Refugees in Melbourne Are Stuck in a Nightmare of Indefinite Detention and COVID-19 Infections

Since late 2020, the Australian government has indefinitely held 43 refugees in the Park Hotel in Carlton, Melbourne. This week, 19 tested positive for COVID-19. According to the detainees, the source could be any of the 20 security guards who refused vaccination.

A rally held on January 9, 2021, calling for the release of the refugees being detained at the Park Hotel in Melbourne, Australia. (Matt Hrkac / Flickr)

In the last week, nineteen refugees being held indefinitely by the Australian government at the Park Hotel in Melbourne have tested positive for COVID-19. Eight of the forty-three refugees in detention are, as of Friday, still awaiting their results. Two detainees have been hospitalized by the virus, and according to a statement made in Parliament by Greens senator Nick McKim, one was so ill that he needed an ambulance.

These refugees were brought to Australia from Nauru under the short-lived Medevac Bill passed in early 2019. The bill allowed critically ill refugees and people seeking asylum held in offshore detention centers to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment. Ahmed is one of the forty-three refugees being held in the Park Hotel, and like the others, he has remained in detention for the duration of the pandemic. He spoke to Jacobin about the source of the COVID-19 outbreak and the situation he and his friends are currently facing.

Anti-Vax Security Guards

“The reason we are in this terrible situation,” says Ahmed, is “because some of the guards refused to get the vaccine.” According to Ahmed, twenty security guards employed by Serco refused COVID-19 vaccination and were subsequently sacked.

According to a refugee advocate, the hotel is a “COVID incubator.” The windows in each room are sealed and cannot be opened. Instead, the hotel’s air-conditioning has been circulating air between the first floor, where the refugees who have tested positive for the virus are isolating, and the other two floors, where the others are held.

Although Ahmed tested negative for coronavirus earlier in the week, in light of the ongoing risk, he and the other refugees being held have been tested a second time. They are still awaiting their results. As Ahmed points out, if he and his friends had been released into the community, they would have faced a far lower risk of infection. As of early September, only 13 percent of the Park Hotel refugees had been fully vaccinated. This is in line with the norm across refugee detention centers in Australia, where there have been consistent delays in providing inmates with vaccines.

Ahmed says he and the other refugees at the Park Hotel are scared and nervous. “We need treatment, not a hotel,” he explains. “We are all mentally sick, and with COVID, it’s getting worse.”

Unlike many of the guards, Ahmed has no interest in anti-vaccination conspiracy theories. “Of course, I got vaccinated! Imagine if I finally got to be out in the community and then infected someone with COVID?”

Indeed, many of the detainees in the Park Hotel suffer from underlying medical conditions that place them at greater risk. For example, the government brought one refugee to Australia to receive treatment for self-inflicted burns on over half of his body.

According to Ahmed, the first three refugees to be infected developed symptoms at night. However, because the hotel is not staffed by nurses overnight, the refugees spoke to the security guards, who made them wait until the next day before being tested. In the community, test results are usually available within twenty-four hours. The refugees at Park Hotel waited four days before they received their positive test results.

Although Ahmed’s own test came back negative, he described the anxiety caused by having to wait. “Nobody takes any responsibility, nobody’s telling us anything. You email the caseworker about something, and they just don’t reply. Show some respect, at least reply!”

Racism and Cruelty

Ahmed and the other detainees in the Park Hotel are part of a group who traveled to Australia on the same boat. “We were young, twenty-four to thirty-two years old,” he explains. “Forty of us shared one crowded tent on Nauru, while nine others went to Christmas Island.”

That was nine years ago. As Ahmed explains, the impact on their lives has been profound. “We’ve all missed out on study, work, visits with friends and family, as well as training,” he explains. When Ahmed’s father became terminally ill a few years ago, Ahmed was unable to travel to see him before he passed away.

“You know how your parents are always thinking about you? Always caring about you?” Ahmed continues. “They worry that you’re eating, finding friends, a wife, maybe having kids, or studying, or working, or starting a business.” Nine years of detention have made this almost impossible to bear. “I don’t even have anything to say to my family now,” Ahmed explains. “I ignore my phone. Imagine your mother and father always crying about you. And then I lost my father. He died worrying about me, and he knew I was trapped.”

Racism reinforces the system of mandatory detention. In 2019, following the passage of the Medevac Bill, prime minister Scott Morrison warned that pedophiles, rapists, and murderers may be among the refugees being brought to Australia for medical treatment. According to a public health worker who commented to Jacobin anonymously, one of the guards assigned to a detainee sent to the hospital following a hunger strike repeated this racist scapegoating, alleging that that the refugees in detention were criminals.

Ahmed rejects this as scaremongering, pointing out that the Australian government rejected an offer from New Zealand to resettle him and other refugees held offshore:

In 2013, New Zealand asked to accept refugees. So, send me there please. . . . I just don’t want to be held as a hostage. If you committed a crime, you get sent to court. If I’ve committed a crime, then send me to court.

Despite the enormous toll of indefinite detention, however, Ahmed and the many refugees held in Australia and in offshore detention centers have continued to protest. Ahmed has been on hunger strike twice, losing ten kilograms in the process. These protests are also in response to degrading conditions in detention. Those held in the Park Hotel don’t get a choice over lunch or dinner. As Ahmed recounts, when a friend of his from Iraq asked guards for paracetamol, he was refused.

As Melbourne emerges from the world’s longest lockdown, indefinite detention continues for the refugees in Park Hotel. For at least nineteen, this will now be compounded by COVID-19, while the rest remain at severe risk. As Ahmed argues, the detainees at Park Hotel urgently need solidarity to end the cruel regime of mandatory detention:

Please, we need you guys. This is unfair, we are innocent. We didn’t commit any crime. Talking about it makes me sad — we’re just suffering for no reason. We’re not talking to each other here. We’re tired. We need your help, we need your voice. This system should be changed.