It’s been a tough year for Melburnians, who are now experiencing their first taste of relative freedom after one of the world’s longest and harshest COVID-19 lockdowns.
But for hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees living in Melbourne, their perpetual lockdown remains in place with no end in sight.
After living in detention in Nauru and Christmas Island for six years, Minah, an asylum seeker from Iran, was moved to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in Broadmeadows 13 months ago.
“For no reason, for no crime, I have to stay in detention,” Minah said. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.
While 2020 feels like a wasted year for many, at 33 Minah said she has spent the “best years of her life” — half of her 20s and part of her 30s — locked away.
“I have a lot of talent. I can study, I can work, I can improve myself and show how much I can be useful for any country — it doesn’t matter where. I’ll do my best if I can,” she said.
Mental health under strain for refugees detained in Melbourne
Farhad Bandesh, a Kurdish refugee also living in MITA, still remembers having to fight for access to sunshine and fresh air when he arrived.
“Detention is fences, bars and sharing rooms,” he said.
“The rooms are too small. The yard is really small. Even if you want to walk, it’s not enough for a simple walk.”
After being in detention for six years on Manus Island, he was told he was being moved to receive medical treatment 16 months ago. He is yet to receive the treatment.
Mr Bandesh said each day starts with security guards conducting a headcount at 6:00am and he said it felt like the refugees were being constantly monitored.
Being restricted to a tiny shared room has taken its toll on his mental health — a problem he fears “would not be healed easily”.
As an artist and musician, Mr Bandesh used art to express himself during dark times. But when guards confiscated his art supplies, he turned to his music as a platform to raise awareness and vent frustrations.
Carolyn Graydon, principal solicitor for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), said being held in rooms without windows and not being allowed outside is “quite common” for detainees.
“It is a very barren and boring environment,” she said.
“Many prisoners transferred from prisons to immigration detention say that prisons offer so many more opportunities and activities.”
A spokesperson from the Australian Border Force said: “Detainees in immigration detention are given access to good food, medical care, educational programs, cultural, recreational and sporting activities (including arts and crafts), internet and computer facilities, televisions, and clean, comfortable sleeping quarters.”
Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown made it worse for detainees, according to Mr Bandesh, as restrictions applied to them as well.
It meant socialising with friends — which can often provide respite for displaced refugees — was limited and they were mostly confined to their rooms.
Mr Bandesh said being trapped in detention for so long left him feeling both hopeless and hopeful; always wondering when or if he would be released.
“What about us? None of us have been released [out of MITA] for more than 16 months and it’s something really hopeless for the refugees in detention. It’s hopeless.”
Lockdown triggers memories of detention for refugees
Isolation from support networks was also a problem for 22-year-old Betelehem Tibebu Zeleke, who was formerly detained on Nauru.
In the middle of completing her university degree, Ms Zeleke was forced to flee Ethiopia when a tribal war broke out.
She ended up making her way to Australia by boat in 2013, before being put into Nauru’s detention centre for two years. She was allowed to settle in Melbourne in 2015.
Melbourne’s harsh lockdown triggered memories from her difficult years in detention.
“I felt like I was still in detention [during lockdown], especially when they said you can’t drive more than 5 kilometres,” she told the ABC.
“Refugees like us, we don’t have any family. We [are] used to [going] to a friend’s house just to spend some time to relax our mind, but when they said 5 kilometres. I said: ‘Am I still in detention?'”
But in detention, rather than waiting for life to go back to “normal”, asylum seekers are waiting to start a life from scratch in a new and daunting place while dealing with the stress and trauma of the journey here and chaos back home.
The fear and uncertainty has stayed with her long after detention and resurfaces during times of hardship.
During Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdown, seeing police officers would make her panic and question herself, even when she had not been breaking the law.
“[Trauma] makes you remember the past, all my friends, they say that too. They say to me, I remember the detention whenever I see the cops. It’s true, they make me remember the bad history,” she said.
Ms Graydon said as a lawyer she frequently sees such trauma in many of her clients.
“Even if they get to the end [of years in detention] they’re so damaged, not only by their experience in their home countries, but also what they’ve been subjected to, in Australia through this refugee process, which is designed to be like a war of attrition,” she told the ABC.
Under Australian law, anyone who arrives by boat to seek asylum must be detained and there is no limit on how long that detention can last.
A spokesperson from the Australian Border Force said the number of people in immigration detention has reduced from more than 10,000 in 2013 to 1,500 now.
“Applicants found to engage Australia’s protection obligations must also satisfy health, character, identity and security checks before they can be granted a visa,” the spokesperson said.
The Government has said the detention policy is designed to deter people-smuggling and drowning at sea, but refugee advocates stress it is not illegal to seek asylum.
“We’ve placed such high emphasis on deterrence at such high cost to the human beings that are embroiled in really protracted and dehumanising refugee determination processes for year after year,” Ms Graydon said.
Ms Graydon said as long as there is war and political persecution, asylum seekers will continue to flee.
“Put yourself in that person’s shoes, facing a threat to your life, your children were facing torture, detention, rape, or the complete destruction of your village on ethnic grounds or political persecution,” she said.
“Would you just sit there and wait for that to continue or would you try and escape from that?”