Can our jailers provide our care?

My brothers in the Park Hotel prison in Carlton, Melbourne, are living in a hell that is unimaginable to those of us outside. Of the forty-five refugees held in those rooms without fresh air, twenty have so far tested positive to Covid-19. Each of those men is labouring under great pressure on their minds and spirits, the fear that no one will move them to a safe place to stop the transmission and to treat the sick.

I have been seeking asylum for nine years. I have experienced how the Australian government uses medical treatment as part of torture for refugees in prisons on Christmas Island, Manus Island, and in the hotel prisons of Melbourne city.

Indefinite detention is a unique form of torture. Your whole life, your ability to plan a meal, to choose a place to live, to even imagine working, walking down the street, seeing your family or building your own relationships is kept from you. Your body is your only asset. This means your health, your ability to eat and sleep and breathe and exercise. Yet your body is also under threat. You fight psychological stress to sleep and eat and move. In No Friend but the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani (translated by Omid Tofighian), recorded how we had to queue in the hot sun to access the limited food. In the Mantra hotel prison, I paced an enclosed thirty metre corridor for hours every day to get my exercise.

Medical treatment is something we seek when in pain. In prison, medical knowledge and access to drugs and facilities are controlled by the people who jail us. Even if medical treatment was provided to us as stated in the physician’s creed that all doctors and nurses supposedly follow, there would still be a core dissonance in that the people causing us the greatest, extreme, harm are the ones who employ the medical professionals to treat us. The way medical care is given, however, expresses the system’s disdain for us as human beings. I wrote a short story entitled ‘Close the eyes of your conscience’ about a fictional psychologist on Manus Island. When people ask me if this is a true story, I tell them to read about what the Australian government did to Hamid Khazaei.

One day, after three and a half years in the prison on Manus, a deep pain sneaked into my spine. By midnight I was shaking with fever. I stumbled down the metal stairs from the second level of the container rooms and asked the guard at the compound gate to take me to medical. He understood with a look that I was sick. He asked me if I had taken Panadol. I said yes. He radioed medical. They asked if I had taken Panadol. I said that yes, I’d had four tablets, but the fever was growing. Two local (PNG) guards escorted me to medical, and one said to the other that I had the symptoms of malaria; fever, shaking, body pain. On arrival, I met two Australian nurses. One was the night shift supervisor. He looked at me and said ‘give him Panadol and go back’. I asked him to do a malaria test but he said ‘are you the nurse or am I? If you needed it, I would test you, but you don’t need it.’

Too sick to argue, I returned to my container room. I couldn’t sleep. My body was burning. I climbed back down the stairs and sat in the small area inside the tall wire fence. I stumbled back and forth all night. Have you had a fever? You know how it feels like you can’t escape? In addition to that, can you imagine what it would be like if you were imprisoned without medication? The day shift would bring different nurses to the clinic. I waited. At 6 am I was at the gate again, sweating, shaking. The guard sent me to medical. A local nurse was working. She took my blood pressure and my temperature, then tested me for malaria. After two minutes she returned and said: ‘I have bad news for you Mardin, you have a positive test for malaria.’

The nurse could see my symptoms. The test took just a few seconds, and she spoke kindly to me. So why had the nurse refused me the night before? Was it just to make me suffer? To torture me? A night in intense pain is a long time. Why had one nurse refused to see my pain, while this local nurse treated me with respect?

Malaria recurs, and on Manus the fever was treated with seven injections in seven days. They never told me the name of the drug. Malaria will be with me forever. In the Australian prison I learnt that medical treatment was not guaranteed: the doctors and nurses chose when to give or refuse me treatment based on their own criteria, not my symptoms. Later, the Manusian friends I made while in detention made me a herbal tea for the fever whenever they could. A large part of the book I am completing relates to their knowledge and my experiences of their unforgettable care outside the prison.

