Listen to this story:
In 2013, Mehdi Ali fled his home country, where he was a member of a persecuted ethnic minority, and traveled to Australia. He was 15 years old. But as he was crammed into an old wooden boat enduring rough seas, terrifying storms and harsh tropical sunshine alongside other asylum seekers, the Australian government struck a series of deals that meant arrivals maritime workers would never be allowed to resettle in the country.
After his boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy, Mehdi was taken to an offshore detention centre. Since then, he has grown up in one of the most notorious immigration detention systems in the world. Only Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke or Home Secretary Karen Andrews could grant him a visa and end his detention.
While in detention, Mehdi wrote numerous letters to the Minister of Immigration, but never received a response.
Here he writes to her again.
To the Minister,
I have questions that no one answers for me.
When I ask the Home Office, when I ask the Australian Border Force officers, when I ask the Serco guards who are guarding the hotel where I’m currently being held, they say, ‘Well, we don’t know. We have no power. It is not up to us. We cannot answer these questions.
No matter what I tell them, they say, “Your life is in the minister’s hands.”
“No one can answer your questions except the minister.”
Well, I’ve never spoken to you, Minister, but if you’re reading this, I have a few questions for you. I’m not asking you to release me, I’m just asking you to answer.
I came to Australia alone when I was 15 and asked this country for safety. For almost nine years I was locked in a cage without proper health care, education or basic human rights – whether in offshore or onshore treatment centers.
I spent the first nine months on Christmas Island, an Australian external territory located 1,550 km (963 miles) northwest of the mainland. Then I spent about six years in Nauru, a small island nation northeast of Australia. It was a journey of trauma, tragedy, misery and frustration. I have witnessed terrible, terrible things – detained children, a man setting himself on fire, etc.
I was not treated as a human being, as a person. You treated me like I was dangerous.
How can you take a child and lock him up for almost nine years with nothing?
It hurts. I couldn’t study. It’s a basic right for children in any country, but I had no education. All I have is pain, disease, mental health issues.
There was no way of knowing when it would end. During the years in Nauru there were rumors that people would be released. Some were. But all that ever gave me was false hope.
Instead, I was assaulted – by locals, by police, even by the Australian staff who worked there.
When my friend Omid set himself on fire – he died two days later after it took him more than a day to be medically evacuated to Australia for specialist treatment, my cousin, who was also in Nauru, and I went to demonstrate peacefully outside the Menen Hotel where Connect Settlement Services – a company at the time providing welfare, employment and education to refugees on the island – was based. I was about 17 at the time.
We sat there peacefully.
Australian staff came out and asked us to stop. They tried to talk to us but we didn’t answer. Then, after a while, the police arrived. They handcuffed us, took us to a cell and undressed us. They put a drunk and anxious resident in the cell with us and watched him assault us. We didn’t respond because we thought they wanted an excuse to charge us something. Finally, they released us.
Several years later, when I was 21, I was brought to Australia under the Medevac Bill, which allowed refugees detained overseas to be temporarily transferred to Australia for treatment. That was over two years ago now. I have been diagnosed with PTSD. I have anxiety attacks and trouble sleeping. I have insomnia, minister.
I remember one time I nearly died of pneumothorax – a collapsed lung. I had talked to a friend on the phone, but suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I was taken to hospital. It was a rare and truly dangerous disease. Medical students from the hospital came to try to study my case. They were asking me questions.
They don’t know why it happened, but I think it was because of the stress I went through, because of the state of my mental health. I still have trouble breathing now.
Minister, I served my sentence in a cruel system and tried to seek justice. But there is no justice for me. Nobody answers my questions. Nobody tells me what’s going on.
I stopped thinking about getting out of here a long time ago because thinking about it tortures me. I live in uncertainty. I’m not talking about metaphysical uncertainty, but about the kind of reasonable certainty that most people can take for granted – that they’ll get up tomorrow and go to work, that they’ll stay in one place.
I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. You could let me out, you could send me somewhere else, the staff could come to my room and take my things. Anything can happen, I don’t know. And that’s absurd. This whole thing is absurd.
Madam Minister, Australian law states that “children should only be detained for the shortest appropriate period of time”. So why are you turning away from the law?
I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m exhausted.
I was detained at Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation and Fraser Compound (BITA), I was detained at Kangaroo Point Hotel, I was detained at Meraton Hotel, then I came to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA), then they took me to the Park Hotel, Melbourne’s notorious detention hotel.
Now I have been at the Park Hotel for a few months.
They treated me worse than a criminal when they took me handcuffed from Brisbane to Melbourne, despite never having committed a crime.
We are treated less well than criminals because criminals have the right to trial, they are condemned for the crime they have committed. I haven’t done anything wrong, and yet I don’t even know when I’m going out.
Since I arrived at the Park Hotel, several things have happened. There was a fire. Then you detained Novak Djokovic here and the facility was surrounded by cameras. There were journalists who wanted to talk to me. Since then I’ve been busy with the media – giving interviews, writing, protesting.
It is a method by which I try to survive. This is part of my resistance. I can’t shut up when someone is so cruel to me – and I’m not afraid of them anymore.
I’m in this room all the time, looking at these walls and these walls are full of pain. I am surrounded by dozens of walls. All I have is a window to see what life is like outside of this room. It’s a life I can’t have. I look at people, I see their freedom. Everything between me and this freedom is a piece of glass.
I’m in a cage, but I see a tree, I see people walking, I see cars, I see everything. There is life there, and here it is hell.
When I am freed, Minister, I will take a long walk. As far as I can.
But no one will tell me when it will be. No one will tell me what my pain is. Nobody’s gonna tell me when I get out of here.
That’s enough. It no longer makes sense. You closed the borders, you protected the borders, you made this policy but it’s been nine years, that’s enough. End it.
The majority of asylum seekers arriving by boat since July 2013 have been released. So, Minister, why are there still a handful left, almost a decade later. As sacrificed? To make an example of it in the name of politics and personal interests?
I can’t get answers to these questions because no one is listening.
Minister, if you have any sense of humanity, free me, free us.
Let us go.
About a desperate young man, who lost his childhood in detention.
As said to Zoe Osborne.