Darwin refugee advocates condemn “heartless” Nauru plan

Protester at September 12 refugee rights action outside the immigration department, September 12, Darwin. Photo: Peter Robson.

About 20 refugee supporters gathered outside the immigration department's office in Darwin on September 12 to protest against the federal Labor government’s plan to send asylum seekers to Nauru. The protest, organised by the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN), had an added urgency as immigration minister Chris Bowen announced on September 10 people would be transferred at the end of the week.

Peter Robson from DASSAN spoke of the inhumane "lottery" asylum seekers face. Since the new laws were passed, more asylum seekers have arrived by boat than can be accommodated on Nauru and many are terrified as they wait to hear if they will be sent offshore on not.

Some of those detained in Darwin had already been told they will soon be shifted. It is expected families and unaccompanied minors will be among those sent to languish in the hellish conditions. Robson said the policy was already proving to be a "heartless, failed exercise", saying asylum seekers have told DASSAN the threat of detention on Nauru will not deter others from trying to come by boat.

Peter Morris, refugee spokesperson for the NT branch of the Australian Medical Association, said the AMA opposed offshore processing and the mandatory detention of refugees. He said the detention of children was "institutionalised child abuse".

On September 8, 150 people gathered at the Darwin Supreme Court, to attend DASSAN's "Refugees and the right to asylum" forum. Former Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher, human rights lawyer Claire O'Connor and Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre all travelled to Darwin to speak.

O'Connor spoke of the bitter cruelty of Australian refugee policy, saying: "We detain people to stop [other] people coming here." Outlining the mental harm detention causes, and the inadequate psychological support provided, she said: “Providing services to those in detention is like patching the broken nose of a woman in a domestic violence situation then driving her home. It is detention that causes the trauma.”

Asher spoke about asylum seekers who receive negative ASIO assessments and therefore face the prospect of a life in detention. He said these refugees face a double disadvantage: “They can't know what allegations have been made against them. The criteria ASIO uses [to assess people] is itself a secret. There is no legal right to review the decisions."

He pointed to the alarming bias ASIO has against asylum seekers who arrive by boat, saying: "70% of refugees arrive by plane, but all negative ASIO assessments apply to people who arrive by boat."

Asher accused Bowen of being in an “unholy alliance with ASIO”, and wondered if moral cowardice led him to support the policy.

Curr gave a stirring call to arms to the activists and advocates present, warning they had a big fight on their hands. While it may sometimes feel that opinion is against us, she said, "we are the most stubborn and persistent people" in Australia. She said policy changes "when good people fight the good fight". Curr spent several days battling officials in Darwin detention centres and shared heartbreaking stories from those she had met inside.

Meanwhile, the Darwin refugee movement — and indeed many refugees locked up in Darwin — is mourning the loss of two fearless advocates. Over the weekend of September 8-9, we lost Father Paul Webb and Vikki Riley. Both worked closely together, inside and outside of detention centres, championing the rights of refugees and providing much-needed hope and activity to those behind the fences.

A DASSAN tribute to Riley said: "[She] saw that art was the tool that could melt the barrier between the Australian public and those we have come to know under the generic label 'asylum seekers'. She forced us to see the humanity of our brothers and sisters which is so beautifully expressed in their art."