At least eight Bangladeshi asylum seekers have been released from immigration detention in Australia after languishing there for a decade, in a move that signals the Albanese government is winding back arbitrary detention, according to a lawyer for some of the men.
But while their release has given them hope, the men have spoken out about the terrible toll of the lengthy period of indefinite detention.
“Who is going to give me back 10 years of my life?” one man said through an interpreter.
“That was the most valuable time of my life, in my 20s, it’s 10 years I will never get back.”
The Bangladeshi asylum seekers were released on 10 November on temporary six-month visas with work rights, after being held in detention centres including Yongah Hilland the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation.
Refugee lawyer Alison Battisson, the director principal of Human Rights for All, which represents six of the asylum seekers, said their release is evidence the government is winding back arbitrary detention, using “God-like” ministerial powers to clear what the home affairs department calls an “intractable” caseload of people in detention.
One of Battisson’s clients, who Guardian Australia has chosen not to identify due to uncertainty about his future after the expiry of his six-month visa, said he had experienced “long years of hopelessness, depression and frustration” in “horrible” detention conditions.
The man, who was raised Muslim by his foster parents, fled Bangladesh after being convicted of apostasy and beaten due to his relationship with a Hindu woman. He arrived in Australia in November 2012 by boat.
Speaking through Human Rights for All’s special counsel, Zaki Omar, who acted as an interpreter , the man said it was “hard to establish” the danger of returning, and the department “didn’t believe” his claims “because coming from Bangladesh – our cases are not black and white, it is not a regular conflict zone”.
The man said that he “never had an option” to return. “I knew I would be killed,” he said. “That risk to my life was always there, with nobody to support me back there … I would get killed by fanatics.”
Of indefinite detention, the man said it is “not like other prisoners who know a date they will be released, even after a few years”.
“Not knowing when, if at all, it would ever happen, makes you so restless or so hopeless, we were given anxiety and sleeping pills to numb ourselves.”
Battisson’s client said he is “hopeful” he can “rebuild [his] life” but now faces an “uncertain situation” with a temporary visa and no way to sustain himself.
“I have no idea why we were kept inside [detention] for so long,” he said. “It’s not that I have any criminal record, not that I was ever released and did something wrong and was put back in … I was never given a chance to begin with.”
After the election of the Albanese government, Guardian Australia revealed in September the new immigration minister, Andrew Giles, and the department were pursuing “alternatives to held detention”, resulting in refugee advocates reporting “encouraging” signs more people assessed as a low risk to the community are being released.
Battisson said the release of her clients is “part of a move that the new government is recognising the true purpose of detention”, shifting “away from detention as a first resort”, and releasing people who “pose absolutely no risk to the Australian community”.
“People like these Bangladeshis who, none of them have a criminal record … [who have] a perfect behavioural record in detention … They are the sort of people who should not be in detention,” she said.
According to the incoming ministerial brief in April there were 1,414 people detained in the immigration network of 12 detention centres, 61% of who are there due to visa cancellations and 14% of who are “unauthorised maritime arrivals”.
Battisson said that the population of detention has “changed dramatically” over the years, with fewer refugees and asylum seekers, and more people who have had their visas cancelled.
“Detention is an increasingly violent place and the Bangladeshis … were targeted for violence,” she said.
“One of the gentlemen released on Thursday was in the gym one day and someone just came up and … king-hit him from behind.”
Although the department found they were not owed protection, Battisson maintains her clients have legitimate refugee claims, with well-founded fears of return because they were targeted in Bangladesh due to family circumstances or because they were supporters of opposition political groups.
“It’s another example of the complete shambles that the department of immigration and home affairs was left in by the Liberal government,” she said.
“The delays, the lack of transparency … has cost these men at least eight years of their lives, if you say, maybe two years was fine in sorting out who they are, but it’s cost enormous amounts of money and time.”
In September Giles said that the government “is committed to ensuring humane and risk-based immigration detention policies”.
“If there are no security or safety concerns, individuals should be living in the community until a durable solution is finalised,” he said.
“Since becoming minister I have met the commonwealth ombudsman, the UNHCR, the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Red Cross to discuss their crucial role in providing independent oversight of the immigration detention network.”
The home affairs department said that arbitrary immigration detention is not acceptable and Australia “takes its human rights obligations seriously”.
“Immigration detention of an individual on the basis that they are an unlawful non-citizen is not arbitrary under international law if it is reasonable, necessary and proportionate in light of the circumstances and reassessed as it extends in time,” the department said.
“Management of detainees … is carried out with primary consideration given to the safety and security of all individuals, staff, and the public.
“All incidents in immigration detention are appropriately reviewed and referred to the relevant police jurisdiction where there is any allegation of criminality.”