‘501s’ protest inhumane detention at MITA

April 30, 2023
Showing solidarity to people imprisoned in Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation in 2021. Photo: Sue Bolton/Facebook

Three people protested their inhumane treatment on the roof of the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) detention centre on April 28. The protest organisers have been put into isolation.

Known as the “501s”, the men are being held indefinitely under section 501 of the Migration Act 1958. Some have been in detention for 10 years, including when they were refugees.

Detainee Joey Tangaloa Taualii told Green Left: “There are guys in here from Sudan, who came here as refugees, who have spent less than 12 months in prison.

“After they completed their prison sentence, they've been stuck here in detention, some for more than 9 years.”

Speaking about the rooftop protest, Taualii said it had been a “build-up of things”. The guards reportedly “confiscated” basic items, such as kettles and toasters, and the men had “waited weeks” for them to be returned.

“They are treating us like animals. We are all broken here.”

The Refugee Action Collective Victoria (RAC-Vic) reported on incidents leading to “flooding and a fire” in the Erskine compound, after which the men went on to the roof and stayed there until about 2.30am.

One detainee was reportedly taken away by an ambulance, after suffering from asthma caused by the smoke. The detention centre remains in lockdown.

Last December the government quietly released more than 100 detainees who were awaiting deportation as a result of having fallen foul of the character test, set out in section 501 of the Migration Act.

There was no explanation for their release, but it connected to a Federal Court decision. The full Federal Court found on December 22, in Pearson versus Minister for Home Affairs, that the character test in section 501 of the Migration Act does not apply to an aggregate sentence: one single term of prison created out of multiple sentences relating to different offences.

“The people who were released started working again, started putting themselves into rehab”, Taualii said.

But the government undermined the Federal Court decision in February, by starting to force those people back into detention. The federal department sent emails to everyone that had been released demanding they “hand themselves in within 10 days”.

At least 50% did: Taualii said the detention centres are “full again”. “Can you imagine telling your family that you have to return to this place?”

Taualii said some countries are starting to refuse 501s, with Tonga being one of them. “I’m from Tongan heritage and Tonga is no longer accepting people held under 501, unless you have family and a fixed address.”

RAC-Vic spokesperson David Glanz said blame for the ongoing cruelty to 501s that provokes incidents at MITA “lies with the Labor government’s indefinite detention policy, as implemented by home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil”.

Amendments to the Migration Act in 2021 made it legal to keep people locked up for their entire lives. The Migration Amendment (Clarifying International Obligations for Removal) Bill 2021 passed with the support of the Labor Party, then in opposition.

“501s can be held indefinitely, not knowing if or when they will be deported or released. It’s cruel psychology that drives people to desperation,” Glanz said. “They face deportation for committing crimes — but citizens with the same criminal record would be released back to their families and communities.”

He said Labor needs to stop the racist scapegoating of permanent residents and free the 501s.

MITA is run by the Department of Home Affairs, via its Australian Border Force (ABF) unit. ABF controls the Serco guards who manage the detainees. There have been numerous reports of Serco guards who are known to use excessive force against  detainees.

Taualii said he remembered the Minister for Home Affairs O’Neil. “I remember her questioning the immigration issue, wanting to address ‘scaremongering’, and to help 501s. But since she has come into power, she hasn’t done anything.”

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