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Ben Winsor

Facing the choice between indefinite detention or transfer to the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, refugees who were held on Manus Island and Nauru are still choosing freedom in America – even though some say it’s like landing in a civil war.

In May, more than 40 Manus and Nauru refugees touched down in the United States – the epicentre of the global COVID-19 pandemic – with barely more than the clothes on their backs. Having been detained in the Pacific island countries of Papua New Guinea and Nauru for years, despite being recognised as refugees, they had finally passed President Trump’s 'extreme vetting’ process and been allowed into the US under the slow-moving Obama–Turnbull refugee deal. In the coming weeks, they will be joined by at least a dozen more new arrivals. 

They are arriving in a country where COVID-19 has now killed more than 100,000 people, disproportionately in black, brown and immigrant communities. The neighbourhoods they are moving into are gripped by violence, from both police and protestors, which new arrivals have likened to a civil war. 

On top of that, many of the former detainees continue to grapple with serious, untreated health and dental issues, exacerbated by years of sub-standard care in Australian-run offshore detention centres. In some cases, those conditions have thrust them into high-risk categories for COVID-19, which continues to spread uncontrolled through many American cities. So far, at least three Manus/Nauru refugees have tested positive for COVID-19 in the United States, one of whom was hospitalised. Thankfully, all three have now recovered. 

Still, for the many refugees faced with the unenviable choice of flying into the epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis or remaining in indefinite detention – a choice forced on them by the Australian government – it can be a disconcertingly easy decision. “It’s better to die outside, you’re free,” one of the recent arrivals told BuzzFeed. 

For the past two years, the Ads-Up Refugee Network has often been the only support network available to many of the 700+ refugees who have been resettled under the Obama–Turnbull refugee deal, now in its third and final year. Fuelled by generous donations and support from thousands of concerned Australians (both in Australia and across the United States), we link refugees with Australian expats in their cities, provide emergency financial support and educational grants, and empower individuals to tell their stories through connections with Australian journalists. For those ineligible for the US resettlement deal, we also work to sponsor Manus and Nauru refugees to resettle in Canada under the country’s unique private sponsorship model.

For the past two months, we’ve been dedicated to our COVID-19 response, providing health and economic support and clear, accurate public health information. In recent days, we’ve found ourselves explaining the ongoing violence in America’s cities, and sharing advice about how refugees of colour can protect themselves in their interactions with American police. 

Like more than 700 detainees before them, when these most recent refugee arrivals touched down, they were divided up and given tickets to cities across the US. This most recent group will end up in cities as far flung as Dallas, St Louis, Phoenix, Tucson, Boston, Buffalo, Nashville, Detroit, Houston and Atlanta. In the coming days, they will join more than 40 million recently unemployed Americans in a desperate search for employment, as the US economy slides into recession. Each has just 90 days to find their feet before their immediate resettlement support is cut off and they’re on their own; many won’t be eligible for significant elements of America’s patchy COVID-19 relief package. 

But even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, America’s refugee resettlement program was at breaking point. Cuts by the Trump administration had forced agencies to shut offices and fire staff. We’ve seen several cases of new arrivals being dumped in temporary housing and all but abandoned by those who were supposed to help them find their feet in a strange new land. Now – with resettlement resources spread thinner than ever, unemployment skyrocketing, and violence and social distancing exacerbating refugees’ feelings of isolation and abandonment – it is a brutal time to arrive in the country.

Over the past few months, more than 200 refugees who came in previous years have contacted our network asking for help with finding work, paying rent or dealing with health issues – and we’re bracing for many more. Not only is it a struggle for refugees to apply and qualify for unemployment support in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of US government bureaucracy, but lost jobs also means lost health insurance. Navigating America’s health insurance system can be a nightmare for anyone, so we’re thankful to have dozens of volunteers working together to make sure no one falls through the cracks. 

But again, healthcare for Manus and Nauru refugees was an issue long before COVID-19. Over the past two years, we’ve seen refugees arrive with serious gastro-intestinal infections, major skin conditions, untreated heart and lung issues and, in one case, a botched vaginal tear procedure requiring urgent attention. Many also have serious dental issues from violent attacks by locals and guards, or from years of neglect and inadequate care. It’s a series of horror stories exposing the lie that refugees have always had access to quality care on Manus and Nauru, and which sparks deep concern over last year’s repeal of Medevac legislation.

And yet, through all this, what’s truly astounding is the capacity for this cohort of refugees to still be filled with hope and resilience, sometimes being far too proud to accept a hand up. Rather than being angry at Australians for their years of indefinite detention – much of it in unlawful, prison-like conditions – they are thankful to the thousands of Australian advocates and supporters who protested for their freedom, provided solidarity and comfort online, and sent care packages and phone credit to Manus and Nauru from abroad. Instead of complaining about America slow-walking the deal or the collapsing resettlement system, they are filled with gratitude for the freedom and independence they now have, and the chance to build new lives.

After years of seeing Manus and Nauru detainees only as pixellated figures on the television news, many of our volunteers are deeply moved to actually meet these people face to face – to talk to them and hear their stories. There are the stories of LGBT+ folk who’ve had to flee government entrapment, of atheists and political dissidents targeted for violence, of women fleeing honour killings, of Rohingya families fleeing genocide. As Australians whose government has flouted international law, turned a blind eye to more than a dozen deaths in detention, ignored international condemnation and inflicted years of cruel, unnecessary trauma on these people, the very least we can do is lend a hand where we can – especially now, when that help is needed most.

Based in Washington DC, Ben Winsor works at the intersection of media, politics and advocacy. He co-founded the Ads-Up Refugee Network with fellow Aussie ex-pat Fleur Wood in 2018. Powered by volunteers in Australia and the United States and hundreds of grassroots donors, Ads-Up is made up of everyday Australians and others like you. Visit the Ads-Up website to sign up and learn more.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash


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