Immigration minister Peter Dutton announced on April 2 that for the first time in a decade there were no children in Australian detention centres. “When I got the call,” he said, “it was something I was proud of.”
With the announcement came news that 196 of the 267 asylum seekers who lost the High Court case challenging the government's legal right to deport them to Nauru would be moved to community detention in Australia.
A number of major news outlets, including Sky News Australia and the Herald Sun Sunday, which featured the headline “Dutton ends 10-year detention saga: all kids set free”, reported Dutton's comments as fact.
The Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) posted on Facebook: “There are officially no children seeking asylum left in immigration detention centres in Australia! Woohooo” and called it a “huge victory".
But the day after Dutton's announcement, the Guardian reported that, in fact, children are still being held in detention. It reported: “The government has reclassified sections of detention centres, including Villawood, as 'community detention'.”
It turned out to be just one more lie in the history of lies by successive governments about refugees, particularly about children in detention. It was also a reaction to a movement that is growing to a point that, for the first time in years, it is starting to force the government's hand.
The ASRC qualified its earlier enthusiasm, saying: “Let's not get ahead of ourselves, the fight is far from over. Turnbull and Dutton have not suddenly found their moral compass, just their political one in an election year.
“So while it seems most children have been moved into the actual community, a few dozen children may still remain exactly where they were, with the only change being improved conditions.”
Children protest in Nauru
There are still about 50 children and babies in the Nauru detention centre. On the day Dutton announced “all kids were set free”, they began their 14th consecutive day of protest. They are part of a group of 144 asylum seekers protesting for freedom from Nauru detention and to be brought to Australia. Some have been in detention for more than 1000 days.
Seven teenagers on Nauru, who are a part of the protest, wrote to the immigration department asking that all asylum seekers on Nauru be transferred to Australia. They went on to ask why some asylum seekers who were on Nauru have now been given community detention in Australia, while they are still on Nauru. “We are asking to enjoy the same rights of our friends, who arrived on the same boat and are now in Australia,” their letter said.
The government claims they are in an open centre with freedom to move around the island — thus they are not in detention. Guards and immigration officials are trying to stop the world seeing their protest by blocking roads leading to the centre, building temporary fences inside the centre to stop protesters reaching the perimeter and harassing anyone who tries to film their protest. The centre that is supposedly open has become closed.
The immigration department eventually replied to the teenagers' letter on April 6 — day 18 of their protest — by summoning them to a border force tent and giving them a letter stating they would not be transferred to Australia and that their “safety and wellbeing is important to the governments of Nauru and Australia”.
On receiving the news, the teenagers, who have been in detention for more than three years, vented their frustration by kicking over a couple of chairs. Australian and Nauruan guards reacted by hitting and kicking the teenagers.
The guards then assaulted other asylum seekers who were part of the protest. One video of the attacks shows a person in distress on the ground receiving aid from another asylum seeker, as a woman is saying in frightened tones: “They hit us, they started hitting us”.
Asylum seekers who have been moved to community detention in Australia can be deported to Nauru or Manus Island at any time. Dutton has said they will be deported to Nauru as soon as their reason for being in Australia ceased to exist.
Asylum seekers in community detention have restrictions, including not being able to work and needing permission to stay anywhere else overnight. Many are struggling to buy essentials such as clothes and food and fear being transferred to Nauru. Community detention is still part of a detention system that traumatises people.
Both Liberal and Labor governments have placed families in detention, called it an “alternative place of detention” and then claimed they are not in detention.
In 2011 the then-Labor government claimed there were no children in detention as they were all in alternative places of detention. One such place was Leonora, more than 800km north of Perth in the middle of the desert. Refugee Rights Action Network of WA took a busload of activists to Leonora in January 2011. Video footage shows kids inside the detention centre waving across multiple lines of fences to activists outside, before they were stopped by guards.
This is what the government considers an alternative to detention.
Refugee Rights Movement
The government's claim that all children are out of detention shows the refugee rights movement is growing to the point that it can force the government into political back downs.
When the High Court decided to dismiss a challenge to the government's authority to deport asylum seekers to Nauru on February 3, Dutton said: "When there's no longer a case for them to remain in Australia, they will be returned.”
The #LetThemStay campaign involved thousands of people from unions, mothers groups, churches, bands, high school students, universities, sporting groups, occupations of politicians offices, artists and health professionals, including those who refused to discharge baby Asha if it meant she would be deported to Nauru.
Because of this public campaign, not one of the 267 asylum seekers has been returned to Nauru and now 196 of them have been moved to community detention.
A poll conducted by ReachTel in March showed that in several marginal seats across Australia in the upcoming federal election a majority supported refugees been resettled in Australia. Both Labor and Liberal parties are engaging less in anti-refugee rhetoric than previous elections — even if they still support the “turn back the boats” policy.
#LetThemStay needs to campaign for all the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, including those who have been “resettled”, to be brought to Australia and for an end to all forms of detention including community and “alternative places of detention”.
Every day that Dutton doesn't deport one of the 267 to Nauru is a victory for the campaign and gives hope that the growing people-powered refugee movement can win.