Refugees freed on six-month Australian visas live ‘life in limbo’
Melbourne, Australia – After years of being held captive – first on remote immigration detention centres on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and the Pacific island nation of Nauru, and then in suburban hotels in Melbourne – dozens of refugees who had tried to get to Australia by boat have finally been freed.
But while they have been free to move about the community since April, they are on borrowed time.
The temporary six-month visas they were granted by the Australian government carry restrictions on movement and work opportunities. There is also the expectation that they will use the time to prepare to leave the country – whether back to their country of origin or a third country.
Many of the released refugees are also dealing with the trauma of what they have been through.
“Sometimes I have a dream. I’m running and the guard is following me. They want to shoot the gun at me,” Farhad Bandesh told Al Jazeera.
“And suddenly, there was a kind of bridge – I jump off the bridge – and when I jump, I wake up. And when I wake up, I am safe – the guards are not hurting me.”
Bandesh, 40, is one of 250 people who have been released from what the Australian government refers to as Alternative Places of Detention (APODs) – suburban hotels – since December 2020.
A Kurdish man escaping persecution by the government of Iran, Bandesh travelled to Australia by boat in 2013 to seek asylum.
But instead of the humanitarian assistance he had been hoping for, Bandesh was sent to immigration detention on Manus Island where he stayed for six years.
There, he witnessed riots and the brutality of guards shooting inmates, along with experiencing the daily deprivations of harsh prison conditions.
After being transferred to Australia for medical assistance, Bandesh then spent a further nine months locked in a suburban hotel in Melbourne before he was released on the six-month visa in December 2020.
While the visa allows him to live in the community, his capacity to work and access social security benefits are limited.
Further, Bandesh told Al Jazeera that the nature of his temporary existence makes it impossible to plan for the future.
“You cannot build or even think about your life. You are still living in limbo,” he said. “You are not permanent here. You cannot build a family here because you are on a temporary visa. You cannot have a business here.”
He told Al Jazeera it was not possible for him to return to Iran because he was at risk of execution.
Jana Favero is the director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, a Melbourne-based community organisation assisting refugees and asylum seekers across a range of areas, including medical assistance, homelessness, advocacy, education and legal help.
She told Al Jazeera that the effect of temporary visas on people was hard.
“While freedom and the release from detention is the number one priority for everyone, the reality of being in the community on a temporary visa hits pretty hard and pretty quickly,” she said.
“The government is still controlling their lives and their destinies through the visas that they are on.”
While the Australian government provides three weeks of assistance to released detainees, along with basic support such as food, accommodation and a one-off monetary payment, Favero told Al Jazeera that once that period ends, the refugees are left on their own.
“After that three weeks they are then expected to find work and fend for themselves, after being in detention for nine years,” she said.
“Very few of them have the certainty around which pathway for resettlement they are on and where they will go and when they will go. It’s more queues and more processing.”
Adding to the pressure on temporary visa holders is what is known as ‘501’ legislation, under which people who are on temporary visas can be placed back in detention for minor legal infringements or for even more vague reasons.
“The Minister has God-like powers under Section 501,” said Favero. “People have been re-detained not even for committing any crimes – it just has to be on so-called ‘character grounds’.”
Little chance of change
Despite the traumatic experiences of people such as Bandesh and the pressures of living on temporary visas, Australia appears steadfast in not permanently settling those people who arrive by boat as asylum seekers.
And the new Labor government, elected over the weekend, is expected to maintain the country’s strict border protection policy.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs stated to Al Jazeera that “transitory persons will not be settled in Australia [and] are encouraged to engage in third country migration options and take steps to start the next phase of their life, including to resettle in a third country or voluntarily return home or to another country in which they have a right of entry.”
“Resettlement arrangements exist with the United States and New Zealand, and many transitory persons are also independently exploring resettlement in Canada. Community detention and final departure bridging visas enable transitory persons to reside in the community while they make plans to depart Australia.”
Nick McKim is a Greens Senator and handles the migration portfolio for his party. He told Al Jazeera that the prevailing policy – held by the major Liberal and Labor parties – needs to change.
He thinks there should be an end to offshore detention to offer permanent protection to those such as Bandesh who were sent to Manus Island and Nauru.
He also says Australia should increase its refugee quota to 50,000 people a year, which currently sits at a 45-year low of 13,500.
The Greens also advocate to establish a Royal Commission into the treatment of refugees held on Manus Island.
“This has been a humanitarian catastrophe at every turn and it’s one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters yet written in Australia’s national story,” he told Al Jazeera.
“We should be treating people who stretch out a hand and ask us for help with compassion and decency, and also treating them in line with the international commitments that we’ve made.”
Despite the uncertainty of living day-to-day on a temporary visa, Bandesh has partnered with friend and refugee advocate Jenell Quinsee to become the face of Bandesh Wine and Spirits.
Brewing Kurdish wine, gin and arak – a strong aniseed liquor – under Quinsee’s business acumen, Bandesh has found a purpose in life, and a means to share his culture and story through the promotion of his product.
“The arak is the first arak made in Australia and the world. I am happy I am making this with Jenell to share this beautiful spirit and wine with Australian people,” he said. “It is unique because there is not any Kurdish gin even in the world.”
However, Bandesh remains conflicted about his treatment by the Australian government and wonders when it will end.
“I don’t understand why this government keeps refugees in limbo. They could save money first, save skills [and save] lives,” said Bandesh.
“It’s really simple and easy – I am here, I am drinking wine. Why can’t the other refugees be like me? They have this right and the government should think about it for just one second – what they are doing is wrong.”