Millionaire anti-vaxxer Novak Djokovic recently drew global attention to Melbourne’s Park Hotel, which is currently used as an immigration detention centre by the Australian government. While Djokovic got to fly home to one of his mansions, 32 refugees remain imprisoned in torturous conditions, an ordeal that has been going on for more than nine years.

One of the detainees, Mehdi, fled persecution in Iran when he was just 15 years old. He was held in Australian offshore and onshore concentration camps before being moved to the Park Hotel in late 2021.

Now 24, Mehdi is just one of the many refugees who have spent their entire adult lives in detention, imprisoned without charge by a regime determined to crush their spirits.  “They took our names away and gave us numbers, and that was our identity”, he told UK magazine Prospect. “I’m a number and not a person to them ... When I’m moved around a facility, they won’t say ‘Mehdi’s going here,’ they say ‘detainee X coming, detainee X going.’ When they write about my case, they write a number. They won’t write Mehdi.”

The media has moved on now that Djokovic has gone, but the fight to free the refugees continues. Refugee supporters have regularly protested outside the hotel prisons since they were first opened in 2019. Thousands have marched over the years to oppose the policy of mandatory indefinite detention supported by both the Liberal and Labor parties.

We have won some minor victories, but we need to keep fighting until every refugee is free. There are still more than 100 refugees being held in immigration detention on Manus Island and a similar number on Nauru. Many of the more than 1,100 refugees who are on the mainland have been released into the community, but remain in limbo with few rights and little support, forced to rely on charity to survive. Because of a policy introduced under the Rudd-Gillard government in 2013, these refugees will never be allowed to live in Australia permanently.

The cruel and capricious treatment of refugees is intended to deter those who might otherwise seek to exercise their human right to seek asylum in Australia. Politicians of all stripes can claim this barbarity as a victory—a successful effort to “stop the boats” and intimidate some of the world’s most vulnerable people who dare to hope for a better life.

Refugees are important political pawns—they are people without power who can be made easy scapegoats for politicians looking to win elections by pointing the finger at others to distract from their own crimes and mismanagement.

Capitalism relies on persecuting people in this way. Refugees are tortured for the crime of seeking safety for the same reason that Aboriginal people have been oppressed for centuries and thousands of workers are now being forced to risk illness and death from COVID-19—to uphold the so-called national interest and maintain the all-important profitability and competitiveness of the national economy.

Some supporters argue that refugees should avoid fighting their detention, instead remaining quiet and trying to demonstrate that they would make good citizens while they await their day in court. But people shouldn’t have to prove their worth to a barbaric racist government in order to exercise their basic human right to asylum. Accepting such a premise means the detention industry will continue, with the massive human cost that entails.

Nor can we simply hope that the election of a Labor government will change things. The ALP remains committed to the policy of indefinite detention (a policy that it first introduced). As a party that aims to lead the capitalist state, it is as committed to proving its border security credentials as the Liberals, even as it offers a few humanitarian crumbs in a bid to win votes from liberals. At the same time as Labor was pushing the short-lived Medevac bill which attempted to bring refugees from offshore to receive medical treatment, shadow Home Affairs Minister Kristina Keneally was attacking the government for an influx of “plane people”—which only pushed the narrative around refugees further to the right.

To win genuine freedom for all the refugees, we need a movement that rejects nationalist hype about borders and that opposes the entire detention regime that flows from it. Such a movement doesn’t yet exist, but we have to start somewhere. That’s why it’s important for refugee supporters to keep protesting, even when our numbers are small, to keep the fire alive.