Stories from the ‘Dark Underbelly’ of Australia’s Long-Term Refugee Prisons

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Stories from the 'Dark Underbelly' of Australia's Long-Term Refugee Prisons

Melbourne, Australia, November 6, 2023 

In a heart-wrenching tale of separation and resilience, Reeta Arulruban’s journey to Australia began twelve years ago when she fled persecution on a crowded boat. Today, her son Dixtan, who is 26, is locked up in immigration detention, a stark reminder of Australia’s strict policies towards undocumented migrants.

Australia’s “Operation Sovereign Borders,” which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, is renowned for its strict approach to undocumented migrants and has been a source of inspiration for other nations, such as the UK. These policies have had significant impacts on the lives of individuals like Dixtan, who find themselves detained despite having committed no crimes.

Under Australia’s migration laws, the government can detain noncitizens indefinitely if they lack a valid visa, even when they have legitimate claims of asylum. While this approach is expensive, with the cost of detaining an individual exceeding $250,000 per year, it continues due to concerns about appearing “soft” on border control, even when individuals believed they were Australian citizens.

Currently, over 1,000 people are in immigration detention, and 127 have been detained for five years or more, including Dixtan, who will soon join this group. The average detention period is 709 days, with the longest-held detainee having been in custody for 16 years.

Australia’s strict policies have been widely criticized, both domestically and internationally. The country has been known for its harsh treatment of migrants, including housing them in offshore detention centers on remote Pacific islands. Conditions within these centers have been described as detrimental to mental health, with medical experts referring to them as “factories for mental illness.”

The lack of a Bill of Rights guaranteeing liberty and humane treatment in Australia, in contrast to other liberal democracies, has allowed these policies to persist. Legal challenges to detaining immigrants have faced significant obstacles, often being met with new legislation or out-of-court settlements by the government.

Efforts are underway to challenge the legality of indefinitely detaining refugees in Australia’s High Court this month. Australian Greens lawmaker Nick McKim has called this period one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history and emphasized the need to hold those responsible accountable and ensure it does not happen again.

Jhaidul, a Bangladeshi refugee, had no specific destination in mind when he paid a people smuggler to find safety in Australia in 2012. Having spent nine years wrongfully imprisoned in Bangladesh, Jhaidul was intercepted by Australian authorities, and was placed in immigration detention. After a decade behind bars, Jhaidul was finally released at the age of 46.

He had plans to sponsor his family to join him in Australia, but he now faces an uncertain immigration status, preventing him from reuniting with his son and a daughter he has never met. Some suspect that these releases are an attempt to push detainees to return to dangerous places.

These stories shed light on the human cost of Australia’s tough immigration policies and the need for reform to ensure the rights and dignity of refugees and migrants are respected.

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