BY SARAH STEPHEN
SYDNEY — In the early hours of July 19, 23 men lifted the floorboards of a demountable building used as a mosque in the grounds of the Villawood immigration detention centre, and crawled through the drainage system to freedom.
The group of asylum seekers includes four Algerians, five Somalis, one Pakistani, three Indians, one Iranian, eight Afghanis and one Iraqi. Many had been in detention for some time, one man for three years.
Another 23 asylum seekers escaped from Villawood detention centre early on July 22, this time through a hole in a fence. The 23 included three Kuwaitis, one Algerian, eight Chinese, eight Vietnamese, one South Korean, one Indonesian and one Macedonian. Ruddock reported on July 21 that the homes of poeple "known to communicate with detainees" were visited by immigration officials, but there were no signs of the missing men.
These are the latest in a long line of refugee escapees. While most have been recaptured, one man, who took part in the first mass escape from Villawood in March, managed to get to New Zealand where he has since been granted refugee status.
In the wake of the most recent escape, refugee support groups have stepped up plans to develop a sanctuary network for escaped asylum seekers.
"Thousands of people marched just weeks ago, to say we are against the detention centres, and are against refugees being locked up like animals," said Paul Benedek, from Free the Refugees Campaign. "These people, who have fled torture and persecution, shouldn't be detained in the first place — and we are willing to give them the refuge that the government refuses to."
Benedek says people are willing to break the law to support the human rights of refugees. "There is a saying that when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty. The brutal treatment of people who are seeking refuge, the contravention of UN treaties, the ongoing abuse in the camps — these are the real injustices, the real crimes — supporting refugees is simply standing up for human rights."
Rejecting Ruddock's assertions that the escapees are not "genuine", Benedek said, "this is a government that locks people up without trial, that restricts access to legal and language aid so asylum seekers don't know their rights. This is a government that has previously deported an eight-month pregnant Chinese woman, who was subsequently forced to have an abortion on her return to China."
The Free the Refugees Campaign is asking all groups and individuals who oppose the detention centres to join a network of humanitarians willing to give support in whatever way possible, from supplying much-needed food, to giving escaped detainees a safe house.
The socialist youth organisation, Resistance, which has come behind the sanctuary network, has already collected hundreds of names from mostly young people willing to support escaped detainees. According to Resistance's national coordinator Nikki Ulasowski, "If being humane is a crime, then hundreds of us are willing to say, 'We are guilty'."