Like the men now in the Park Hotel, I was brought to Australian hotel prisons under the Medevac law of 2019. I arrived in November 2019 and was released on 21 January 2021, without receiving any treatment for my sinus problems or mental health. I was given Panadol and sleeping pills, the same as on Manus Island, but the hotel prison in the heart of Melbourne was a much more torturous experience. I still don’t understand what Medevac means. Did our jailers ever intend to treat our problems? Is it that doctors don’t have power against the system, and the system doesn’t want us to have medical care?

I will tell you a story.

Every Monday morning in the Park Hotel prison, you are supposed to take your empty medicine box to the medical nurse and get new medicine. I took sleeping pills for insomnia resulting from the torturous conditions and Panadol for the relentless migraines. One Monday, I forgot to go to the nurse. My roommate reminded me at lunchtime, so I went to level one of the Park Hotel, where the nurse laid out our prepared medication on a table. Two Serco officers in the corridor asked me where I was going. I gave them my ID and medicine packets. One guard left and returned.

‘The nurse said she can’t give you more medicine because you didn’t come in the morning,’ he said.

I knew that the nurse was there. My medicine was sitting on the table with my name on it. She could have just sent the guard back with the Panadol and sleeping pills. I told them that I have non-stop headaches, and I’d been taking sleeping pills for a year. He went away again, returned.

‘If you need your medicine, you can write a request to see the doctor.’

I told him: ‘You know the rules. If I write a request then I wait a few days for an appointment, and the process will take more than a week to see a doctor’. I was angry. I came back to my shared room shaking, and I thought to myself: ‘You remember this, Mardin, that nurses and doctors can be cruel, you have seen this on Manus Island and in the Park Hotel.’ I didn’t write the request, and I never took Panadol or sleeping pills again. I lived with the pain rather than submit to their cruel bureaucracy. I also live with the question of how doctors and nurses study the Physician’s Pledge but can act in ways that do not put the well-being of their patient before their own, mysterious, considerations. The doctors and nurses sometimes acted in ways that directly caused pain to disempowered people.

Refusing their ‘health care’ was one way I could refuse their system. It was a way for me to also refuse the government’s pretence of care for our health, and to align my life with the truth—that imprisoning asylum seekers is itself an attack on our well-being.

People have asked me if it is true that some of the men in the Park Hotel refused Covid vaccines. I don’t know, but I do know that it is a painful insult when a system tortures you for nine years without reason yet offers you a vaccine against a disease supposedly for your well-being. Refusing the vaccine may be a way that people without power can refuse the lie of their jailers who pretend they care about them. If any human beings in the Australian government or the ABF care about the health of refugees, they should not imprison them. These men should not be imprisoned. Hotel detention is causing medical harm.

There are many of us who demand that the Australian government move the people in the Park Hotel to a place of proper medical care and then release them to freedom in the community. They are people seeking asylum who have been tortured for too long. All of us who stand against torture need to stand up and demand these men receive care from medical professionals and the community, in freedom.


Image: Free the Park Hotel Refugees on Facebook

Mardin Arvin

Mardin Arvin is a Kurdish writer who was in hotel detention in Melbourne for fifteen months.

More by Mardin Arvin ›

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  1. Thank you for writing this. As a retired doctor, I am shocked and disgusted that any health professional could behave in the way you have described. As you say it is contrary to all medical ethics and professional behaviour. I am also deeply saddened that this appalling situation has gone on for so long, or that it was ever allowed to happen in the first place. I despair of my country, and am deeply ashamed. I am really sorry, and I try every day to draw these facts to people’s attention. i will keep trying.

  2. Thank you Dr. Bradford for your commentary on the behaviour of some doctors and nurses and the guards in the detention system in this country. It is incomprehensible that human beings are treated like this. Pain and illness used to torment refugees. This behaviour is unacceptable.The whole internment system is a blight on our society.

    Thank you Mardin Alvin for your sensitive depiction of the horrors refugees face in this system of abuse. I recommend everyone read his graphic commentary.

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