'Life in limbo': A year on from their release medevac refugees struggle to rebuild their lives, with limited visa options

Tamil refugee Thanush Selvarasa was released from hotel detention a year ago and placed on a bridging visa lasting only six months at a time. He told The Feed it limits his employment and housing prospects, keeping him in a state of limbo.

Medevac refugees Thanush Selvarasa (L) and Farhad Bandesh (R) struggle to build a future with limited visa options

Medevac refugees Thanush Selvarasa (L) and Farhad Bandesh (R) struggle to build a future with limited visa options Source: SBS

After being released from eight years of detention, Thanush Selvarasa was relieved, but quickly learnt his new-found freedom had some serious limitations.

“I’m on a bridging visa which only lasts for six months, when that’s up I don’t know if i’m allowed to stay in Australia,” he told The Feed.

“Under my visa I'm not allowed to study or fly overseas, it makes it hard to get a job when the boss sees you only have a few months left on your visa. I’m still living in limbo.” 

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Thanush, 30, was in his early twenties when he fled Sri Lanka in 2013. After attempting to arrive in Australia by boat, he was detained on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and then in the Park Hotel in Melbourne.

Thanush Selvarasa in hotel detention
Thanush Selvarasa in hotel detention Source: Supplied


In 2013, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that no one arriving by boat will ever be settled permanently in Australia. It’s a policy that has been upheld by every government since then.

Thanush was one of 192 refugees to be brought to Australia under the Medevac legislation of  2019, which allowed for off-shore refugees to be transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

Most were kept in hotel detention before being released gradually between December 2020 and January 2021.

At the time of their release, the government said that medical treatment would not be a path to settlement in Australia.



Thanush told The Feed that despite being detained for years by the Australian Government he wants to contribute to the country and build a life here.

“I’ve already had enough pain in my life, being separated from my family and not allowed to fly overseas to visit them. Life is short, we should have the right to enjoy it,” he said.

“But it’s out of our hands, the immigration authority makes the decision for us.” 

Limited visa options and discretionary powers

Dr Carolyn Graydon, the principal lawyer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, told The Feed that medevac refugees are given only one visa option, the final departure bridging visa E.

“The length of their visa is entirely up to the discretion of either the minister for immigration or the minister for home affairs, they could grant a visa for five years or five minutes if they wanted it to,” Dr Graydon said.

“On this bridging visa they have no income support so if they lose their job they are entirely dependent on charities.”

Dr Carolyn Graydon, the principal lawyer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne
Dr Carolyn Graydon Source: Supplied


“Many of the refugees get very stressed towards the end of their visa, because they’re reliant on the minister intervening personally to allow them to stay.”

Dr Graydon said the system is designed to take away people's rights and move them outside of the legal system, with very little accountability for the minister's decisions.

“Because it is a personal decision by the minister the only sense of accountability is in parliament and there are thousands of people dependent on these kinds of decisions throughout the year so it's nearly impossible to keep any kind of accountability,” she told The Feed.

Farhad Bandesh is another medevac refugee living under these circumstances. He told The Feed he was working in a winery when his visa expired.

Farhad Bandesh
Farhad Bandesh Source: Supplied


“I had to go without work for two months when I didn’t have a visa and there were lockdowns during that time,” he said.

“I applied for permanent residency but they only gave me the same bridging visa for six months.”

“I want to be the first Kurdish winemaker in the world”

Farhad, 40, fled Iran in 2013 where he faced persecution due to his Kurdish ethnicity. He attempted to arrive in Australia by boat and was put into off-shore detention before being medevaced to Australia.

By the time he was released in December 2020 Farhad had been detained for eight years. During that time he wrote music and painted artworks.

He told The Feed he was able to connect with Australian artists through his work and was offered places to stay after his release



“I love Australian people, I have deep connections and friendships here with artists and musicians so I don’t want to lose it [friendships]. I've already lost one family, I don’t want to lose my Australian family,” he said. 

Farhad told The Feed that his passion lies in making wine but because of his visa he is unable to study and get a liquor licence.

“I want to be the first Kurdish winemaker in the world, but my visa is preventing it,” he said.

“Yes I am free from hotel detention but there are many restrictions. I want to be in the wine industry, but I still feel like I'm trapped in a cage and at any time I can be put in detention again.”

Farhad Bandesh
Farhad Bandesh Source: Supplied


The opportunities for resettlement

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs told The Feed Australia’s border protection policies remain steadfast.

“Persons who travel to Australia illegally by boat will not settle here. Temporary transfer to Australia to receive medical treatment is not a pathway to settlement,” the spokesperson said.

“Transitory persons are encouraged to finalise their medical treatment so they can resettle in the United States or other third country, or return home voluntarily.”



Dr Graydon told The Feed that global resettlement places are in short supply for medevac refugees, who have to compete with many other displaced people across the world.

“There are around 1200 spots for resettlement in the US, most of which have been filled,” she said.

“Which makes it particularly deplorable that for years Australia has not taken up New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 migrants per year.”

The spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said Australia appreciates the resettlement offer from New Zealand.

“We are engaging with New Zealand, but remain focused on the US resettlement arrangement at this time,” they said.

Thanush Selvarasa
Source: Supplied


Thanush said he has looked into resettlement elsewhere, though the process takes years and there is no guarantee of success. 

“I just want the minister to think about us as humans, we’re not going to live forever, we just want to live in peace and contribute to this country,” he told The Feed.

“I’ve endured eight years of suffering in detention, but this uncertainty and living in limbo is just another form of suffering.”


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6 min read
Published 21 January 2022 at 12:18pm
By Ilias Bakalla
Source: SBS