'They are human beings': Released Medevac detainees call for 'permanent' resettlement option for refugees

Dozens of Medevac detainees were recently released from immigration detention in a surprise decision by the federal government, but others have been left behind.

Refugee Thanush Selvarasa at Parliament House in Canberra.

Refugee Thanush Selvarasa at Parliament House in Canberra. Source: SBS News

Medevac refugees released from detention have travelled to Parliament House to call for an end to the uncertainty faced by asylum seekers impacted by Australia’s offshore processing regime.

Thanush Selvarasa and Ramsiyar Sabanayagam were among around 60 refugees and asylum seekers last month released from immigration detention in Australia, in a surprise move by the federal government.

Mr Selvarasa - a refugee from Sri Lanka - had spent nearly six years in offshore detention on Manus Island before being transferred to Australia for mental health treatment under now repealed Medevac legislation.

Refugee Thanush Selvarasa at Parliament House in Canberra with advocacy groups and politicians..
Refugee Thanush Selvarasa at Parliament House in Canberra with advocacy groups and politicians. Source: Supplied

Following his transfer, Mr Selvarasa was housed inside a Melbourne hotel designated as an Alternative Place of Detention, before moving into another immigration detention facility.

He says that, despite now being granted a six-month bridging visa to live in the community, his fight to secure a “permanent solution” of resettlement in Australia is not over.

“I know the pain of being in indefinite detention with no reason - it is very hard and painful,” Ms Selvarasa told SBS News.

“We don’t know what will happen after six months, but we would like to stay and contribute in this country.”

The refugees joined with advocacy groups in Canberra on Thursday to deliver a petition signed by almost 37,000 people to Labor, the Greens, and crossbench MPs and Senators.

The document – tabled in Parliament on Thursday - calls for the release and resettlement of all people transferred from offshore processing facilities to Australia.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Amnesty International, Human Rights Law Centre and Refugee Advice and Casework Service are among the human rights organisations that have backed the campaign. 

Mr Sabanayagam was also transferred to Australia from Manus Island for medical treatment, followed by time spent in detention inside Melbourne’s Mantra Hotel and Park Hotel.  

The short-lived and politically controversial Medevac laws gave doctors additional power to determine when detainees should be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has said the recent decision to release was based on cost-cutting.

“It’s cheaper for people to be in the community than it is to be at a hotel or for us to be paying for them to be in detention,” he told 2GB in January.

It's understood more than 100 people remain in detention in Australia with many still grappling with health issues.

Mr Sabanayagam said action must be taken to help those still trapped in the system and to provide certainty to others now on bridging visas.   

“Please let us free them," he said. "They have a family. They are human beings like you.

“We need a permanent solution. This is a temporary solution for us.”

Refugee Ramsiyar Sabanayagam.
Refugee Ramsiyar Sabanayagam. Source: SBS News

A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson has previously told SBS News anyone who arrived in Australia by boat would not be permitted to settle permanently.

The department encouraged Medevac transferees to finalise their treatment so they could continue their journey to settlement in a third country, or otherwise return to Papua New Guinea, Nauru or their home country.

Sarah Dale, Principal Solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, said the Australian government needed to respond to the distress of asylum seekers impacted by Australia’s offshore detention regime.    

“We call on the government to take further action and to release all remaining, because it is now time for all to have a home,” she said.

Greens Senator Nick McKim also urged the Australian government to consider an offer from New Zealand to resettle up to 150 asylum seekers from offshore detention. 

“It’s time for us to regain our conscience as a country,” Senator McKim said. "It is time for the New Zealand deal to be accepted by the government." 

The government has so far declined to accept the long-standing offer.

Labor MP Andrew Giles said the continued uncertainty forced on asylum seekers in the detention regime amounted to “senseless cruelty”.

“What we’re seeing here is senseless cruelty, completely pointless cruelty by a government that is out of control in hubris and arrogance and contempt for vulnerable human beings," Mr Giles said.

“We say that enough is enough.”

The Department of Home Affairs has been contacted for comment.

4 min read
Published 25 February 2021 at 6:14pm
By Tom Stayner