New. Nine birthdays in detention. Mehdi unleashes them: “Sixteen, 17, 18, 19 …”
“I am 24 years old now,” he says, resigned. “I’m still here.”
The days he spends now, forcibly confined to a Spartan room in a hotel requisitioned by the government to hold refugees, are as hard as any. There is no classification, no categorization of open-ended holding compartments.
“I just tried to figure out how to fill my days: I have to survive it. If I can sleep, I sleep as much as I can, otherwise I’ll just smoke, watch movies, read books. But usually I don’t do anything, I just lie on the bed. I’m just lying here.
The situation at Carlton’s Park Hotel took an absurd turn on the eve of Mehdi’s birthday. He won a new neighbor from below: the world’s No.1 tennis player, Novak Djokovic. He cannot see the defending Australian Open champion due to the isolation protocols and guards assembled on each floor.
“There is a disappointment: everyone wants to ask me about Novak, what the hotel looks like to him. But they don’t ask about us: we’ve been locked in this place for months, years.
“I’ve never seen so many cameras, so much attention. I hope Novak Djokovic will learn about our situation here, and I hope he will talk about it.
Mehdi – he only uses one name – was a 15-year-old when he arrived by boat in Australia in search of sanctuary. A member of the persecuted Ahwazi Arab minority in his native Iran, his family urged him to flee and organized his difficult passage, hoping he could find freedom halfway around the world.
Mehdi’s request for protection was quickly recognized – Australia is legally obligated to protect him and cannot return him to danger. But the formality of refugee status did not bring Mehdi safety, nor a new start in life: he was held, one way or another, in one place or another – Nauru, Brisbane , and now Melbourne’s famous Park Hotel – every day since.
Mehdi saw his shipmates arrive at the same time as they left detention to begin their life, career and family in Australia; he saw other inmates burn themselves to death in despair. He was beaten, mistreated, imprisoned for no reason.
Mehdi has never been charged with a felony, and he has not been accused of any wrongdoing, yet he still has not enjoyed a day of freedom in Australia. Friday is his ninth birthday in custody.
“I’m getting older; it’s really sad that my youth, my teenage years – it was wasted. I don’t want to leave here as a middle aged man, all those wasted years.
The connection he can find with the outside world only exacerbates this pain.
“Young people, I see them having fun, posting on Instagram and all that. And I am so far, very far from that. I’m still here. Every day.
“Birthdays,” he said, “are the saddest days. They’re supposed to be the happiest, but while I’m in detention it’s always the heaviest days. I spend all day thinking about all the years I wasted.
Every day is about self-preservation, says Mehdi. He is close to a cousin, Adnan, who arrived on the same boat and is also at the Park Hotel. But sometimes, to endure means to withdraw.
“I have to find the best way to survive. Sometimes I feel like if I communicate with other people in the same situation, their frustrations could affect my mental health.
Counterintuitively, defiantly drawing public attention to one’s plight serves the same existential purpose.
“It is also a method of my survival: to speak out. It is a way of existing. You are doing something, not just sitting invisible or forgotten.
Mehdi was approved for resettlement in the United States as part of Australia’s Exchange Agreement with the United States, the 2016 agreement under which America agreed to resettle refugees detained at abroad by Australia, in exchange for Australia’s acceptance of Central American refugees from camps managed by the United States. The agreement has resettled nearly 1,000 refugees, but it has been extremely slow and the allocation of places seems capricious for those who wait, sometimes for years, for a place that may never arrive.
Mehdi loses faith that his day will someday come.
“There are no updates, no deadlines. I can’t trust it, I don’t think it will happen soon and there is no guarantee that it will happen at all. “
Mehdi saw friends, including other refugees who arrived as children, emerge from detention bound for an airport and on a flight to freedom.
“It’s good to see people come out of here, but the flip side is ‘why not me, why not the rest of these people?’ I don’t see any particular reason for them to keep me here.
Mehdi says he finds the inconsistencies in the government’s supposedly consistent policy on boat arrivals infuriating.
The government continues to say that no one who arrives seeking asylum by boat will be resettled in Australia, but Mehdi says he knows dozens of people who have been.
The government refuses to accept New Zealand’s offer to resettle refugees from Australia’s “offshore cohort”, arguing it would act as a “pull factor”, an incentive for people to come to Australia by boat. But if New Zealand is an incentive, why isn’t the United States?
On bad days, Mehdi finds himself going in circles. “It’s hard when you don’t have the answers to your questions: why should I spend nine years in detention; why there is no deadline; what is my crime?
“Why has the government released thousands of people who come by boat, but kept a handful of refugees in detention. Why? Are we a sacrifice in the name of politics? “
Nauru was brutality, often deliberate it seemed, Mehdi said. The school, the only bright light in the existence of the refugee children there, has been closed. Mehdi was thrown in jail for protesting against his conditions of detention. A guard threatened to kill him.
Brisbane’s immigration transit accommodation was chaotic and angry, Mehdi says.
Conversely, the Melbourne’s Park hotel was nothing but loneliness. Mehdi spends all his days, except for a few precious minutes smoking, in the solitude of his austere hotel room.
Even the tiny smoking balcony, once a chance “to see the sky, to smell the fresh air”, has been barricaded.
In October and November, a Covid epidemic swept through refugees and asylum seekers detained inside the hotel. At one point, 22 of the 46 people then detained there had the Covid. A refugee has filed a lawsuit in federal court to ensure that an ambulance team is allowed into the hotel to assess and treat him.
Before being a detention center, under its old name Rydges, the hotel was used for quarantine and was the center of the second wave of Covid in Victoria. It was responsible for 90% of Covid cases in the state due to “insufficient prevention and control standards” [and] concerns about issues such as: access to fresh air; access to good quality food; the cleanliness of the establishment ”.
After the devastating second wave, the hotel was removed from the quarantine regime, sold, renamed, and then requisitioned by the government as an “alternative place of detention” for refugees and asylum seekers, mainly those coming from Nauru and from Papua New Guinea. suffering from serious illnesses. The windows of the hotel rooms have been pierced to prevent them from opening.
On December 27, refugees detained at the Park Hotel posted pictures of maggots found in food they were served in their rooms.
A week earlier, a fire broke out in the upper floors of the hotel. When the refugees fled to the hall on the ground floor, they were prevented from leaving by guards. Some hyperventilated with anxiety; others were forced to urinate in bottles because there was no toilet.
Mehdi’s childhood home in Iran was razed to the ground, “and it traumatized me a bit… so when this fire happened I was anxious, I had breathing problems.
“There were alarms going off, there was also smoke, and it was so chaotic. People were screaming, the guards were screaming and we were so frustrated. We could see the park and the street, the fire trucks and the police, but they just kept us there for hours. “
The Home Office did not respond to a series of detailed questions from Guardian Australia about Mehdi’s indefinite detention.
In the stasis of indefinite detention, there are no New Year’s resolutions. Each day is the same as the last.
“I don’t think you would call it a wish, but I think I just need to break free.” To take advantage of my youth. It is wasted in detention. I see no reason for this. Why? Why should I stay longer here?