‘Not the Hilton’: ‘Vernacular violence’ in COVID-19 quarantine and detention hotels

Introduction 

The Australian government has largely had significant success in stemming the spread of COVID-19. Aside from lockdowns of schools and many businesses, border closures, and limits on movement within the community, it introduced quarantine measures for returned travellers that initially helped to stem the spread of the virus. In late March 2020 it announced that all those arriving at Australian airports and docks from overseas should self-isolate for fourteen days. As evidence emerged of returned travellers breaching these restrictions, state governments, at times supported by the Australian Border Force, imposed compulsory quarantining for fourteen days in nominated hotels in several of Australia’s capital cities. Although many people accepted this move, and some happily resigned themselves to the situation, there were also numerous complaints. Those with mental-health concerns, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxieties, experienced adverse impacts. Many expressed profound relief on their ‘release’. 

In two other hotels, the Mantra BellCity Hotel in Melbourne and Kangaroo Point Hotel in Brisbane, refugees and asylum-seeker men have been indefinitely detained, despite many of them having been evacuated under the terms of Australia’s controversial ‘medevac’ legislation. This law was passed in 2019 to evacuate refugees from offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru so that they could receive urgent medical treatment in Australia. These men remain in effective detention despite their evacuation. They have actively protested against their confinement, against conditions in the ‘hotel’, and against having limited or no access to medical care. And they have described their experience as akin to torture, with no access to fresh air for months, and no immediate prospect of release.  

The experiences of those in ‘corona hotels’ and those of refugees held in hotels as ‘alternative places of detention’ have certain similarities. The responses of returned travellers to their time in quarantine have thus rendered visible what has, for most of the Australian community, remained out of sight for many decades. By this I mean not so much that refugees held in detention centres and offshore processing places are now seen or acknowledged—this still seems remote from public discussion—but that the experience of what being detained feels and looks like has been brought to light by media and social-media stories. This might only be a momentary glimpse, but it is a compelling moment. As someone who has researched the harmful impact of immigration detention for some years, I want to seize this moment. 

Corona hotels 

Some returned travellers recounted that they enjoyed the benefits of their hotel suite, especially if it included sumptuous views, the chance to indulge in Netflix, adequate meals, a large living space and a balcony. However, it soon became clear that all was not well for those confined in this way. Media headlines such as ‘Hotel hell’, ‘Hotel quarantine outrage’ and ‘Aussies in hotel quarantine say it’s “worse than jail”’ started to emerge. Conditions were at times described as cramped and substandard, and far from the five-star accommodation people expected, leading some to take to social media and other avenues to express their frustration and despair. People were agitated. They described the food as often unfit for consumption, comparing it to airline-style prepackaged food. Meals often arrived hours late; in one instance only bread and fruit were delivered. Others were recorded by fellow returned travellers as saying: ‘You can’t keep people locked up in their rooms and give them nothing…sunshine, air, we can’t even get fresh air!’, with one person invoking the language of human rights with the declaration: ‘I am entitled to fresh air!’ Lack of access to fresh air, poor food quality, and the claustrophobic pressure of being locked in a room and prevented from opening the door were key themes in people’s complaints. As ‘Nicola’ commented in a story on A Current Affair, the inability to go outside or to access fresh air was ‘torture’. 

Preventing access to balconies or to windows that could be opened was defended as a suicide-prevention measure. Yet that risk paradoxically emerged from the experience of confinement, which included the closure of windows. Mental-health expert Professor Patrick McGorry urged measures to limit the potential for self-harm arising from the anxiety accompanying confinement. Other medical professionals advocated strongly for the release of their patients, for whom the period of quarantine would lead to a deterioration in mental health. A returned traveller suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing the 2015 earthquake in Nepal reported heightened anxiety. As McGorry commented in relation to those with mental-health concerns: ‘If you’re restricting someone’s liberty, you have got a duty of care to keep them safe’. 

Oh my God, these people arent prisoners…’ 

In a New Daily article, those who worked in the hotels and those subjected to quarantine compared the conditions to prison: 

There are three security guards on each floor, police guarding the entrance to the hotel and NOW we are not allowed to have anything delivered… Prisoners get treated better than we do. 

Another woman claimed that she was being treated ‘worse than refugees or prisoners’, while another said that her five-star hotel was a ‘miserable hellhole’. Some of the staff and guards in the hotels recounted that ‘we were like their jailers’, adding that they ‘were disgusted by the lack of empathy shown to people in quarantine, many of whom were elderly’: 

‘Our instructions were just to not engage in conversation with anybody, don’t tell them any information, don’t promise them anything’, the guard said. ‘I was like, “Oh my God, these people aren’t prisoners… They aren’t detainees from another country. They aren’t here illegally… They are our elderly people…why are you treating them like this?”’. 

