Australia election 2022: Are Australia's refugee releases an election ploy?

By Zoe Osborne
in Sydney

Published
Asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani, stands outside the abandoned naval base on Manus island, where he and other asylum seekers were locked up for the first three years.Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
One detention centre for maritime refugees to Australia was located on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, before it was ordered shut

"My son was 14 when we came to detention, and he's now 24 - it's not fair."

Salah pauses. He and his son Mustafa were released from Australian immigration detention last month along with six other refugees who were being detained at Melbourne's Park Hotel, the notorious detention venue where tennis star Novak Djokovic was held earlier this year.

Salah, 51, says they have lost too much time. He and the other refugees didn't do anything wrong, he says, so why did they wait nine years to be released?

And why has it suddenly happened now?

The father and son came to Australia by boat in 2013, just after the country signed two controversial deals with Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the tiny island nation of Nauru to detain its maritime refugees outside Australia. The pair were held on Nauru for several years.

Salah doesn't want to disclose where he is originally from, citing his and his family's safety. He says he chose Australia because "everyone told me [it] is number one for human rights".

In reality, the offshore systems became notorious for their poor and dangerous conditions, which seriously traumatised some refugees, including children.

Dozens of refugees remain in the two Pacific nations, but some were brought to detention in Australia in 2019 under a medical evacuation bill dubbed Medevac, and a few others, like Salah and Mustafa, have been transferred since.

Of his release last month, Salah said: "Anyone they asked me, 'Salah are you happy?' Happy after nine years?.. Why [were] some families with me here five years ago, six years ago, seven years ago [released before us?]"

'Voters won't tolerate this policy any more'

Salah's release is part of a bigger picture.

More than 50 refugees have been released into Australia in the past few months, the ABC reported, and the government signed a deal with New Zealand in March for 450 refugees to be resettled there over three years.

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to the BBC's questions about the timing. But many have pointed to the Australian election on 21 May, suggesting Scott Morrison's government is trying to neutralise an emotive political issue.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Some suggest releasing the refugees is a way for Scott Morrison's government to neutralize a fraught political issue

They include Behrouz Boochani, award-winning author and political refugee, who spent six years in Australian offshore detention.

"Over the past two decades… always a month or two months before the election, something happened for refugees," he said. "The government introduced a new policy or they do something."

He thinks it signals a "political shift" among Australia's voters who are "not going to tolerate this policy anymore".

Ian Rintoul, activist and spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, agrees the releases are simply an "opportunistic calculation" by the government.

They may be linked to the press storm around maritime refugees from earlier this year when Djokovic was detained, he says.

But he believes there's also a "growing appreciation and awareness of the cruelty that's associated with the Park Hotel and the Medevac refugees", and a perception there was nothing to be gained from withholding their freedom.

Mr Rintoul feels the timing of the New Zealand resettlement agreement could be a sign that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is expecting an election loss.

While that agreement has been under discussion for years, he says, it recently emerged that it was the crux of a secret deal between an independent Australian Senator, Jacqui Lambie, and the prime minister.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Tennis star Novak Djokovic's detention sparked renewed interest in Australia's refugee issue

The deal was reportedly to get people off Nauru and PNG before the end of Mr Morrison's term, in exchange for Ms Lambie's support to repeal Australia's Medevac laws, which gave doctors more power to decide if asylum seekers should be let into Australia for medical care.

'Bouncing from one crisis to another'

Successive Australian governments have imposed hardline policies on refugees for decades, arguing that they prevent deaths at sea and deter human trafficking.

The Department of Home Affairs told the BBC its approach has not changed.

"People who travel illegally to Australia by boat will not permanently settle in Australia," a spokesperson said, without clarifying that it is not illegal to seek asylum.

Human rights lawyer Alison Battison believes recent developments are just the latest in a long history of "bounc[ing] from one crisis to another" over refugee policy.

There is no long-term plan for the people still detained on PNG and Nauru, she says, just as there was no plan for those moved to Australia for medical treatment.

Neither the New Zealand deal nor releasing refugees into the community provides a solution to the issue of maritime arrivals in Australia, she adds.

Those refugees who are given their freedom face new struggles.

Hossein Latifi was released from immigration detention in April. He said the government "kicked [them] out without anything after nine years."

He received four weeks of free accommodation in a Melbourne suburb, and A$240 (£130; $165) with some food to cook. At first he wasn't even given a room with a kitchen so that food was useless. After the four weeks, he will be left to fend for himself.

Image source, Hossein Latifi
Image caption,
Hossein Latifi was released from immigration detention in April, and is trying to restart his life

Hossein, along with many recently released refugees, was given a bridging visa - a temporary six-month visa designed for people who are preparing to leave Australia.

The rest have been put on "residence determination" - a form of detention where refugees live in the community, but the Australian government is responsible for their care.

"So people who have significant physical and mental health issues are then given these residence placements. In some cases, needing significant psychological assistance, because they are so distorted from detention," says Ms Battison.

"The government recognises that what has happened to the refugees in its care has left them unable to work to support themselves," she adds. "That's quite an extraordinary implied admission."

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to that claim when contacted by the BBC.

'They lost their opportunities'

People on bridging visas often find it hard to survive too, Ms Battison says.

"You can't get a loan, you can't get a job that has any sense of security because why would anyone give you such a job when you have to keep renewing your visa every six months?"

Refugee Mr Boochani says many also find it impossible to "cope with those years that they lost" to detention.

"If you lose your life, nine years in detention, if you lose it, you start to ask… why? They lost their opportunities, they lost their chances."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Behrouz Boochani says many refugees may find it impossible to come to terms with the years they have lost during detention

Salah has an interview in May for resettlement in Canada. If he stayed in Australia, his bridging visa wouldn't allow him to sponsor his family to join him.

But he has already been waiting for three years to be accepted by Canada, and no refugee who has started an application process to be resettled in Canada or the US is eligible for the New Zealand deal.

For now, Salah and Hossein are focused on restarting their lives. Hossein says that the situation in detention was "designed to break [him]", but it only made him stronger.

"I believe in myself, I'll be successful. I believe in other refugees, they will be successful," he says.

But realistically their future is still unsure.

"You plan to do something and you say no, I'm here for just six months," says Hossein. "There is no[t] any guarantee… this is some kind of pressure, stress."

Salah says that he will still find a job.

"I have many [skills] - I am mechanic and a chef, and [I can] drive forklift," he says. "I have many jobs. I can work here."

But his ultimate wish is to be reunited with his wife and his other son.

"I [hope to] finish my paper to New Zealand or Canada… because if I go [there] I know my life," he says. "I know my future."

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