The detention regime’s ‘long tail of cruelty’

Nauru may have been evacuated but Australia's brutal detention system causes lifelong harm. Acting CEO Danielle Townsend writes about the jagged, complex journey to freedom for people we support. July 10, 2023

It’s a very happy occasion when someone in our community receives their permanent protection visa. There are tears of joy and relief, and nerves about the journey ahead.

And sometimes it’s bittersweet, as it is for Laleh*, a survivor of offshore detention. We have walked alongside Laleh for many years as she has recovered from the trauma of her time on Nauru. She recently received the joyous news that she will be offered a permanent visa, but due to a policy that prevents her from ever settling in Australia, her new home will be in New Zealand.

The barrier that prevents this brave woman from making Australia her home does not take into account her character, her skills or even her connections to this country after nearly a decade. That barrier is a policy: that no one seeking asylum who arrives by boat will ever be permanently settled in Australia. And that policy has its 10 year milestone this month.

Last week we celebrated the long-awaited evacuation of the refugees still left in Nauru. In doing so, we also recognise what a long tail of cruelty this policy has and acknowledge the thousands who are still feeling the damage.

The journey for these refugees and the thousands before them is not simply one of offshore detention to freedom. The path may also include lengthy times in hotel detention (known as APODs: Alternative Places of Detention), periods in community detention, restrictions to the right to work or study, inconsistent medical care and extreme mental health challenges.

Many hundred of refugees detained in Nauru and Manus Island were held in APODs after they were evacuated to Australia to receive medical care. Some for up to two years.

One such refugee, Mostafa (Moz) Azimitibar, took the Federal Government to court, claiming his 14 month confinement in Melbourne hotels was illegal. Yesterday, Federal Court Justice Bernard Murphy found that Moz’s detention was in fact within the law, but he spoke scathingly about the practice.

“I can only wonder at the lack of thought, indeed the lack of care and humanity, in detaining a person with psychiatric and psychological problems in the hotels for over 14 months,” Murphy said. “Primarily, in hotel rooms with windows that only opened 10 centimetres and for most of the time, without access to an outdoor area or to breath fresh air or feel the sun on his face.” These policies increase and exacerbate the effects of trauma that most people seeking asylum have experienced before they leave their home countries. And they are worn in the faces of people in our Asylum Seekers Centre community who have survived.

So what comes next for Laleh? “It’s very exciting. The cost to reach this permanency was a lot. God knows what has happened during these ten years to me… But I’m happy going to a safe place. And they respect me as permanent. There’s no respect on a six month visa in the community – it’s very hard.”

She will need to start afresh while carrying the effects of the last ten years.

We will miss her in Australia and we worry about the others who don’t have safe pathways yet. We will continue to speak out about the long term effects of offshore detention, which our Government remains committed to at the cost of $350 million per year on Nauru, and other deterrence methods. And, thanks to the generous tax-time donations of people like you, we will continue to support those who come out of detention in need of a helping hand.

This current group of refugees leaving Nauru have taken another step on their journey, but they still have a long way to go. As do we, to make right the damage our detention policies have caused.

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