‘Like a criminal’: inside the Brisbane hotel where medevac refugees are detained | Australia news

From her hotel in Brisbane, through a screen door, Nesha* can make out part of the city skyline. She spends most of the day reading inside the small room, leaving only briefly to eat. Her balcony is kept locked. Even the view is prohibited.

Entire floors of the city hotel complex are being used to detain refugees brought to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru, most under orders to receive specialist medical treatment.

Serco guards sit permanently in the corridor, entering Nesha’s room at night and causing her ongoing panic attacks. When she has to leave for an appointment, two security staff escort her “like a criminal” by gripping her upper arms.

Leaving the hotel for any reason, including to attend medical appointments, involves regular invasive body cavity searches by security staff. Women are searched underneath their clothes by female guards.

As the Morrison government foreshadows attempts to repeal medevac laws that more easily allow the transfer of sick people detained on Manus and Nauru, Guardian Australia has spoken to several people who have been brought to Australia to receive medical treatment.

They revealed conditions in Australia are mostly dirty and comfortless. Dozens are being kept long-term in hotels, some in rooms crawling with bed bugs. Others describe being moved repeatedly and arbitrarily between detention centres and cities; from Brisbane to Adelaide to Melbourne.

Earlier this year, the federal court ordered that Nesha be brought to Australia to receive medical treatment and that authorities must “take all reasonable steps to ensure [she was] reunited with her family”. She has been in the hotel for several months, in the same city as her extended family, but not able to see them regularly.

A Brisbane hotel room where a refugee is being held while waiting for specialist medical treatment. Photograph: Supplied

Nesha is mentally unwell after spending her young adulthood in detention. In the circumstances, the locked balcony door represents a sort of sick cruelty. She is allowed to sit outside only with Serco guards present. A reminder she is not free in this country.

“After a long time living in suspension and in chaos, my only saviour will be a safe and quiet environment,” Nesha says.

For her medical treatment, Nesha is taken from the hotel, at Kangaroo Point on Brisbane’s south side, to be treated by doctors working for IHMS, the same company contracted to provide health services in offshore detention.

“This is an obvious example of oppression and torture, that the government can easily violate the federal court order,” Nesha says.

“According to the court order it is my legitimate right to reunify with my family and receive an acute treatment. But I am still under the treatment of IHMS which serves the government, not us. If IHMS could treat us, why are we in Australia?”

Her most recent IHMS medical reports noted that Nesha is suffering from feelings of suffocation, chest pains, shortness of breath, numbness on the left side of her body and panic attacks “in regards to Serco officers opening doors at night”.

Refugee hotel: The locked screen door. Refugees are only permitted onto the balcony when accompanied by a guard.

The locked screen door. Refugees are only permitted onto the balcony when accompanied by a Serco guard. Photograph: Supplied

‘Lots of strange people’

At the same hotel at Kangaroo Point, on Brisbane’s south side, Ava* has been held in a room with two family members for more than six months.

She has bite marks on her skin and showed Guardian Australia photographs of bugs in her room. Like many others, she has become too anxious to spend time outside her room or attend activities or visits, because of the treatment by security and the “humiliation” of invasive searches every time she leaves.

Ava, a refugee who was previously detained on Nauru, said the close presence of guards in the Brisbane hotel had affected her relationship with her family members.

She said they would laugh at her accent and her language.

Bed bug eggs in a room at the Brisbane hotel where refugees requiring medical treatment are being held.

Bed bug eggs in a room at the Brisbane hotel where refugees requiring medical treatment are being held. Photograph: Supplied

The Australian Human Rights Commission, in a report handed down earlier this year, recommended hotels be used as “alternative places of detention” only in exceptional circumstances and “for very short periods of time”.

In response to the recommendation, the Department of Home Affairs said hotels were used as “transit accommodation” and generally only for detainees who were staying for a short period.

Home affairs did not respond to a request for comment, including questions about why people were now being kept in the hotel for longer timeframes. They did not respond to additional questions about the cost of accommodation and security at the hotel.

At the complex, entire floors have been made off-limits to hotel guests and are patrolled by Serco guards. One guest told Guardian Australia he regularly saw groups of men coming in and out of the hotel. Another posted a recent review online that said it was “definitely not a family friendly hotel, lots of strange people who walked around”.

Ava’s family member, who attempted suicide several times while in detention, was brought to Australia for treatment for mental illness and spent a month in hospital, under Serco guard.

“She gets severe anxiety when she would go to the detention centre to see her [IHMS] doctor,” Ava said. “Seeing the fences traumatises her.”

‘If I die in my room no one would understand’

For the past three weeks, Raha* has been separated from a close family member, living in a section of Melbourne’s immigration transit accommodation for single women. She is the only refugee in the complex; the others are women whose visas have been cancelled.

Since being brought to Australia from Nauru for medical treatment, Raha and her family member have been moved regularly, between complexes and cities.

The corridor outside the hotel room where the guards are stationed.

The corridor outside the hotel room where the guards are stationed. Ill refugees are subjected to body searches on leaving and returning, even though they are accompanied by guards. Photograph: Supplied

She says they spent six weeks in the Brisbane detention centre transit accommodation and were then sent to a hotel in the Brisbane CBD for another eight weeks. Afterwards they were sent to Adelaide for almost three months, and have now been in Melbourne for more than two months.

Raha had wanted to be in Melbourne, where another family member lives, but the transit accommodation does not have adequate facilities for her to stay with family in a private room; as a result they are sleeping in separate complexes, designed for singles.

Raha says she has had difficulty arranging family visits and accessing a psychiatrist.

“If I die in my room no one would understand,” Raha said. “I can’t cope with constant relocation any more.”

For refugees brought to Australia from offshore detention on orders to receive medical treatment, their legal situation is perilous. They do not have a visa or status in Australia, and can be detained and moved at the whim of authorities.

The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has the ability to grant a “residence determination” that would allow a refugee to live in the community while legally remaining in immigration detention.

While Nesha contends her ongoing detention contradicts a federal court order that she reunite with her family, her lawyer cannot assist in having her released into the community.

“It is more difficult for us to fight against you being detained, as this is a decision that the minister must personally make and the courts can’t force him to release you,” Nesha’s lawyer wrote to her.

*Names have been changed

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