Activists protest refugee conditions in Melbourne's detention centre

June 16, 2016

About 20 protesters demonstrated in front of the Melbourne Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) on June 6 over allegations of asylum seeker mistreatment. Police presence was described by observers as extremely heavy, ranging from two dozen to fifty officers.

The front entrance to the DIBP office was closed for the day, there was no physical confrontation and the entire protest was described by both activists and police as peaceful and non-violent. Activists sat in front of the doors, engaging in various forms of street art and direct action.

Onlookers were given a glimpse of the everyday lives of asylum seekers through the construction of a mock cell of the approximate size of the rooms in which asylum seekers are kept.

The definition of a refugee in the UN Refugee Convention includes “any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return there or to avail themselves of its protection, on account of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group, or political opinion”.

First conceived as a post-World War II legal document, the 1951 Convention defines who is a refugee, their legal protections and status, and other human rights that signatory states are to provide.

The Convention focused primarily on protecting refugees of European origin, until the 1967 Protocol expanded the scope and removed geographical and temporal restrictions to bring genuine universality to the issue of refugee rights protections.

Despite this, both major parties in Australia have historically struggled with protectionist social policies, often pointing to the benefits of employment opportunities, and generosity of welfare systems as primary motivations for potential asylum seekers, as opposed to actual persecution.
In a research paper for the Parliamentary Social Policy Group, Adrienne Millbank wrote in 2000: “Australia is perhaps unique among Western countries in its capacity and willingness to remove failed asylum seekers; in other countries most failed asylum seekers simply remain.”

While the activists maintained that they were not an affiliated group, they did provide links to social media and information about the treatment of detainees at the Broadmeadows detention centre in Melbourne's north west. They noted that detainees suffered from severe mental illness, suicide attempts and other forms of self-harm. Broadmeadows has been compared to a “high-security prison” by ABC News, with the use of riot gear, heavy-handed approaches and strict lockdown protocols.

The protest is indicative of the larger refugee discourse in Australia, especially as it relates to the wholesale mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seekers.

One refugee advocate said: “We hear a lot about the offshore detention centres in Australia, but not actually the ones that are here as well. The stuff that is happening offshore is also happening around the corner, half an hour from where we are right now.

“So we really wanted to make that clear and draw a link, and really say that no form of detention is humane. It's indefinite, it's mandatory, it's detrimental to people's mental health [and] physical health. We've had countless reports of sexual abuse and physical abuse, suicides, immolation attempts — one successful, one unsuccessful in the past six weeks.”

Whether or not asylum seekers are “genuine”, fundamental human rights treatment under international conventions require basic respect for the dignity of personhood, individual rights and its universal application.

Australian human rights protections are not just for Australians; they are for everyone, and the existence of mistreatment at the Broadmeadows detention centre is shameful for all of us.

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