On his first day of freedom, Mostafa “Moz” Azimitabar found himself face to face with a mob of kangaroos on the outskirts of Melbourne.
“I talked with the kangaroos,” he laughs. “I said ‘how are you?’.”
He rushes on, in his lyrical Kurdish-English.
“I wake up with the singing of the birds now,” he said. “I see kangaroos; I wave at the kangaroos and I talk with them. I talk with trees. I feel oxygen.”
After having spent more than eight years in Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea and finally detained in Melbourne at the hands of the Australian government, this is the first time Azimitabar, 34, has experienced the natural beauty of the country he endured so much to reach.
Azimitabar and more than 60 other refugees and asylum seekers made headlines in 2019 when The Age revealed they were being detained in a secure wing on the third floor of the Mantra Bell City in Melbourne’s northern suburbs.
Innocent of any crime, the men were detained after being flown from PNG on the advice of doctors for emergency medical treatment, under now-repealed Medevac laws.
Socceroo turned refugee advocate Craig Foster first met Azimitabar in Port Moresby in October 2019, when he travelled there as an Amnesty International ambassador. Foster was shocked by the conditions the men, previously detained in Manus Island, found themselves in.
“I remember in Port Moresby when Moz told me for the first time that he was ‘friends with his pain’ and that is how he had endured,” Foster – who was on Australia Day appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his work promoting human rights – recalls.
“‘Sometimes I feel that I am not alive’, he told me. “It’s impossible to comprehend. Day after day, the same lack of hope, intense frustration, seeing the worst in humans in their captors and guards, some (not all) of whom treated them like animals.”
After being airlifted to Australia, Azimitabar dared to hope he would receive intensive treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic asthma.
But for more than a year he and dozens of other men were held at the suburban motel with no hope of release.
From behind glass windows that opened only a crack, the men could see cars speeding down busy Bell Street, an oval and playground across the road, and people walking by.
More than a month before his eventual release Azimitabar told The Age his life was “exactly the size of a room, and a narrow corridor”.
“Inside my room, I feel I am like a fish inside an aquarium,” he said.
“The whole of my life is this window to see the real life, where people are driving, walking, when they wave at us. And when I wave back at them.”
A week later his world would grow smaller again. The men were moved, under enormous police escort, to the Park Hotel on the outskirts of Melbourne’s CBD. From his new room Azimitabar could see only sunlight streaming down from above and a concrete wall in front of his window.
The slow unravelling of the Medevac experiment
Under the so-called Medevac process introduced by Labor, the Greens and the crossbench – and strongly opposed by the Morrison government – 192 people were brought from Nauru and PNG to Australia in 2019, supposedly for emergency medical treatment.
Months later, with the support of crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie, the government managed to repeal the legislation. But those brought to Australia under the short-lived arrangements were to remain in limbo, in onshore detention centres or in motels turned makeshift detention centres in Melbourne and Brisbane.
The purpose of their transfer was to enable the evacuees to access medical treatments not available in PNG and Nauru, but detainees and advocates say that in many cases evacuees did not receive adequate treatment – or indeed, any treatment at all.
Azimitabar told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald he had been on a waiting list for treatment the entire time he was detained at the Mantra and Park hotels. “For more than a year I [was] waiting to see a specialist for my PTSD and for my asthma. I haven’t seen anyone yet.”
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton confirmed to Sydney radio station 2GB last week that “many of these people didn’t receive any medical treatment”.
Rather, Dutton said, their transfer to Australia was “all about Bill Shorten at the time trying to do a deal with the Greens in bringing people into our country”.
“As predicted at the time, it would be very hard for us to return those people and that’s certainly the case now,” Dutton said. “Some of these cases are before the court or threatening to go to court at the moment.”
Since December, more than 60 of the 192 people brought to Australia under Medevac arrangements have been released into the community. They have been given no indication as to why they have been suddenly released on six-month bridging visas. Dutton’s comments to 2GB give the clearest indication yet.
Refugee Council of Australia chief Paul Power said the episode had played politics with people’s lives.
“I think what’s particularly disturbing about the detention of people who were transferred under the Medevac legislation that the government opposed is that there’s no explanation for their detention other than some form of political payback against the government’s political opponents,” Power said.
“The great majority of people who were transferred medically under the government’s own processes were moved into the community, whereas we saw, overwhelmingly, those who came to Australia under the Medevac legislation, which the opposition and the crossbench parties supported, were put in detention.”
