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 America, 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 America 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 America. 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.)