In a statement on 10 Daily in response to this analogy between corona hotels and prisons, former inmate of Long Bay prison Daniel Linnane rejected the idea that time in quarantine could be compared to a jail sentence. It was clear, he said, that those confined in hotels had ‘never been to Long Bay’, listing some reasons that quarantine was not like prison: in prison, there is no access to social media to air complaints or stay in touch with family and friends, and there is limited access to the internet and computers. While those in quarantine complained about the lack of fresh air, Linnane made the point that in prisons the absence of windows can mean that you cannot keep the cold out in winter. And regarding the food, he observed that whatever those in corona hotels might be being served, it was guaranteed to be better than what they would receive as prison inmates. Many of those who complained about quarantine were ridiculed by people on social media as ungrateful, pretentious and displaying ‘diva-like’ behaviour, even while the media was keen to draw on headlines that suggested that conditions were prison-like. In light of the protests and unrest about deaths in custody in Australia, and suicides, self-harm and suicide attempts in immigration detention, the difference between hotel quarantine, and prison and immigration detention demands attention, but we must also note the potential for any site to become a place of torture. 

Asylum hotels: There is not any outside space for breathing 

I have visited the Mantra hotel in Melbourne’s Preston on several occasions. The site originally housed the Preston and Northcote Community Hospital. In 1999 the buildings were sold and the site repurposed as a business hotel and function venue, but the complex bears the hallmarks of its history. It has several entrances, presumably to accommodate emergency vehicles, hospital admissions and clinical visits in earlier years. It is located on a busy thoroughfare in the northern suburbs that is a direct route to the freeway to Melbourne’s airport, and it is opposite a health clinic, established (ironically enough) in 2003 to address the dearth of health services in the area. Tripadvisor accounts suggest that it attracts business people and tourists seeking affordable, accessible accommodation and those from regional areas who are visiting the clinic. When I recently visited to take some photographs of the building, two security guards approached me before I made a quick departure. As I left, I noticed several other guards patrolling the grounds.  

The rooms at the Mantra, and at the Kangaroo Point in Brisbane, function as prisons while maintaining the appearance of a place of hospitality. Media reports on the experiences of refugees at the two hotels resonate uneasily with the remarks of returned travellers in corona hotels. Many refugees have medical conditions such as asthma, depression and heart conditions. One of those visiting the men said: ‘There’s no access to fresh air…and these guys can’t go for a jog; their skin is becoming clay-like and putty-coloured, it’s revolting’. As one refugee who spent six and a half years in offshore processing recounted in a December 2019 Sydney Morning Herald report: 

Everyone that is here is because of medevac and everyone has a different story… My problem, apart from mental problems, I have physical problems. I have asthma. I have [been] traumatised terribly…I was beaten terribly. I have PTSD… There is not any outdoor space for breathing. Around 19 hours a day I spend my time inside my room… It’s completely locked, we are not allowed to go outside. 

The conditions and the accumulated uncertainty and despair after many years of detention have had a marked impact on the mental health of those detained. There was a suicide attempt by a Tamil refugee in the Mantra in May this year, and one at Kangaroo Point.  Nonetheless, housing the men in ‘asylum hotels’ suggests a break from the scenes of violence associated with places like Baxter and Woomera detention centres, Villawood, and the detention camps on Manus and Nauru. These hotels are ‘civil’ instruments of detention that are impossible to name fully as places of detention since they also serve a purpose of hospitality, but whether they are penal or civil spaces, these sites are not distinct from each other for the refugees confined within them. 

Visually distinct from detention camps, detention hotels function to seal refugees off from the ‘outside world’ in ways that resist a ‘visceral display of exclusion’, in the words of Daniel Grinceri. At the Mantra, such a display is only produced through the occasional images of men at the windows with placards and crossed arms, and by carefully monitored visits and protests, while at Kangaroo Point, the men are able to engage in daily protests on their hotel balcony. Because the men are largely hidden from sight at the Melbourne hotel, many people are unaware of its dual function. I have been met with surprise from friends, colleagues and others who live in the inner north and pass the hotel every day when I tell them that up to fifty refugee men are being confined in a penal setting within it. The ordinariness of the site obscures its violence. Preserving the illusion of the site as a civil space also relies upon the cooperation and complicity of hotel staff. The mobilisation of the Mantra’s clerks, for example, is indicated by traveller comments regarding attempts by staff to make their guests comfortable: who knows what stories have to be told to assuage guests’ concerns? Some Tripadvisor accounts point to the uneasy tension surrounding the Mantra’s other purpose. Posts warn potential visitors against booking into the hotel, describing it as ‘rundown’ and ‘dirty’, with small rooms. What struck me were the comments that marked the hotel out as a site that treads the line between a place of hospitality and a place of exclusion. As one reviewer posted in November 2019, ‘the whole vibe is weird’. Another said: ‘I got the feeling this place was used by Government for cheap accommodation for homeless people or temporary accommodation for people in trouble’.  

