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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Stories from the ‘dark underbelly’ of Australia’s long-term refugee prisons

Jhaidul, a Bangladeshi refugee, looks out to his yard in suburban Melbourne. He was recently released from immigration detention and has spent more than a third of his life locked up, here and in Bangladesh, though he has committed no crimes. (Mridula Amin for The Washington Post)

MELBOURNE, Australia — Reeta Arulruban put in a video call to her son, Dixtan. Today they were making kesari — a sweet, spicy semolina dish. For a moment, they forgot their situation: A mom on the outside. A son locked up by the country he chose as his refuge.

Arulruban’s face glowed as she described the recipe, putting on a brave face although inside she was aching. Dixtan, now 26, held up the saucepan to show her the finished dish. “Yummy,” he declared.

That September afternoon marked 12 years since Arulruban arrived in Australia, fleeing persecution on a crowded boat. And four years since Dixtan was put in immigration detention here. After the call ended, she lay on her bed staring at his picture on her phone. It is like having a plate of your favorite food in front of you and being told you can’t eat it, she said. Each week she drives an hour across Melbourne for a brief, supervised visit.

Australia has one of the strictest regimes for undocumented migrants in the world. The “Operation Sovereign Borders” program — which recorded its 10-year anniversary in September — has been cited as the inspiration for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s plan to “stop the boats” crossing the English Channel in search of a better life.

Similar conversations are happening across Europe. In Italy, the far-right government is increasing powers to detain and deport migrants.

But in a landmark ruling this week, the High Court ruled that Australia’s practice of indefinite immigration detention is unlawful when there is “no real prospect of removal from Australia becoming practicable in the reasonably foreseeable future.” The plaintiff in that case has already been released, and the government has said it will immediately release others, although the timing and conditions for release remain unclear.

It is unclear what it means for Dixtan, who is still hoping the government will review decisions to reject his asylum claim.

Australia’s migration laws had allowed the government to indefinitely detain a noncitizen who does not hold a visa — including those who lawyers say have legitimate claims of asylum. Housing a person in immigration detention costs upward of $250,000 a year. But the cost of appearing “soft” on border control has helped topple governments here, and the hard-line system is rarely questioned, even when it catches people who thought they were Australian.

More than 1,000 people are in immigration detention and 127 have been detained for five or more years. The average stay is 709 days, and the longest-held has been there 16 years, according to official figures. Many are afraid to speak for fear of jeopardizing their cases. But before the court ruling, several agreed to share their stories with The Washington Post, providing a rare glimpse of life behind the barriers.

U.K. seeks to send migrants to Rwanda, an extreme plan others could copy

In 2009, Arulruban’s husband was killed when Sri Lankan forces shelled a market where he was buying groceries. She learned after his death that he had been providing intelligence to the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla group that fought for an independent state in northeast Sri Lanka during a 26-year civil war that ended with their defeat that year.

When Sri Lankan soldiers came to question her, she was sexually assaulted, she said, as Dixtan cowered in the next room. She fled the country, leaving Dixtan, then 15, with his grandmother. She did not know where the boat was taking her. She just needed to escape.

Reeta Arulruban video calls her son, Dixtan, for cooking lessons. The mother and son have been apart for more than a decade. (Video: The Washington Post)

Arulruban planned for Dixtan to follow as soon as it was safe. But it didn’t work out that way. In 2013, the government made it effectively impossible for boat arrivals to bring their families here, relegating visa applications to the bottom of a backlogged immigration system where they stood little chance of ever being processed.

Dixtan and his grandmother were frequently harassed by officials demanding to know his mother’s whereabouts. When his grandmother died, life became even more challenging. In 2019, Dixtan flew to Sydney on a fake passport provided to him by a migration agent. The first his mother learned of his plans was when she received a call from border officials who’d detained Dixtan at the airport.

In June — just days after Arulruban, now 55, was granted a visa allowing her to stay in Australia permanently — Dixtan was given a deportation notice.

‘One of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history’

Policing Australia’s vast ocean borders has long been a hot-button political issue here, akin to debate over migrant crossings of the southern U.S. frontier.

In 2012, Australia hardened its defenses amid a growing exodus from places such as Myanmar and Afghanistan — reopening offshore detention centers on remote Pacific islands where undocumented migrants were housed while their asylum claims were processed. The policy provided the inspiration for the U.K. plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

What is not widely known is that many of the world’s vulnerable people have been locked away in plain sight, in repurposed hotels and immigration facilities in major cities, like Dixtan in Melbourne, as well as behind razor-wire fences in the Outback. The detention of tennis star Novak Djokovic for breaching coronavirus restrictions brought Melbourne’s Park Hotel briefly into the spotlight. Conditions inside have progressively worsened, making them “factories for mental illness,” according to medical experts.

