Refugees and asylum seekers hang signs made from bin bags over the balconies at the hotel in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane.
Brisbane, Australia CNN  — 

Every day, the men unfurl large pleas for help over the balcony railings of their hotel room and stand in silence as traffic roars along the main road of the Australian city they’re trapped in.

Their signs are mostly made from bin bags stuck together with tape, and secured to the railing with shoelaces.

“Where is justice?” one reads.

These men are not hotel guests, but refugees and asylum seekers who have been in Australian immigration custody for seven years. Many arrived in Australian waters in 2013, after the government introduced offshore immigration processing. They were detained on the remote islands of Manus in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and on Nauru in the Pacific, in conditions once described by the United Nations as “harsh” and “inadequate.” In 2016, Amnesty International called Nauru an “open-air prison.”

All are suffering the effects of prolonged, indefinite detention and were brought to Australia last year for urgent medical treatment.

But some say the conditions in the Brisbane hotel are worse than PNG or Nauru.

“You’re in prison in here. In PNG, you have a little bit of freedom. You can move around. There is no ABF (Australian Border Force), no security guards around you,” said Farhad Rahmati, an Iranian refugee who was transferred to Australia from PNG last July.

For months, the 120 or so men inside the hotel kept quiet about their plight. However that changed in March, when the number of coronavirus cases in Brisbane started rising. Fearing the virus would enter the hotel via the guards who come and go, they crafted signs large enough to be seen from the street.

As people noticed their pleas, weekly demonstrations began outside the hotel. These demonstrations have now escalated into a blockade by human rights activists who are demanding the men be freed.

The standoff between cellphone-armed protesters and security guards has cast unwanted attention on an Australian immigration policy that has long been, by definition, focused offshore.

Now it’s playing out in the heart of one of Australia’s largest cities in a 4.5-star hotel that only a few months ago was still accepting paying guests.

Protesters staged weekly protests that escalated into an occupation when security guards tried to remove a detainee.

Offshore detention

In 2018, it was reported that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had a model migrant boat on his desk bearing the words: “I stopped these.”

Before taking high office, Morrison helped strengthen the country’s border protection policies, which mandate that people arriving by boat will be processed offshore – and even if they are found to be refugees, they will never be settled in Australia.

The government says this policy removes demand for people smugglers and prevents deaths at sea. Boat arrivals peaked in 2012, when more than 17,000 passengers arrived from Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar and other troubled nations, via hubs such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Few boats arrive now, but human rights advocates say the policy has created a cohort of prisoners confined to islands offshore. As the detainees’ mental health deteriorated, advocates pushed for a law to allow doctors to decide if they should be brought to Australia for medical treatment. The medevac bill was passed in March 2019, opening the door for transfers, but the government abruptly closed it again after winning an election that May, citing national security concerns.

Before that happened, almost 200 men had been brought to Australia under the medevac law, including some who were suicidal. Others had brain injuries, undiagnosed gastrointestinal bleeding, heart conditions and broken bones that needed surgery.

For months, many of those detainees lived in one of the Brisbane hotel’s three buildings, confined to the upper floors – and beyond the view of paying guests. Before the coronavirus outbreak, they were allowed visits from pre-approved guests. Now, they’re only allowed out for medical appointments, escorted by guards.

In March, due to the pandemic, more space was needed for social distancing in Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA), the main immigration detention center on the city’s outskirts. About 40 more detainees were moved to the hotel – and their rooms opened onto a balcony with a view of the street.

Saif Ali Saif peers out from his hotel room balcony where he has hung images of his three-year-old son.

Watching the world go by

Somali father-of-one Saif Ali Saif stands on his balcony each day, with his own sign scribbled in pen on an old T-shirt. It says: “I want (to) hug my son.” His wife Sabah Siyad lives in community detention 29 kilometers (18 miles away) with their three-year-old son, Sammi. She gets a small government allowance each week and is not allowed to work or study. The family hasn’t held each other since March, when visits stopped due to the coronavirus.

Saif worries Sammi will forget him.

Saif Ali Saif was able to receive visits from Sabah Siyad and their son Sammi before the coronavirus pandemic.

Saif escaped war while working as a driver in Yemen; Siyad ran from bombing in Somalia. She lifts her sleeve to show shrapnel scars as proof. The refugees met and married in Nauru in 2016 and Sammi was born on Valentine’s Day the following year. Their baby was a few months old when it became apparent that his breathing difficulties required specialist care. Officials approved the baby’s transfer to Australia with his mother but not Saif. “I was really scared my son would die there,” he said, so he let them go.

Saif was told last June he was being transferred to Australia and has now spent a year in detention. He says he doesn’t know why he was transferred.

The family has been separated for three years. “Sammi wants his father,” Siyad said.

Iranian refugee Farhad Rahmati was transferred to Australia for treatment for a heart condition.

From his balcony, Rahmati, the Iranian refugee, can see a pub, a car wash, restaurants and a McDonald’s on the next block.

“I see everything, but I have no chance to touch it,” he said. “I see people walking their dogs. I love dogs. I’d love to have a chance to, you know, to walk my dogs. But look at my situation. I’m not even close to that.”

Rahmati worked as a civil engineer before fleeing Iran in 2013. He doesn’t want to talk about why he left.

While Rahmati and Saif stand on the balcony with signs, many detainees don’t. They stay in their rooms, worried that protesting will affect their chances of ever being freed.

A detainee holds a sign  to the window of his Kangaroo Point hotel room: "Thank you."

Strange events on the corner

Even before the signs went up, neighbors noticed something strange going on at the hotel on the corner: cars with blackened windows, guards with earpieces, trucks coming and going on a regular basis. No one told them what was going on at the hotel, which has been there for over a decade.

