‘What Was the Point?’: Freed After 9 Years, Refugees Learn to Live Again

14 mins read


MELBOURNE, Australia — The men mill around the front of the weathered motel, blinking in the sunlight, not sure what to do with themselves. Around their feet are suitcases and large plastic bags holding everything they own.

For nearly nine years, these seven men had been prisoners to Australia’s unyielding approach to refugees, detained for much of that time in miserable offshore camps. Now, without warning, they had been set free, given half an hour to pack up, the worst of their ordeal over but their futures as uncertain as ever.

As they waited to be taken to their new homes in a motel on the outskirts of Melbourne, a tangle of emotions rippled through them, the words “nine years” repeated in tones of relief, wonder and exasperation.

One man, a refugee named Mohammad, said he felt nothing. “I’m not happy,” he said, standing in the doorway of his room.

For Mohammad, the abrupt and arbitrary conclusion to his detention heightened the senselessness of what he had endured — the trauma of finding a friend hanging lifeless in the offshore camp; the nightmare of digging jungle wells and trekking for coconuts after the Australian government closed the camp and tried to force the men out with no better alternative.

“It’s been nine years,” he said. “Why? What was the point?”

In March and April, Australia’s conservative government, trailing in the polls in an election it would ultimately lose, released a number of asylum seekers who had once been held in the offshore camps and were now being confined in hotels and detention centers across the country. The releases, which the government undertook in quick succession with no public comment, followed some sporadic releases of asylum seekers over the past year and a half.

The migrants had been detained under a policy, instituted in 2013, that bars resettlement by those who try to enter the country by sea. The government has long maintained that the policy is crucial to preventing both a runaway flow of immigration to Australia and deaths at sea. The prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court said in 2020 that the program constituted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and was a “violation of fundamental rules of international law.”

The released asylum seekers were granted six-month visas, but were told they must begin making arrangements to leave Australia. With this limbo, learning to live normally again, after years of psychological and physical damage, is a herculean task.

Mohammad, who is in his 30s and asked that his last name be withheld to protect his family from further persecution in Iran, had been released from a Melbourne immigration detention hotel. That place, the Park Hotel, became infamous this year when the tennis superstar Novak Djokovic was briefly detained there for violating Australia’s Covid vaccination rules.

He and the other men had been moved to the mainland from Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, or from the tiny island nation of Nauru, under a short-lived medical treatment program. After leaving detention, they were given $340 each from the government, a few weeks of accommodation and some groceries — although their new homes in the motel had no kitchens. They were also assigned case workers to guide them through the bureaucratic labyrinth that is freedom.

The men identify each other by the point at which they met on their long journeys as asylum seekers, and by the scars they have accumulated: We were on the same boat together; I know him from the Park Hotel; he swallowed razor blades on Manus.

In his room, Mohammad tries to wash some of those scars away. He takes two or three showers a day and, convinced that some of his medical problems were caused by dirty detention facilities, cleans his room meticulously every few days, wiping down the bathroom with wet wipes and picking debris out of the carpet.

Mohammad, a member of an Arab minority in Iran, has clots in his lungs and in one leg, and he suffers from bleeding in his stomach. Like many of the men, he says his brain became slow as he languished in detention.

He’s impatient for a better future. He scours Facebook Marketplace for houses and secondhand cars, and asks every advocate about job opportunities. His plan: a place to live, a job, a wife, children.

Even in the face of uncertainty, his optimism is indelible. If it wasn’t, he says, he wouldn’t have survived his detention.

But when his mind is not focused on something else, he admits, he is always thinking about those long years.

One night, after Mohammad spent five hours at a hospital undergoing tests, a conversation about the sports he had played as a child descended into melancholy.

“Australia has destroyed me,” he said, tipping his head back and looking at the night sky. “My education. My body.”

A friend, another Iranian refugee, corrected him. “It’s not destroyed you,” he said. “It’s made you tough.”

The statement, shocking in its matter-of-factness, came abruptly, said in an undertone at a celebration for the men a few weeks after their release.