“There are so many places in Australia you can hide people,” said Pamela Curr, a longtime refugee advocate. “We’re supposed to be this easy laid-back country where everything is hunky-dory. There’s a dark underbelly.”

Gus Kuster is effectively stateless after Australia rescinded his residency rights. Except that Kuster grew up believing he was a citizen. (Video: The Washington Post)

Unlike the United States and most liberal democracies, Australia has no Bill of Rights guaranteeing liberty and the right to be treated with humanity. Successive efforts to fight the incarceration of immigrants in federal court have been thwarted — with brief legal victories capped by new legislation, or, on several occasions, challenges settled out of court when it looked as if the government might lose, according to lawyers.

Even after the case in the High Court overturned the practice last week, the immigration minister initially said the government would wait for the detailed ruling before considering how and when to release people, citing “community safety.”

“The government’s response is pathetic and culpably negligent,” said Nick McKim, an Australian Greens lawmaker. “They should be working to release people in the scope of the ruling as soon as possible rather than delaying and obfuscating.”

The 20-year-long practice of indefinite detention had been “one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history” and those who suffered it should be compensated, he said.

From one prison to another

Like Arulruban, Jhaidul, who goes by one name according to Bangladeshi tradition, had no favored destination in mind when he paid a people smuggler to ferry him to safety in 2012.

He had just spent nine years in a Bangladeshi prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The charge was pinned on him in an apparent retaliation for an episode years earlier when he defended his sister against an acid attack by local thugs. When he was eventually pardoned and released, he was forced into hiding. “I could not show my face in the area,” he said.

His boat was intercepted by Australian authorities, and Jhaidul was placed in immigration detention, where he earned the nickname “The Master” because of his chess skills. At night, he sang — recording Bollywood hits and Bangladeshi songs on the karaoke app, StarMaker.

Ten years and one day later, Jhaidul was released. He was 46 and had spent more than a third of his life locked up.

Jhaidul got a job welding parts for the mining industry. He got his driver’s license and bought a car. But he remained in a constant state of visa limbo. That is likely to continue, despite the High Court ruling.

His original plan had been to find a place to settle and sponsor his family to join him. But while he’s in immigration limbo, reuniting with his family — a son, and a daughter he has never met as his wife was eight months pregnant when he fled — remains impossible.

Alison Battisson, a human rights lawyer, said Jhaidul’s asylum claim is strong. She suspects his release, along with a handful of other long-term detainees, is a tactic designed to prod them to return to places where their lives are at risk.

“Detention didn’t work. So they’re trying something else,” she said.

When the former corporate lawyer started acting pro bono for refugees, it was rare to find people who had been detained for more than five years. Now, eight years is a starting point for Battisson getting involved in a case.

“Detention really has been incredibly normalized, and it’s very worrying that the U.K. and others are trying to follow this philosophy,” Battisson said. “It’s a race to the bottom.”

Battisson said many people have been caught out by the word “permanent” in their visas, unaware they could be canceled under laws tightened to make it easier to deport migrants on character grounds. Like William Yekrop.

On bad days, Yekrop has flashbacks to the day his father, a soldier in the South Sudanese civil war, was killed in front of him. He was 5 years old. Yekrop was taken to a rebel camp to be trained as a child soldier.

Eventually he made it out, with his mom and siblings, to a refugee camp in Egypt. At 16, he was granted asylum in Australia. But without any counseling to help deal with his childhood trauma, he turned to alcohol and drugs. That led to bouts of jail time; the longest 13 months.

In 2014, Australia canceled William Yekrop’s visa and he was taken into immigration detention. (Video: The Washington Post)

In 2014, Australia canceled his visa and Yekrop was taken into immigration detention. A refugee tribunal that year found he had a “well-founded fear of persecution” in South Sudan. The tribunal has the power to review some visa decisions, but it is the country’s immigration minister who gets the final say in a system advocates say gives them “godlike powers.”

Yekrop left South Sudan before the war-torn country became independent and has been told by officials there that he has little prospect of regaining citizenship. The decision to cancel his visa leaves him effectively stateless, and in limbo, like the others. His family, including a 14-year-old daughter, live here. But that doesn’t stop Australian officials from routinely asking him if he wants to go back to North Africa.

In prison, Yekrop undertook drug and alcohol counseling. He cleaned up his act. He worked in the prison kitchen. In immigration detention on Christmas Island, a remote Australian outpost in the Indian Ocean, he was locked up 22 hours a day, surrounded by razor-wire fences bordered by jungle. In September, authorities flew him in handcuffs to Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Center in the Western Australian wheat belt.

Yekrop’s only escape from the Outback haze is exercise. Approaching 40 with the figure of a young man, Yekrop wakes at 6 a.m. for cardio and dead lifts, and runs boot camps. “I’ve been locked up for 10½ years now. If not for the exercise, maybe I’d give up long ago.”

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