An 89-year-old who fled the Somalian civil war was left "shaken and frightened" after seven police officers searched her apartment and allegedly photographed her passport during Melbourne's coronavirus lockdown.
Abdullahi Ahmed says his elderly mother Hawa no longer felt safe in the city after the group of Victoria Police officers searched her apartment which is located inside one of the nine public housing towers that was forced into lockdown in July.
To date, there have been 313 coronavirus infections detected across the Flemington and North Melbourne public housing estates, which are home to some 3000 residents.
Victorian health officials work to conduct testing during a lockdown of a Melbourne public housing tower. Source: AAP
Given her age, Ms Ahmed is at a higher risk of severe illness if she were to contract the virus and she has not had any visitors since the height of Melbourne’s outbreak. Even her son leaves her grocery items at the door.
But on 27 August seven officers are alleged to have entered her apartment without a warrant.
Police were looking for a relative who Mr Ahmed and his mother said they haven’t seen in close to a decade.
Speaking to SBS News on his mother's behalf, Mr Ahmed said the officers instructed his mother to hand over her passport, which they took a photo of, before quizzing her on how long she had been in the country.
“How dare you go to my mum, I said to them. Seven of you go there and if she gets sick, I blame you. This disease is killing people. You’re using your power in the wrong way,” Mr Ahmed said.
Abdullahi Ahmed and his 89-year old mother, Hawa outside their apartment building in Flemington, Melbourne Source: Supplied
Mr Ahmed said he only learned that his mother's home had been searched when the officers came to search his apartment afterwards.
He said he initially refused the police search of his apartment after officers failed to produce a warrant.
But he said the police persisted with their requests to enter, and the heavy police presence soon began to draw attention from neighbours, who view him as a community leader.
Eager to avoid any reputational harm, Mr Ahmed said he had little option but to invite the officers inside.
“They were walking everywhere with their shoes on, on prayer mats that I use. I had asked them to take their shoes off.
“They asked my mum for ID but not me, even though they were looking for a man.
“I was safe here, now I’m not feeling safe,” Mr Ahmed said
A spokesperson for Victoria Police said officers were trained to respond to a person's behaviour, not their skin colour.
It would not have been appropriate for police to take off their shoes, Victoria Police added.
Mr Ahmed said his mother fled Somalia’s civil war almost three decades ago, spending six months in a Kenyan refugee camp before her son helped bring her to Australia, where he arrived to study in 1985.
The 57-year-old gemologist and his mother live in the same building on different floors, and in July were separated by the strict lockdown, which was imposed on their building and eight other public housing towers.
Victorian ombudsman Deborah Glass is currently investigating the public housing lockdown, receiving 156 complaints and submissions by 28 August.
A sign at one of the public housing towers on Racecourse Road in Flemington, Melbourne. Source: AAP
Mr Ahmed said they were reconsidering whether they wanted to remain living in Victoria after the way they were treated during the police search.
He said he felt he and his mother were singled out because of their ethnicity.
“I went in to my mum and she was shaking. Australia is the best country in the world. But this is not the country I thought it was.
“She has been here 29 years and now she’s not feeling safe. She is frightened. They talked to her like she is nothing.
“Melbourne does not feel like home now. The police abused their power. I don’t know why they are treating us like that."
In a statement provided to SBS News, police said that officers from Broadmeadows conducted the searches as part of an ongoing investigation into a number of incidents and a man has since been arrested and charged on “serious assault matters.”
The statement went on to say “police who attended were wearing full personal protection equipment, a requirement in their response to any jobs during the coronavirus pandemic. It also would not have been appropriate for operational police officers to remove their shoes."
The police response did not address questions about why Ms Ahmed's passport was photographed or whether there was a warrant for the searches.
Taina Lefort, a solicitor at Flemington and Kensington Community Legal Centre, said innocent family members should be treated with respect and without heavy-handed policing.
“That number of police officers going there without a search warrant. Why was a warrant not issued? It appears police didn’t have grounds for a warrant. And knowing that the mother had limited English, they went to the mother first,” Ms Lefort told SBS News.
“Was the mother treated unfairly, or discriminated against because of her skin colour, because of her lack of English? We’ll be looking at whether there are elements of racial profiling and targeting.
"She was neither a suspect nor was there sufficient grounds for a warrant to be issued allowing for the collection of evidence," Ms Lefort added.
"It's difficult enough for these communities trying to get a sense of belonging. This type of behaviour has a significant impact on their sense of belonging."
Mr Ahmed said he and his mother are now considering lodging a formal police complaint.