Refugee advocates have celebrated the release of at least 18 people from onshore detention centres in Australia, but say the secrecy and lack of notice around their release is a final piece of cruelty from the Australian government.
They have also called for the release of the 33 people who remain in detention.
Ten refugees from the Park hotel in Melbourne received less than an hour’s notice to pack their bags before their release late on Friday. Other refugees were released from the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation, Brisbane Immigration Transit Authority and Villawood Immigration Transit Accommodation in Sydney.
The Department of Home Affairs made no announcement about their release and would not confirm numbers when asked by Guardian Australia on Saturday.
It was the second time in three weeks that the department had released refugees from detention late on a Friday, after 13 people were released last month.
The department said some refugees would be issued with bridging visas to allow them to reside in the community while awaiting departure to another country.
They would not be allowed to settle in Australia, the department said.
Some of those released are on track to leave for the US or Canada. Others are expected to go to New Zealand, but have not received confirmation. They are from four different countries – Iran, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sudan – and represented by seven different lawyers.
There was no common thread between the cases, said Jana Favero from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which made it even more difficult for the 30-odd people left behind.
“The only consistency is inconsistency,” she said. “There’s no common thread, which just adds to the cruelty and impacts the mental health of those left behind. There’s no rhyme or reason and believe me we have tried to find it.”
All of those released had been in detention for eight to nine years, in both offshore and onshore detention.
Thanush Selvarasa, a human rights activist and refugee who was detained on Manus Island and in Melbourne before being released last January, said while their long-awaited release was welcome, after nine years the refugees were “destroyed mentally and physically”.
“We need time to recover our lives and without a permanent protection visa we cannot recover our lives,” he said.
“Thanks for all those people who are continually working for freedom. The people in detention should be released and detention should be ended. You cannot imagine being held for no reason.”
Favero said the decision to release people late on a Friday night made it difficult for refugee services to provide immediate support to those now in the community, and mental health support to those who remained behind.
Favero said those who remained in detention were expected to be released to await transfer to another country over the coming months – but there had been no confirmation of that.
She suggested the government was keen to release people before the federal election, when it would be facing challenges in a number of seats from independents who were calling for a more humane treatment of refugees.
“It really appears that they are happy to use people seeking asylum and refugees as political pawns,” she said. “They will detain them if they think that is politically advantageous, and they will release them if they are trying to gain ground in small-L Liberal seats.”