PRIVATE MEMBERS' BUSINESS (Federation Chamber): Asylum Seekers

25 October 2021

I rise to speak to the motion moved by my good friend and colleague the member for Macnamara, and I thank him for moving this motion. Two years ago, I was horrified to discover that in my electorate of Cooper a local hotel on a busy Melbourne arterial road was being used pretty much as a prison. The Mantra Hotel was an alternative place of detention, or an APOD, housing men who had come to Australia under the medevac legislation. They had come to Australia to be treated for their ill health. This hotel in my community was part of a complex of hotels, conference centres, bars, wedding reception halls and even a suite of offices for local businesses, a place where lots of people from our community would mix, celebrate and work. I myself attended many events there. It was so hard to believe that, all the while we were going about our business and pleasure, on that same site sick, very unwell men were locked up and being subjected to treatment that amounted to mental torture, right before our unseeing eyes. It was confronting. I, of course, had known about the horror of indefinite detention, both offshore and in places like MITA, with its barbed wire and high walls, and that is horror enough. Indefinite detention of asylum seekers should not happen, but I'd never heard of an APOD before. Such a term wasn't in my lexicon. It's a new kind of terror, particularly because it predominantly affects very unwell people.

Back in January 2020 I managed to visit the men in the Mantra. I saw the toll that indefinite detention had taken on them. I could see it in their eyes. Some were of course angry, some were sad and some were numb, and others were clearly so unwell that they could hardly speak. My old nursing assessment skills kicked in, and alarm bells rang very loudly in my head. I saw one man who was so ill and so thin, and his skin was such a dusky colour. He was unable to eat because his teeth were so bad. I sat with the men and I listened. A couple of them I met bravely became the public voice of the group inside. 'Moz' and Farhad are two well-known advocates now. Farhad called me one night when he was in the Mantra. He was being subjected to a cruel, late-night upheaval, being forcibly removed from his room, with no explanation. He was not allowed to take any of his belongings. He was extremely distressed. I was speaking to him as it was happening and I felt powerless.

Then, in March that year, COVID-19 broke. I immediately wrote to the then minister about the potential for an outbreak at Mantra, as did the shadow assistant minister, the member for Scullin. Numerous organisations, including the Human Rights Commission, the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases and the Australasian College for Infection Prevention and Control also warned the government about the potential for an outbreak. The conditions were perfect for it to spread. Anyone could see it coming, with guards coming and going, cramped, overcrowded conditions, the inability to social distance and poor ventilation. It was always going to happen, and the government should have seen that. The men should have been released into the community, for so many reasons, but, importantly, to avoid the spread of COVID-19. But there was no action from the government. Some people were, thank goodness, released into the community, but others were not, and now, in the new APOD, the Park Hotel, the worst has happened: of 46 men held at the Park Hotel, 20 have been infected with COVID-19. We now have an APOD health crisis. One man is in hospital. It's difficult to know how ill the others are.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre have said that there have been significant delays in test results for people in the Park Hotel and that people are being re-tested due to poor quarantine conditions. The care has not been adequate. It's dangerously inappropriate to have the men on this site, particularly when they are immunocompromised and at heightened risk. We've heard that they have to monitor their own oxygen levels. What happens, I wonder, if someone becomes far too ill in the night to even lift their arms and test their own oxygen level? They wait hours to see the single nurse. They can't, often, even get Panadol.

Two years ago, when word spread about the APOD, the community held protests, first weekly and then daily. Our wonderful Cooper Grans for Refugees were among the amazing advocates. The Refugee Action Collective have been instrumental in organising these actions. I want to thank everyone who has spoken up. We will not stop till these men are safe. In Australia, everyone deserves that.