“In Manus Island, I pour petrol and set fire to myself,” said Sirazul Islam, 37, who came to Australia by boat in 2013, fleeing political persecution in Bangladesh.

Seated at dinner with cheery Australians and decidedly more awkward-looking refugees in a brightly lit church hall, Mr. Islam detailed how he was still suffering from the severe mental issues that had led him to attempt suicide — an attempt that left him with a scar on his side.

He didn’t really want to be at the celebration, he admitted, but there would be “problems” if he refused. That wasn’t true. But Mr. Islam, a wiry man with a cynical sense of humor and a boyish grin, has developed an instinctual response of going along after years of having his autonomy stripped away, and with his freedom now hanging on a precarious visa.

Mr. Islam’s experience has been particularly difficult. He has trouble processing information, and gets overwhelmed by the text messages, phone calls and emails involved in setting up a new life. He suffers from memory issues and struggles with English. Advocates fill out forms — to get identification documents, to register for medical services — for him.

As the only Bangladeshi refugee at the motel, he spends most of his time by himself. Sometimes, when the loneliness becomes overwhelming, he calls up advocates to come visit him and has stilted, awkward interactions.

The motel is boring, but the world outside is vast and unfamiliar. Three weeks after his release, he had barely left the motel, beyond going to a supermarket for groceries. “I fear to go any farther,” he said through an interpreter.

Some of the refugees argue that the government should do more to support them. But Mr. Islam has been told to find a job and support himself, so that’s what he will do, even if he’s not entirely sure how.

“If I don’t obey, maybe they’ll put me back in the detention center,” he said.

He doesn’t see the unsettled life he’s living now as freedom.

“Freedom can only come when they give me a permanent visa or I become a citizen,” he said. “Then, only, will I be free — I can go anywhere, I can meet anybody, I can do anything.”

Salah Mustafa, 51, is always on the move, always looking to the next thing to do. To pause might mean to falter, and the last thing he wants is for his son to see him fatigued or scared.

His son, Mustafa Salah, was 14 when they entered detention on Manus and is now 23. Nearly three weeks after their release, they moved into a small house in a quiet neighborhood, provided by a church charity. Mr. Mustafa was content that first night, bustling around the kitchen cooking up a stew.

But he barely spares a moment to take it all in before moving on — making plans to buy a car and, most important, worrying about an upcoming interview for resettlement in Canada.

“I am very tired,” he admits one afternoon, out of earshot of his son, as it all seems to catch up with him.

Mr. Mustafa has made many friends with Australian advocates and supporters. But Canada represents a chance at a life impossible in Australia: an opportunity to reunite with his wife and younger son, who remain in the Middle East.

“I need stability. I need papers,” he said. “I need somewhere to stay forever. I need to see my family.”

His son doesn’t think about the future in the same way.

“I always tell my dad, don’t talk about Canada,” he said, adding that he was not even thinking about resettlement.

“Why should I dream for something that’s not yet happening?” he says. “I need to do something with now.”

There is hope among the refugees that the Labor Party’s win in the federal election last month could improve their prospects — a hope possibly disproportionate to what the party has promised.

Labor has signaled incremental changes in Australia’s approach to refugees, but it has been largely silent about what will happen to those like Mr. Mustafa and his son who arrived after the policy was toughened in 2013.

In the meantime, the newly free refugees have lives to get on with. A month after their release, Mr. Mustafa’s son wandered into their kitchen around lunchtime one Saturday, having just woken up after a rare night out with friends.

He recounted the details: a packed club, dancing, no alcohol but plenty of Red Bull. He wondered what had happened with one friend, who left with a young woman and hadn’t been heard from since.

It was all wonderfully normal, a moment in the life of any 23-year-old.

Outside, on the front lawn, his father stood smoking a cigarette, regarding the quiet street before them. Once their resettlement interview is done, he said, he might plant some okra, or maybe some tomatoes.

“The freedom is very beautiful,” he said.

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