Yet the practice of detaining refugees and asylum seekers in need of medical treatment in hotels is not new. Joseph Pugliese has described the use of hotels for this purpose as the ‘insidious colonisation of civic sites by the Department of Immigration and the consequent transmutation of these same sites into suburban “residential prisons” through the “resignification of the hotel room” into a place of penality’. ‘Asylum hotels’ are thus marked by ‘vernacular violence’ in which everyday places and practices of violence are achieved through the appropriation of sites that are inhibited from being read or interpreted as such. This introduces a flexibility into punishment at the same time that it blurs the distinction between a site of penality and a site of civility. In this way, the hotel becomes a site of violence and the invisibility of violence. As a ‘civil’ site, an asylum hotel appears to function beyond the scope of punishment. As Pugliese puts it, this ‘seemingly benign’ character can belie the torturous conditions accompanying ‘innocuous civil sites’. And ironically, Carrie Dawson notes that, although immigration detention and guest accommodation for travellers are ‘housed within the same structure, the hotel and the detention centre are fundamentally different, even antithetical spaces’. The maintenance of hotel spaces as spaces that are supposedly not violent is however, only made possible if we maintain an artificial binary between prisons and civil sites. For refugees, it embeds the hotel site within the same system of violence that delivers suffering to those in detention centres and offshore processing places. It also destroys any hope that a civil site might offer respite from years of punishment. The comparison between detention as a site of confinement and control and the hotel as a place of hospitality can be made, as Dawson writes, ‘precisely because the conditions are not hotel-like—because they are like prisons or they are prisons’. She argues that in the Canadian instance, the Canadian government seeks to preserve the ‘seductive myths of Canadian benevolence and hospitality’ by describing these spaces as hotels. 

The irony, of course, is that refugees in asylum or ‘detention’ hotels are confined in conditions that comprise the denial of hospitality in sites that are also constituted as places of welcome. Dawson writes that for those who have the ‘luxury of travelling freely, the hotel was designed to facilitate airport access (movement), while [now] others are there to be prevented from movement’. These sites symbolise the contradiction between those who live within circuits of inclusion, such as globally mobile hotel guests, and those who are confined to circuits of exclusion, such as refugees, a contradiction locally managed through a careful orchestration and choreographic arrangement of the temporal and spatial divisions between those confined and those staying as guests. I say orchestration, as this relates to the management of time (the refugee men can only visit the hotel gym at certain times) and space (as it requires forms of movement through space that avoid unplanned encounters with other bodies in that space). 

Civil penality 

Despite the entitled language of some returned travellers in their complaints about quarantine, as a group they deliver a potentially powerful reminder of what the Australian public has failed to see or refused to acknowledge as the suffering undergone by those subjected to mandatory immigration detention—including those in hotel sites. Pugliese’s important analysis of civil penality allows us to detect the ways that violence can be experienced in ‘civil’ places ordinarily associated with hospitality. When people in hotel quarantine describe their experience as torture, we can see that punishment is not just shaped by the building one occupies. A building is never just a building. There is a rich body of literature examining the expressive power of the architectural design of prisons and camps to send a message of punishment, despair and violence. But despair is also produced through the everyday practices, control and regimentation exercised over individual bodies.  

The experience of confinement accumulates through the intrusion of control into a person’s everyday life, coupled with the oppressive weight of captivity, regardless of whether the environment was built for this purpose. This is not to deny the expressive power of the prison or of immigration detention centres, but it tells us that the conditions, control and regulatory power of any space can transform it from one of welcome to one of despair, produced through isolation and the repetitive monotony of every moment as inconsequential and undifferentiated from the one before. Despair creeps in when we are prevented from fulfilling our potential as creative, living human beings in relation to others and to the world around us. It is reinforced by the inability to see clear sky or to experience rain, wind and sunshine. In the work of Loïc Wacquant, prisoners recount that being on the roof of the jail is the only way to experience oneself in the world of nature; by implication, it is a form of freedom.  

