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The ‘dark underbelly’ of Australia’s refugee prisons

MELBOURNE, Australia (The WASHINGTON POST) – 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 favourite 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.

Arulruban at St Mary’s Catholic Church in Dandenong on a recent Sunday morning. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

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

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has vowed to continue the military-led operation that turns back boats attempting to travel here. In a video posted on a government website in August, navy commander Rear Adm. Justin Jones implored people not to attempt the perilous boat journey. “You are wasting your time, your money, and ultimately your life,” he said.

Australia’s migration laws allow 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 AUD250,000 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 out 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, a group whose ranks Dixtan will soon join. 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 several agreed to share their stories with The Post, providing a rare glimpse of life behind the barriers.

Diners in Dandenong, a multicultural suburb in southeast Melbourne. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

A shocking decision

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.

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.

Reeta Arulruban, a Tamil refugee from Bangladesh, bonds with her son Dixtan in immigration detention through food. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

‘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 US frontier.

In 2012, Australia hardened its defences amid a growing exodus from places such as Myanmar and Afghanistan – reopening offshore detention centres on remote Pacific islands where undocumented migrants were housed while their asylum claims were processed. The policy provided the inspiration for the UK plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. (The legality of which is being tested in court.)

What is not widely known is that many of the world’s vulnerable people are 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.”

Arulruban prepares Sri Lankan food at her home in southeast Melbourne. PHOTO: 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. A new challenge will test the legality of indefinitely detaining refugees in the High Court this month.

“This is genuinely one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s history,” said Nick McKim, an Australian Greens lawmaker. “We need to hold people to account. We need to make reparations to people. And we need to make sure it never happens again.”

From one prison to another

Like Arulruban, Jhaidul, who goes by one name according to Bangladeshi tradition, had no favoured 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. An official letter, viewed by The Post, said he was permitted to remain only until his visa expired in May this year. Jhaidul got a job welding parts for the mining industry. He got his driver’s license and bought a car. But four months after his visa expired, he received a call asking him to come into the city for an appointment.

A group of men have a picnic at Dandenong park on a Sunday afternoon. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“I’m very scared to meet immigration, but I must go,” Jhaidul said over a lunch of fried chicken and rice in mid-September. He called later that day, his voice shaky. He was skipping work that evening, he said. In his anxious state he didn’t think he could operate dangerous equipment.

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.

Arulruban packs bags of groceries for her son. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

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 normalised, and it’s very worrying that the UK and others are trying to follow this philosophy,” Battisson said. “It’s a race to the bottom.”

Broken boy soldier

Battisson said many people have been caught out by the word “permanent” in their visas, unaware they could be cancelled 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 five 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 counselling 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 cancelled 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.”

Arulruban takes snacks and ingredients for their video cooking sessions when she visits Dixtan in detention. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

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 counselling. 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 Centre 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 6am for cardio and dead lifts, and runs boot camps. “I’ve been locked up for 10-and-a-half years now. If not for the exercise, maybe I’d give up long ago.”