Dutton’s office, the Australian Border Force and the Department of Home Affairs did not respond to requests for a response to this claim.
The Refugee Council says that of those brought to Australia, three-quarters have been found to be refugees, meaning they cannot – under international laws to which Australia is a signatory – be returned to the countries from which they fled.
Nor can they be returned to PNG or Nauru, unless those countries agree to their return.
Sister Brigid Arthur, co-founder of the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project, said it was “well past” time for people to be released. More than 120 people brought under Medevac arrangements remain behind motel or detention centre walls.
“It’s wonderful that at least this day has come,” she said. “My only regret is that it’s not everybody who’s locked up without any reason. They all should be and could be; it’s been proven that they could be released. Why not all of them? And can we make the sort of policy changes that mean that this kind of aberration of human rights can never happen again?”
A costly business
The Morrison government budgeted $1.067 billion on “onshore compliance and detention” in the 2020-21 financial year, a slight decrease on the $1.082 billion budgeted the previous year.
As Dutton acknowledged last week, accommodating refugees and asylum seekers in motels and detention centres – rather than in the community – is a costly business.
“It’s cheaper for people to be in the community than it is to be at a hotel or for us to be paying for them to be in detention, and if they’re demonstrated not to be a threat, or that’s the assessment that’s been made by the experts, then it is cheaper for people to go out into the community until they can depart,” he told 2GB.
Australian Border Force, the Department of Home Affairs and Dutton’s office did not respond to questions about the overall cost to Australian taxpayers of the Medevac evacuations, and how much it has cost to accommodate evacuees in motels and detention centres.
The detainees’ release is a bookend to one of the most contentious periods in Australia’s long-running campaign to prevent refugees and asylum seekers reaching this country by sea. But their plight is far from over.
The men released from the Park Hotel have been given six-month bridging visas, with the right to work but not to study. They were granted two weeks of accommodation, a small amount of cash and told they would then have to find their own way. Most are being cared for by charities, churches and members of the community. All face a tough road ahead.
Despite the long recovery that awaits him, Azimitabar is one of the “lucky” ones. His new home is a spare room in the spacious and airy home of friend Fiona Trembath, who visited him during some of his worst months at Mantra and the Park Hotel.
Filled with artworks, books and musical instruments, it is the perfect retreat for a soul in need of healing.
Writer Arnold Zable has visited the Mantra men since mid-2019. A long-time refugee advocate whose parents lost much of their family in the Holocaust, Zable has been driven throughout his adult life by the losses that haunted his family.
“I was very acutely aware that in the late 1930s many gates were closed, doors were closed, to Jewish people when they tried desperately to escape persecution,” he says.
“At the heart of it, so often these issues are swept under the carpet; men, women and children are kept out of sight and out of mind. So you’re driven to bear witness, you’re driven to write about their plight, to reach out and to make contact, human contact.”
Zable points out that the men who were detained for more than a year, and the dozen still left behind in the Park Hotel (more remain in Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation and in Brisbane) have committed no crime. “These men were basically in prison.
“And when you add to that, that they were brought here because of a range of medical and psychological issues … and they are imprisoned while they are supposed to be receiving treatment – I find this cruel and inhumane.”
‘My message is love’
On his second day of freedom, Azimitabar had another quintessentially Australian experience: seeing Jimmy Barnes play live.
While he was detained at the Mantra and Park hotels, Azimitabar – an accomplished musician – had been creating social media posts, tirelessly campaigning for the Australian public to listen to the detainees’ plight.
And some of Australia’s most high-profile people were listening, including music royalty Jimmy and Jane Barnes, who invited Azimitabar and fellow former detainees Jamil Mirzaee and Farhad Bandesh to the show.
Last year, while Azimitabar was still in Mantra, Jimmy Barnes sent over a guitar. It was on this instrument that Azimitabar wrote his latest song, Love. Produced by musician friend Jim Moginie, of Midnight Oil, it spoke of Azimitabar’s gratitude to the Australian community for their support for refugees held behind wire, walls and glass.
I’m looking at you
From the window
I wanna tell you
I love you
How beautiful you are
And you’re always in my heart
Sending my gratitude
and love to you
Bianca Hall is City Editor for The Age. She has previously worked as a senior reporter, and in the Canberra federal politics bureau.