Nine months after his release from immigration detention, refugee Abbas Maghames struggles to imagine his future.
A decade of indefinite detention has left him with no room for wishful thinking. But when pressed, he lists a few simple hopes. A job. A partner. A permanent place to call home.
While the media are scrambling to cover the Nadesalingam family’s return to Biloela this week, Maghames hopes thousands of other refugees living in limbo across Australia are not forgotten.
Such was the public backing for the Tamil refugee family that one of the first acts of the newly minted Labor government was to grant them bridging visas – but not permanent protection.
Unlike the Nadesalingams, Maghames’ story has largely flown under the radar. He lives with his sister, Hajar, and his elderly parents, Malakeh and Yaghob, in community detention in Loganlea, a 40-minute drive from Brisbane’s CBD.
Refugees granted bridging visas can work while their right to stay in Australia is substantively reassessed but do not receive government support.
But in community detention, Maghames and his sister – both in their 30s – cannot work. Instead, they are provided with fixed accommodation and rely on government payments, which Maghames says cover bills and groceries.
“We just sleep and watch TV, sometimes we go shopping, and that’s it,” Maghames says.
The Labor government has promised to abolish temporary protection visas (TPVs) and haven enterprise visas, granting permanent protection to 19,000 people on these visas. The Nadesalingam family is hopeful they will receive permanency under the newly elected Labor government.
However, the Maghames family and hundreds of other refugees who spent time in offshore processing in Nauru and on Manus Island and are now in community detention or on bridging visas will not be eligible.
“People who came by boats have been essentially separated into two categories,” says Sarah Dale, the principal solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service.
One group is those who arrived after 19 July 2013 and were sent to Nauru or Manus Island. Those who came earlier and were not sent to offshore detention form the second category.
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“Those who didn’t [get sent offshore], if found to be a refugee, are granted either a temporary protection visa or a haven enterprise visa,” Dale says.
“But people who left [the] Park hotel are not the ‘permanent people’ being talked about.”
Dale says the process is arbitrary, and not everyone arriving in Australia by boat is treated the same.
“It’s complicated,” she says. “It depends where their boat landed in Australia; that also determines what process [are applied] and the eligibility.”
“They’re all waiting to see what the government does next because their lives hang in the balance.”
Now 34, Maghames was 25 when he fled Iran with his family, where they faced systemic oppression as members of the Ahwazi Arab minority.
After spending seven months on Christmas Island, the Maghames family was transferred to Nauru, where they slept in an overcrowded tent for almost seven years.
“We’d have to wait two hours in line for food. There was hardly any water, so when it rained, we’d collect water and use it to shower,” Maghames says.
“Sometimes I’d hear ladies screaming because rats, cats, cockroaches would be inside the tent.”
To deal with the days stretching out ahead, Maghames would listen to music. He played Luis Fonsi’s hit single so many times that locals in Nauru nicknamed him “Despacito”.
In 2019, the family was brought to Australia under medevac laws and detained at an immigration center next to Darwin airport – the same year they were granted refugee status by the United Nations.
Maghames says his father – who is in his 60s – has been on a waiting list to have surgery for a damaged nerve in his shoulder since he arrived in the country. He says his mother also has vision loss.
“We were there in the Darwin detention center for 19 months. It was like being in a cage,” Maghames says.
The Maghames family received an offer for resettlement in the United States three years ago. After a long time in limbo, the family is considering canceling the request, as they fear they’d be offered little support after such a traumatic experience in detention.
“We know no one there. After the Australian government put us through nine years of detention, it’s hard. Especially for my elderly parents,” Maghames says.
Unless the Labor government changes its current policy regarding those who’ve been through offshore processing, the Maghames family has just two other options for resettlement: Canada or New Zealand.
The immigration minister, Andrew Giles, told Guardian Australia the government is “committed to implementing all the platform policies” they took to the election; still, it’s “also something we’ve got to get right.”
Giles said he receives advice to ensure the Nadesalingam family has “every opportunity to rebuild their lives in Biloela with a sense of certainty.”
Dale said for refugees who are vulnerable and not eligible for TPVs; community detention is the best option.
“If they are on a bridging visa, they are expected to find a place to live to support themselves … they’re not eligible for government-funded, financial support,” she says.
“The minister can grant bridging visas to anyone in community detention, so long as they meet the health and character grounds for tgrantingthose visas.”
Community detention makes sense for Maghames’ elderly parents, who cannot work, but the 34-year-old feels his potential is being wasted.
Maghames hopes he’ll first be granted a bridging visa – and that the government will change its current policies, allowing those who spent time in offshore processing to be resettled in Australia. That will be a dramatic departure from the government’s current policy.
“When I was released, I put my hand to the sky and said thank you. I could finally breathe,” Maghames says.
“But if we get the permanent visa, there is hope for us here. Then I can see my future.”