The fight to free nine refugees who have been locked up in community detention in Darwin for more than a year is drawing wide support.
The campaign, organised by Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN), has now won the support of Darwin City Council which, on April 13, voiced its “strong opposition” to the refugees being indefinitely detained.
Since January, every single day, activists gather outside a six-foot fence behind the Mercure Airport compound, and call for the immediate release of Afsaneh, Mojtaba, Behnam, Yaghoob, Malakeh, Hajar, Abbas, Asfaneh and Mojtaba. All are from Iran and all have been deemed to be refugees. They were brought to Darwin to receive medical care, which they could not receive on Nauru where they had been for seven years.
DASSAN’s energetic campaign is bringing in new allies. “Every day from 5pm to 6pm, we have been holding vigils. We also organise larger demonstrations every Saturday, which have attracted hundreds of people,” DASSAN treasurer Dr Edwin Lourdes Joseph told Green Left.
“The City of Darwin unanimously voted to lobby the federal government and [Country Liberal Party] Senator Sam McMahon for the release of the nine refugees from indefinite detention. The motion was moved by councillor Justine Glover and seconded by the Lord Mayor Kon Vatskalis.”
The City of Darwin cited its support for East Timorese refugees in the late 1990s, as part of its public stand for justice.
“I was surprised that the entire council voted for the motion,” another DASSAN member Peter Robson told Green Left.
“Previously, the terrible treatment of refugees was out of sight, out of mind. Now that they are here in Darwin, it’s different: we can draw attention to the grave injustice.” Joseph said.
“So many people from all walks of life are supporting the campaign. From academia, the music industry, Indigenous leaders, mums and grandmothers, almost all religious groups — Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Church — teachers, nurses, doctors and plumbers.” Joseph said.
He added that support from unions, including the Electrical Trades Union Queensland and Northern Territory has been important. “Their members have been regularly coming to actions.”
Teachers and Families Against Detention recently organised a protest outside the NT Department of Home Affairs to condemn the refugees’ inhumane treatment.
Sometimes, however, the police have been called on the protesters who have been dragged away, fined and charged for “unreasonably causing substantial annoyance” — even when the government building has been empty.
The campaign has built to the point that it is now drawing support from diverse political backgrounds.
“Of course, some supporters have right-wing opinions,” Joseph said. “But the act of locking up innocent refugees has brought so many people together … Collective action is working.”
Joseph singled out the tireless work of Councillor Justine Glover and the shadow minister for multicultural affairs Andrew Giles.
But, Joseph is worried about the refugees’ well-being, given their future is so uncertain. “We were more hopeful earlier in the year when a family of four were released and went to Brisbane on bridging visas. But Home Affairs is adamant about [continuing] the detention regime and the inhumane treatment of refugees.”
He said two refugees had decided to return to Nauru last month “because of the appalling conditions here”.
“It’s an indictment of how bad things are here,” Robson said.
“Nauru has been impoverished by colonialism. Its capacity to provide basic human needs is very low. The fact that they chose to be free in Nauru, rather than be held captive here, shows just how terrible things are here.”
As federal Labor MP Luke Gosling said on March 18, two Sri Lankan Tamil refugees “figured they were better off on Nauru than being locked up in indefinite detention in Darwin”.
Gosling “commended” Territorians, who, he said “have been keeping up the fight … They are demonstrating tremendous humanity and its shame the federal government can’t do the same.”
Robson said that, at first, some activists were worried about organising an action every day, were worried that it might make the situation worse for refugees. “But, we have taken courage from other cities, like Brisbane at Kangaroo Point detention, Melbourne at Park Hotel prison and Mantra prison and the Adelaide protests at Adelaide Immigration Transit Accommodation.”
[Check DASSAN Facebook for more details.]