The distress of quarantined travellers throws into sharp relief Pugliese’s arguments that the civil dimensions of hotel sites can function to mask their use for the ‘production of refugee trauma’. In the case of corona hotels, the distress has been narrated by citizens who are eligible members of society: accordingly, the civil dimensions of these sites reinforce the blurring of the distinction between the civil and the punitive, between hospitality and exclusion. The stories of quarantined travellers reveal the division between those who may speak about their experiences and those who are not even heard—whose confinement the Australian public barely knows about. 

In the case of asylum hotels, the body of the refugee is there, but it cannot appear. In the same way that space is redefined as sovereign space through offshore processing by rendering it exceptional, the space of hospitality is not only redefined but inverted, made into its opposite: it is transformed into an internal externality, extending the sphere of the carceral. In detention centres, a message of exclusion and punishment is clearly articulated in the design of the sites. In hotels, it is encoded upon the body’s experience of confinement. 

This is not the Hilton 

In 1999 Philip Ruddock, Australia’s then minister for immigration and citizenship, remarked, in response to complaints by Kosovar refugees, that the Australian government has ‘appropriate accommodation in an emergency situation which certainly is not five-star accommodation, nobody said it would be’. In 2002, as asylum seekers harmed themselves and rioted in protest, and there was widespread condemnation of Australian detention policy, Ruddock made comments that showed that he resisted any notion either that refugees were being held (imprisoned) against their wishes or that they should expect to be ‘accommodated’ in a luxury setting: 

The Australian government does not ‘lock up’ refugees, nor does it detain people for seeking asylum. We do, however, place in detention people who arrive unlawfully until their asylum claims are determined and we find out who they are [and] where they are from… They make a lifestyle choice to travel to Australia, breaking the laws of many countries along the way. 

When Ruddock made his remark about five-star accommodation he may not have imagined that almost twenty years later, up to 150 refugees would be detained in Australian hotels. However, these places are most definitely ‘not the Hilton’, to quote the title of a September 2000 immigration detention inspection report by the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Migration: being detained in a hotel under these circumstances bears little distinction from prison for those held in such settings. In a 2001 interview on ABC ’s AM, Ruddock said that ‘it is not misery for people to be in a situation of safety and security’, as detention was much better than ‘getting into fragile boats trafficked by smugglers’. But the personal stories told by those in hotel quarantine corroborate the experiences of those in detention: ‘safety and security’ deliver other violences. The men at the Mantra and Kangaroo Point hotels have been confined in the same spaces for more than six months, with some having no access to fresh air (detainees at the Mantra recently secured permission to have their windows open up to 15 centimetres). Their situation has been documented as leading to despair, furthering the deterioration of their mental and physical health. After he aired complaints on The Project, one of the men, Farhad Bandesh, was removed to Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) in the northern suburb of Broadmeadows. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the detainees can no longer receive visitors.  

These experiences of social marginalisation have not been limited to hotel detention. Over 3000 people in high-rise public-housing estates in inner Melbourne were compelled to enter into a hard lockdown as the number of coronavirus infections soared in Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs, with significant numbers of infections reported among estate residents. Such estates are home to large numbers of resettled refugees, migrant communities and others who tend to be on low incomes. Residents struggled with the lockdown, which meant no movement into or out of buildings for between five and fourteen days, a cordon of police stationed at all exit and entry points, and often inadequate access to food and medical supplies. Conservative politician Pauline Hanson ridiculed community complaints, describing those living in the flats as ‘drug addicts’ and ‘alcoholics’, and adding that, as many of them had come from ‘war-torn countries’, they should be able to cope: ‘they know what it is like to be in tough conditions’. The grievances expressed by those in hotel quarantine attracted no such attacks by Hanson. 

Conclusion 

Being confined in ‘corona hotels’ profoundly affected some of the people who were quarantined, and this included significant mental-health effects. But this only highlights what many have known for decades, and has been ignored by successive Australian governments and the Australian public: confinement is harmful to people’s physical and mental health. Innumerable accounts by those held in arbitrary immigration detention attest to this.  

The experiences recounted by quarantined travellers in ‘corona hotels’ are an excessively diluted and momentary version of the ‘vernacular violence’ undergone by refugees in Australian hotels, and of the more extreme violence of the detention centres, offshore processing and other sites that form part of Australia’s border-protection network. The effect of this violence is cumulative: for those in ‘asylum hotels’ it builds on years of trauma in detention in island states such as PNG and Nauru, as well as the anxiety of flight from places of persecution and the fear of arrest and imprisonment in transit countries.  

