Twenty-six asylum seekers detained in a hotel in Melbourne’s inner-north have been released into the community on six-month bridging visas, advocates say, with more expected to follow in the coming days.
The released men, who had been brought to Australia under the now-repealed medevac legislation from detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, had been detained in various hotels for more than a year.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) said the men were transferred from the Park Hotel in Carlton on buses to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre (MITA) on Wednesday, after which they were granted six-month bridging visas.
Footage taken outside MITA on Wednesday afternoon shows two minibuses and a taxi leaving the facility as asylum seeker advocates cheer and wave the vehicles off.
“This is a victory first and foremost for the men inside, who’ve put up with terrible conditions for years but never gave up their struggle for freedom,” Nahui Jimenez, protest coordinator for advocacy group Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, told SBS News.
“As well, it’s a victory for the refugee movement, who have been united in hitting the streets day after day, month after month.”
News of the releases spread after a Kurdish asylum seeker held at the Park Hotel, Mostafa Azimitabar, posted a tweet about them late on Wednesday morning.
The Park Hotel has been the site of daily protests and vigils against the detention of the men.
“We will continue to protest until every single refugee in that building is set free,” Ms Jimenez said. “As well, each of them should be given permanent citizenship immediately, not just the bridging visas they’ve been offered so far.”
The ASRC said it had heard from those still held at the Park Hotel on Wednesday afternoon that 34 more detainees had been told they will also receive visas and be released on Thursday.
That, the ASRC said, would leave around 140 asylum seekers transferred to Australia under the medevac legislation in detention facilities across the country.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs would not confirm how many men were receiving bridging visas, but said nobody “who attempts illegal maritime travel” to Australia would be settled permanently in the country.
“The individuals residing in the alternative places of detention were brought to Australia temporarily for medical treatment. They are encouraged to finalise their medical treatment so they can continue on their resettlement pathway to the United States, return to Nauru or PNG or return to their home country,” the spokesperson said.
“A final departure bridging visa allows individuals to temporarily reside in the Australian community while they finalise their arrangements to leave Australia.”
Asylum seeker advocates are now calling on the government to immediately release all people transferred to Australia under the medevac laws.
“While it is very good news that the government has begun the release of refugees brought from Manus and Nauru for medical treatment, they should never have been held in detention in Australia,” Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition said.
ASRC director of advocacy and campaigns Jana Favero said: “Doctors, lawyers, service providers and the wider community have called for the release of medevac refugees from harmful conditions in indefinite detention and today the federal government finally is listening to reason.”
Human rights advocates have expressed concerns about the use of hotels and motels as detention facilities, as unlike immigration detention centres, they do not have outdoor spaces available to detainees.
Asylum seekers at the Park Hotel have also complained about the tinting on the glass windows and not being able to open them to access fresh air.
The men at the Park Hotel were moved there in December from the Mantra Bell City hotel in Preston, in Melbourne’s north, after a federal government contract expired.