As protests gather momentum, up to 70 Medevac refugees, and others transferred from Nauru, are expected to be freed in the first two days of March. This will bring the total number of Medevac refugees released on bridging visas to around 115 of the 192 transferred to Australia under the Medevac law in 2019.
But some refugees and asylum seekers transferred under Medevac will remain in detention centres or hotel prisons for no reason.
There is nothing to distinguish those who have been released from those who continue to be held. They are victims of the government’s bloody-minded political games.
All the Medevac refugees released last year had Federal Circuit Court cases and were released just days prior to their court hearings. The releases from Park Hotel and MITA in January, and the most recent, include people who did not have court cases lodged.
But the government is still pursuing legal tactics to save political face and stymie the release of refugees they intended to release, anyway.
For years the government has insisted that any “transferees” (the name given to asylum seekers and refugees transferred from the offshore prisons), would be returned to Manus and Nauru when their medical treatment was completed.
But few were ever returned. Indeed, one refugee has been asking to be returned to Nauru since 2014, preferring the limited freedom there to detention in Australia. More than 130 have requested in writing to be returned to Nauru or PNG, yet the government has not returned any of them.
Not only that, the government has transferred several more groups of people from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment since the Medevac law was repealed in December 2019. The latest group of 12 (including the last woman in offshore detention) was brought to Australia on 18 February this year.
It seems clear that the government is unable or unwilling to return anyone to offshore detention, yet, instead of freeing all the Medevac refugees, it is persisting with defending court cases to try to uphold their right to hold them in detention.
On 17 February, the Federal Court considered the case of six transferees including a family from Nauru. One of them is now being freed prior to his final hearing on 3 March.
But according to Noeline Harendran, one of their lawyers, among a bundle of Home Affairs documents received was one that indicated, “the case is dormant due to no immigration pathway onshore, or current regional processing country return policies regarding transitory persons.” The document seems to confirm that the government cannot send anyone back. Yet it is continuing to fight the legal case.
The case hinges on whether people are being held in detention for a lawful purpose. If the “lawful purpose” is for removal but the government does not intend to remove, then detention becomes unlawful. Another associated case raises the fact that although people had been transferred for medical treatment, they had been held in detention without receiving treatment.
One indication of the Catch-22-like games being played by Home Affairs was that one refugee who had lodged a case with the Federal Court was approached the morning of his hearing and told that if he withdrew his request to be returned to PNG, the Minister (Peter Dutton) would consider granting him a bridging visa for his release.
Whatever the outcome of the labyrinthine legal arguments, refugee supporters are not waiting. The government’s bloody-minded refusal to free the remaining Medevac refugees is fuelling growing protest. Wherever there are hotel-prisons, vigils, and sometimes, daily protests, are being held to keep the pressure on the government.
The 5 March will also see vigils to mark the third anniversary of the spiteful re-detention of Tamil family (Priya, Nades, and their two children) who were snatched from their home in Biloela. The family has been held on Christmas Island since August 2019.
Big rallies on Palm Sunday, 28 March, will put the refugee movement back on the streets. The “Justice for Refugees” rallies will demand freedom and permanent visas for all refugees and an end to the poverty inflicted on the asylum seekers and refugees from offshore who have been dumped into the community without support, on bridging visas.
By Ian Rintoul