The distinction between citizen and non-citizen is evident in the different expectations of the hotel experience of returned travellers, who are able to come ‘home’, and those of the refugee men in the Mantra and Kangaroo Point hotels, who are not ‘home’ and are more at risk if they return there. The comparison reveals a global hierarchy that determines those who can live well and those who will suffer invisibly; those who enjoy the privilege of global mobility and those for whom mobility is utterly restricted. In this light, the hotel appears, as Sarah Gibson observes, as a metaphorical illustration for contemporary conditions in the West, where ‘cosmopolitan mobile elites’ and temporary or undocumented migrant service workers meet but rarely mix. The statements and complaints aired by returned travellers are legible, then, as the complaints of those who cannot imagine that their lives and movement could ever be curtailed, whose freedom and mobility are so taken for granted that hotel quarantine presents a shock to the conception of the self as an accepted member of the global community and Australian nation. This possibility is indefinitely foreclosed to those whose mobility is not only interrupted and stopped at every point, but who are sanctioned for their attempts at movement in their search for asylum. 

References  

‘Aussies in Hotel Quarantine Say It’s “Worse than Jail”’, A Current Affair, Channel Nine, 2020, https://9now.nine.com.au/a-current-affair/coronavirus-aussies-in-hotel-quarantine-say-its-like-prison/5eb7b927-fa61-497b-b61b-12e6fc6b5293   

A. Burridge, ‘Hotels Are No “Luxury” Place to Detain People Seeking Asylum in Australia’, The Conversation, 2020, https://theconversation.com/hotels-are-no-luxury-place-to-detain-people-seeking-asylum-in-australia-134544 

R. A. Carr, The Kosovar Refugees: The Experience of Providing Safe Haven in Australia, University of Wollongong, 2011. 

C. Dawson, ‘Refugee Hotels: The Discourse of Hospitality and the Rise of Immigration Detention in Canada’, University of Toronto Quarterly, 83(4), 2014, pp 826–46, https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/utq.83.4.826   

K. Dunn and N. Klocker, ‘Who’s Driving the Asylum Debate? Newspaper and Government Representations of Asylum Seekers’, Media International Australia, vol. 109, pp 71–92, 2003.   

S. Gibson, ‘“The Hotel Business Is About Strangers”: Border Politics and Hospitable Spaces in Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things’, Third Space,20(6), pp 693–701, 2006, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0952882060106963

D. Grinceri, Architecture as Cultural and Political Discourse: Case Studies of Conceptual Norms and Aesthetic Practices, Routledge, 2016, https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315689371 

Joint Standing Committee on Migration, Not the Hilton: Immigration Detention Centres Inspection Report, Parliament of Australia, Canberra, 2000, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Completed_Inquiries/mig/report/hilton/index  

D. Linnane, ‘I’ve Been to Prison, Your Quarantine Hotel Room Is Nothing Like It’, 10 Daily, 31 March 2020, https://10daily.com.au/news/australia/a200330xpdze/ive-been-to-prison-your-quarantine-hotel-room-is-nothing-like-it-20200331  

D. McCauley and J. Noyes, ‘“Duty of Care”: Calls for Improved Mental Health Screening in Quarantine’, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 April 2020, https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/duty-of-care-calls-for-improved-mental-health-screening-in-quarantine-20200413-p54jf0.html  

J. Pugliese, ‘The Tutelary Architecture of Immigration Detention Prisons and the Spectacle of “Necessary Suffering”’, Architectural Theory Review, 13(2), pp 206–21, 2008, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13264820802216841 

J. Pugliese, ‘Civil Modalities of Refugee Trauma, Death and Necrological Transport’, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 15(1), pp 149–65, 2009, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13504630802693687 

L. Wacquant, ‘The Curious Eclipse of Prison Ethnography in the Age of Mass Incarceration’,Ethnography, 3(4), 2002, pp 371–97, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24047814?seq=1  

About the author

Claire Loughnan

Claire Loughnan is a Lecturer in Criminology, at the University of Melbourne, researching immigration detention and border protection. She is currently writing a book on the institutional effects of immigration detention, and editing a collection of articles by Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani. Dr Loughnan is a University of Melbourne co-convenor of Academics for Refugees, research partner with the Comparative Network on Refugee Externalisation Policies and a member of the OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture) Australia Network.

More articles by Claire Loughnan

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