Even those fleeing the Taliban, the asylum seekers who contributed to our war effort in Afghanistan, risk indefinite detention for another year. Lawyer and human rights defender Alison battisson reports on victims of the Australian detention regime and their struggle for freedom.
It’s two days before Christmas 2021. Sydney’s CBD is largely empty as offices officially close and people spend time with family and friends. The city’s few residents are avoiding each other to make sure their Christmas celebrations aren’t impacted by COVID.
I am not at home and I am not with my family. Instead, I sit in the offices of a lawyer finalizing submissions and evidence for a hearing in the Federal Court of Australia. My clients, the applicants in the Federal Court of Australia, are also not at home with their families. Instead, they’re locked inside a hotel with tinted windows to make sure no one outside can see them, and with no access to fresh air. They are not, however, in quarantine due to COVID.
My clients are two cousins who came to Australia at the age of 15. They speak English fluently and are interested in music, art and poetry. They come from a family of lawyers and political activists. They played soccer and would love to try AFL. After all, they are locked in a hotel in Melbourne, the spiritual home of the AFL.
Mehdi and Adnan are now 23 and 24 years old. As such, you would assume that they have finished their education, maybe they went to college, that they had their first romantic experience, that they maybe had their hearts broken. They are beautiful young men.
But Mehdi and Adnan didn’t do any of these things. Instead, they were moved to detention centers in Australia and Nauru. Their education seems to be permanently suspended. They have had no chance of meeting a first love in any setting other than a detention center or camp, where contact with visitors is officially limited to “a kiss on the cheek upon arrival and departure” . No hugs allowed. No one has kissed these boys in years.
What Mehdi and Adnan experienced, however, was exposure to self-harm, including the self-immolation of other refugees, and the attempts themselves.
They have been attacked and feel constantly afraid, uncomfortable, in danger. Their mental health is naturally poor and their physical health is deteriorating as well. They were taken to Australia for treatment. Instead, they sit in their bedroom every day. Waiting for.
Mehdi and Adnan live in the hotel with around 35 other refugees, including Sayed. Sayed worked with Allied forces in Afghanistan for over two years. He worked in an forward base at great personal risk. After being hunted down by the Taliban, he fled to Australia. He too was sent to Nauru.
Sayed was recognized as a refugee, as were Mehdi and Adnan. And then Sayed waited to be permanently installed somewhere. And waited. He wanted his family to join him. They too were threatened by the Taliban because of its role in assisting the allies.
In 2019, Sayed could no longer wait for a permanent settlement. He set himself on fire. He suffered burns to more than 50% of his body. Sayed was also taken to Australia for treatment and he too is staying at the hotel.
I also defend Sayed. Do interviews, write to politicians in the hope that they too have not returned home for Christmas and that they forget Sayed. His support against the Taliban, his support for us, for democracy.
The Kabul Uprising
It’s my day job. In August 2021, my day job was put on hold when the Taliban took control of Kabul.
On August 15, 2021, as our policies told us Kabul would not fall quickly, I received a phone call from a friend. “Ali, the Taliban just walked past our house. My family runs in front of them to get to the airport.
Over the next ten days, I was involved with a group of lawyers and athlete volunteers to help with the evacuation of people, including the Afghan women’s football team. I slept two hours a night and submitted over 180 visa applications, while chatting with groups of people through Taliban checkpoints. I told the children to go to crowded sewers. 110 people got out.
And so it offends me that Sayed, with his burns, remains in detention. Sayed, who worked with our allies in Afghanistan. He might have done better to go into hiding for eight years and then try to get to the airport.
I have also helped individuals and their families within the legal community to leave Afghanistan. People with children like Mehdi and Adnan, whose family members include lawyers.
Thinking about their situation, I realize that it is easier to help extract people from Kabul, with the Taliban and ISIS breaking down the doors of the airport, than to free Sayed, Mehdi. and Adnan from an Australian detention hotel.
Australia has created a monster. The purpose of detention has been lost – that is, short stays to check morals, health and protection claims. Instead, we have an industrial detention complex that requires the continual spending of billions of dollars to fuel safety and health contracts. It has become an end in itself.
This Christmas, there is room at home for Mehdi, Adnan and Sayed. There is room at the hostel in Australia. However, it appears that the industrial detention complex must continue to be supplied. And so they remain, detained. Waiting for.
Afterword: As I write this I get the following message “the building is on fire”. The boys and Sayed are evacuated. But not on the outside. They are kept in the building. In the building with the fire. Mehdi can’t breathe – he doesn’t know what’s wrong. They are afraid.