Three refugees flew from immigration detention in Australia to start new lives in the United States this week, despite the coronavirus pandemic placing a chokehold on international resettlement.
The men, two from Sudan and one from Pakistan, jetted together from Melbourne through Qatar to the US, where they parted ways before reaching their final destinations of Tennessee, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The US took them under the refugee swap deal between the two countries.
The flights went ahead despite a global pause on refugee resettlements announced by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in mid-March. The US also suspended its refugee program because of the coronavirus on March 19, with the exception of emergency cases.
The ongoing operation of the resettlement program in the US leaves refugees in Australia and its offshore detention camps who have been accepted under the program with an invidious choice: to stay in detention, where many have been for the past seven years, or start a new life in the US as it is ravaged by a deadly pandemic.
For Sali, a Sudanese refugee who landed in Maryland on Wednesday after a journey lasting more than 24 hours, the choice was easy.
“Of course there is the coronavirus, but what can I do? If you die inside, is that better? It’s better to die outside. You’re free,” he told BuzzFeed News by telephone from the house where he will be in quarantine alone for the next fortnight.
Having explained that his family did not know his situation, and that he could not be fully identified in a news story, Sali was asked what pseudonym he would prefer to use. He initially offered a code: Q1K 022. That is his “boat ID” — the number Australia assigned to asylum-seekers who sought safety on its shores in 2013 and 2014, and who were sent to detention camps in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru.
Sali had been called by his boat ID since October 2013, one of the many ways he said the Australian government treated him like an animal. After initially insisting he be called by his Boat ID in this article, he agreed to use his nickname, Sali.
The Sudanese refugee, 30, spent six years in brutal conditions on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island before being transferred to an Australian detention centre for medical treatment.
For the last eight months, he said, he could not sleep at night and stayed in his room all day to avoid the ever-present guards. He says he did not get proper medical treatment in Australia, even for the chest pains he has experienced for the last three years. The only thing that gave him hope was the US.
So when he was finally notified that he would fly out, four days before his journey, he felt happy.
“I have been in jail for seven years and I was tired of that situation,” he said.
In Maryland, Sali plans to continue his studies in electrical engineering, find a job, get married, have a family and eventually explore the US. He used to play soccer as a striker back in Sudan. He doesn’t know if he is still any good but hopes to join a team in his new country.
The coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout make those plans more complicated. New arrivals receive support from casework organisations, including assistance with rent, health insurance, and finding work and health insurance, when they first land. But the level of support varies depending on the state and the organisation.
Volunteer group Ads-Up, run and staffed by Australian expats in the US, works to contact new arrivals under the Australia-US deal and support them with advice, social contact and fundraisers. The group’s founder, Ben Winsor, told BuzzFeed News over 100 refugees already in the US had contacted them about the coronavirus, many because they had lost their jobs. The group is running GoFundMe fundraisers for those families in the most critical need.
“To say that feelings are mixed would be an understatement,” Winsor said of the fact that resettlements are still going ahead.
“On the one hand, people who’ve been indefinitely detained for upwards of seven years are finally getting a chance at freedom. On the other hand, the Trump administration’s response [to the coronavirus] has been such a clusterfuck, and they’re dropping vulnerable refugees right in the middle of it with barely more than the clothes on their back.”
Australia’s neighbour New Zealand — which, like Australia, has successfully flattened the coronavirus curve — has a longstanding offer to take 150 people from the offshore population each year. Australia has never accepted the offer, citing the ease with which people can travel between the two countries, and the fear it would cause the people-smuggling trade to start up once more.
“The dichotomy of either going to the epicentre of the coronavirus in the world with no support, and being indefinitely detained on the other hand, is a choice that the Australian government has forced on these people,” Winsor said.
S, a refugee who spent six years on Manus Island and is now detained in Brisbane, is conflicted about his flight to the US later this month. He was brought to Australia for treatment for numerous medical issues more than six months ago but has not yet seen a specialist. He is worried about the number of coronavirus cases in America, and does not know if he will be able to receive the treatment he needs there. He is thinking about asking to postpone his flight, but does not know when he would be able to go next. “I’m confused,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Hundreds more refugees in Australia’s care could be confronted by this choice in coming months. Many have been approved for resettlement and are waiting for flights. Others have not yet heard back about their applications. Others still had flights booked that were cancelled last-minute as the coronavirus crisis sharpened in February and March. (Sali was originally due to fly on March 23, but his flight was cancelled.)
I, a 27-year-old refugee, received a piece of paper telling him he’d been conditionally approved to go to the US in mid-2019.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” he told BuzzFeed News when asked how he imagined life in the US. “I have no idea about anything. I’ve seen seven years in a detention centre. How would you feel, starting a new life? I don’t know how to go out in the city and walk alone.”
Almost a year later, I is still waiting to hear when he will be able to travel. He has repeatedly written to Rescue, a nonprofit helping to administer the US resettlement program, to seek an update on his case. He has been told only that his case is “active” and that he will be contacted when his case is ready and “scheduled for the next processing step”.
I told BuzzFeed News he knew the coronavirus situation was worse in the US than in Australia, but said he didn’t care.
“I believe it’s been written for me, and I will get it no matter what,” he said. “I just want freedom, I don’t care. I would rather live one day in freedom and then die. All I want is freedom.”
In the meantime, he is detained with dozens of other refugees in a hotel in Melbourne. His several requests to be released into community detention have been rejected.
At least two other men in detention in Australia have been notified of resettlement flights later this month.
Resettlement of men still held in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, also appears to be resuming. A source who works with refugees and asylum-seekers in Port Moresby, whose name has been withheld because he was not authorised to speak to media, told BuzzFeed News that the International Organization for Migration list of refugees who had been approved to the US had been circulated at the Port Moresby hotels where the men are held.
At least 20 names are on the list.
The men have begun to take the anti-infection and malaria medications that are necessary before moving to the US, to presumptively treat parasitic infections. That suggests they may be resettled within weeks.
“Observing the refugees here, most of them are happy that they’ve received news,” the source said.
At least two refugees on Nauru heard this week that they had been accepted for resettlement in the US under the deal.
More than 700 refugees have been resettled in the US under the deal, Australian officials told a Senate hearing in early March. At that time, about 260 more had been accepted under the program but had not made the journey.
The US intended to finalise the program, wrapping up interviews and most transfers, by mid-year, the Australian officials said in early March.
Sali said that due to the many advocates who had supported him over the years, treating him like a son, he could not hate Australia. But he has no wish to live in Australia, for it was the US that respected international law and gave him the chance to be free.
The Australian government did not respond to detailed questions.
His detention finally over, free in the US, Sali said he would never forget the people he left behind in Australia’s detention centres, many of whom are struggling with captivity and uncertainty.
“We’re like honour brothers. It doesn’t matter if he comes from Bangladesh or Iran or another country. We take care of each other,” he said. “If he goes back to his country, if he stays in Australia, if he comes to America. We are family now.”
Additional reporting by Adolfo Flores.