Central Apartment Group (CAG) took over the hotel’s operation in 2018 and changed its name to Kangaroo Point Central Hotel and Apartments. It’s one of 18 hotels on the company’s website, advertised as family-friendly accommodation “ideal for business and leisure travellers.”

When contacted by CNN, the group’s CEO Sid Knell said he would not comment about events at Kangaroo Point. “You can ask me about self-drive holidays,” he said.

Nearby residents, however, have railed against the appearance of a prison on their street.

“How could they start a prison and not tell people?” asked Annette Hogan. The residents CNN spoke to said they didn’t have a problem with the refugees, but the walls and guards had changed the tone of the neighborhood. Opinions differed on the local Facebook page: “Send them back,” one post said.

Hannah and Anand Parameswaran have a direct view of the hotel grounds for their kitchen window. From there, they can see the small pool where guests used to swim. The detainees aren’t allowed to use it.

“I feel a little bit guilty coming and going,” said Hannah Parameswaran. Anand agrees: “I feel really guilty because it’s our money being used to do this to them.”

Temporary fences have been erected around the hotel, but the neighbors can see into the hotel grounds from their kitchen.

The Refugee Council of Australia estimates it costs the government 346,000 Australian dollars ($236,000) each year to hold someone in detention in Australia. That is on top of the AU$7 billion ($4.8 billion) the government spent on offshore processing from 2012, according to the Australian National Audit Office.

Carmelo Nucifora, who runs Spizzico, the Italian restaurant on the hotel premises, says he wasn’t consulted about plans for a prison on the site. As more fences went up, blocking off most of the restaurant’s parking area, he said he sought a meeting with Australian Border Force officials. “I went and pleaded to one of the officers. It’s embarrassing, but I cried in front of them, pleading for some attention, for mercy,” he said.

Like other restaurants in the city, he was forced to limit his business to takeaway only during the coronavirus lockdown. Takings plunged from around AU$14,000 a week to AU$2,000.

Now, even as coronavirus restrictions ease to allow more diners, his restaurant is surrounded by protesters.

Protesters camped in tents outside the hotel until police cleared the sidewalk. Then they moved across the street.

The protests

“Seven years too long. Free the refugees,” chant protesters through a tannoy outside the hotel. Last Thursday, their weekly protest turned into a 24-hour occupation when word spread that Border Force officials had arrived to transfer Rahmati, the Iranian refugee, to BITA.

Cellphone footage shot by another detainee, and seen by CNN, shows Rahmati being led to a van by security guards, where they are ambushed by protesters, who stand on the roof and glue their hands to the van. Rahmati is hurried back inside the hotel and returned to his room.

Protesters don’t want any of the men to be transferred deeper into Australia’s immigration detention system. They’re demanding the men be released into the community by Christmas.

But on Friday morning, the guards came back for Rahmati.

An Emergency Response Team burst into his room, ordered him to lie face down on his bed, cuffed him, flipped him over and took him to a waiting car, Rahmati said via cellphone from the high-security compound in BITA, where he was taken. Rahmati is in Australia receiving treatment for a heart condition.

Matt Sheppard, from rights group Refugee Solidarity Meanjin, says too few protesters were positioned outside a gate to stop the car that took Rahmati away. After that, protesters blockaded the exits and agreed only to clear them if they were able to search vehicles coming and going, to make sure no more refugees would be transferred.

Sheppard says he believes Rahmati was taken from the hotel because he spoke to the media.

“He’s just a really charismatic person that provides a lot of support for the men inside as well. So, I think it was a calculated move to remove him from the community and break up that cohesion,” he said.

In a statement, Australian Border Force Commissioner Michael Outram denied detainees were being “punished” or moved for speaking to advocates or the media. “Detainees are routinely moved for a range of reasons, including health, welfare or to ensure the safety of other detainees, staff and the public,” he said.

The day after Rahmati’s removal, hundreds gathered in the street to call for the occupants’ release. Saif, the Somali refugee, spoke from the balcony, his phone call amplified on speakers to the crowd. “Let me hug my son,” he said.

One by one, the crowd started chanting, “Let him hug his son, let him hug his son.” They cleared a path to the hotel entrance so Siyad could push Sammi towards him in his pram. She got as far as the gate before the request was denied.

They don’t know when they’ll next be able to meet.

A spokeswoman for acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge told CNN that “it was made very clear to those who were transferred under the medevac provisions that they would be placed into immigration detention.”

David Manne, the executive director of Refugee Legal, said the law also allows the minister to release them.

“There are powers at the disposal of the government and the minister personally to release these men from detention. It’s incumbent upon the federal government to explain why it’s not using those legal powers to release these men from prolonged and indefinite detention,” he said.

As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia is obliged to provide a safe place of refuge for people fleeing persecution, or to resettle them elsewhere.

ABF Commissioner Outram said in his statement that the men are “encouraged to finalize their medical treatment so they can continue on their resettlement pathway to the United States, return to Nauru or PNG or return to their home country.”

Manne said that despite many of their illnesses being severe or critical, there was “significant information to cast doubt upon whether they are receiving or have received the medical treatment required.”

“It is abundantly clear that the prolonged, indefinite detention of these men, who were critically ill and brought to Australia for treatment, is almost certainly compounding the severity of their medical conditions,” he said.

The immigration minister’s spokeswoman said the men had access to medical professionals and specialists, and any claims to the contrary were incorrect.

Former immigration officer Rebecca Lim, from the Brisbane On-Arrival Refugee and Asylum Seeker Response Group, said volunteers were ready and waiting to help support the men in the Australian community – when, and if, they are freed.

“If the minister is not making the decision to release the men into community detention because it is not in the public interest, then he needs to explain what that means,” she said. “Indefinite detention is wrong.”