held in detention around Australia should be immediately released into the community.”
There was no immediate comment from the Australian government. It did not say what criteria were used in the decision to release Azizi and the three others.
Meanwhile, other campaigners said the Australian government needs to provide more support to the refugees who are released into the community.
At the moment, most are released on a temporary bridging visa that allows them to work in Australia. But they are not given any financial assistance beyond vouchers worth 100 Australian dollars ($73.5).
“[The released refugees] have been told they have just three weeks accommodation and then they are on their own,” said Chris Breen, of the Refugee Action Collective. “They have no money and just been given 100 Australian dollar Woolworths [a supermarket chain] vouchers with no explanation of how or where to use them.”
The men are “being dumped in the community with no support”, he added.
Jana Favero of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) also raised concerns over the lack of a pathway for resettlement in Australia for most of the refugees who had been released into the community.
“Some of them are … on a pathway to the United States or have applied for Canada to be resettled there,” she said. “Others have to take a lot longer.”
So, in reality, she said, many of the men continue to face uncertainty over their fate despite their release from detention.
“First of all, they’re released with some funded government support, but only for a couple of weeks … What happens when that date comes up?” she said. “Then their bridging visas might have five months left, what happens after that date?”
Moz Azimitabar, an asylum seeker who was released into the community earlier this year, said he has to apply to renew his visa every six months as he lobbies for permanent residency in Australia.
The 35-year-old Kurd said he is still struggling with the trauma of eight years of detention and has an intense fear of proximity with people.
“I don’t want them to come close to me, to be around me or come close to me,” he said. “In detention … they did pat searches of my body more than 400 times.”
“When I say pat search,” he added. “… they just touch, touch all my body [and] I felt [like they] are killing me.”
Back at the Park Hotel, detainees continue to hope for a release from their indefinite detention.
The 32-year-old refugee who spoke earlier noted how many people “cannot stand quarantine even for two weeks”.
“But we are here for over eight years,” he said.
“We are just suffering,” he added. “We are refugees. We are innocent people. We should not be here.”