Socialist Alliance and Refugee Rights Action Network member Alex Bainbridge posted this report from Leonora in remote central Western Australia on January 28. Photos and video by Zebedee Parkes.
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UPDATE, 8:45pm: RRAN activists staged an action at the rear of the detention centre lobbing tennis balls with messages over the fence. Refugees ran to the fence and activists witnessed jubilation on their faces. After Serco guards herded the refugees back into their quarters, activists went back to the front of the centre. When police arrived they tried to confiscate megaphones but their provocation was diffused. The prison manager came face to face with activists at the front gate but he didn't like it when activists shouted "every child who cuts themself: blood on your hands!" Photos and video from the action.
UPDATE, 7:30pm: Through the afternoon, activists were able to visit a large number of refugees in the detention centre. All the visits were constrained by the presence of Serco guards. The refugees repeatedly said that Serco treats them well but whenever there was an opportunity (i.e. the guards were not looking) the refugees indicated that in fact they objected to Serco's prison management. A common message was that life was dull (sleep, eat, sleep) and that many refugees are very tired. Some gave indications of depression and one said he was being treated for mental illness that manifested itself since he was detained. The Kalgoorlie Miner put the convergence on its front cover. RRAN activists witness Serco guards calling the teenage detainees by number and not by name on multiple occasions.
UPDATE, 10:30am: The second group of visitors have come out of the detention centre. They say the same group of seven or eight refugees are meeting with each group of supporters that enter. Reportedly, they are all Iraqis, but most people in the detention centre are Afghans.
UPDATE, 9.20am, January 28: Alex Bainbridge reports that four refugee activists have entered the detention centre for the first round of visits. Activists outside are yet to find out if they have been able to meet with the teenage refugees held inside or what the response has been.
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Almost 40 refugee activists travelled the twelve hour journey from Perth to Leonora to visit refugees and protest mandatory detention at the Leonora Detention Centre over the "Australia Day" weekend.
Prior to departure, the local caravan park cancelled the booking activists had made, because the proprietors didn't want to lose business from their Serco and immigration department clients. That decision would have been in violation of the anti-discrimination act.
Instead, activists camped at a town oval with support of the local shire.
Upon arrival at the detention centre gates, an advance delegation was informed that the detention centre administrators had held a “community” meeting with the 140 unaccompanied minors in the centre.
Representatives of Serco – the private company that runs the prison – said there was not a single refugee inside who was interested in meeting with the refugee activists.
This was despite activists bringing MP3 players and art supplies as gifts.
As soon as the main body of activists arrived at the gate and Serco management reiterated that no visits would be facilitated, chants of “free the refugees” and “Freedom, Azadi” attracted a lot of interest from the refugees inside.
They came and waved at protesters from behind fences in the distance. They explicitly indicated that they wanted to see the visiting activists.
Serco guards tried unsuccessfully to drive the refugees back from the internal fence. When that failed, they arranged for a large bus to be driven and parked between activists and one of the groups of refugees. Other vehicles were already stationed in front of the second group of young detainees.
Protesters outside wrote a letter to the refugees explaining that they support refugees and oppose mandatory detention. Despite being explicitly told that Serco would allow a letter to be delivered, police and centre security initially refused to pass the letter on. A sympathetic staff member, who was not a security guard, helped make sure the letter was delivered.
The refugees responded by sending out a balloon with the messages “go, go, go'” and “happy Australia Day”.
By the end of the day, Serco management finally agreed to facilitate visits the next day.
Organisers from the Refugee Rights Action Network have a lot of experience visiting refugees in detention and organising convergences. It is routine of Serco to put up petty obstructions outright lies to try to prevent activists from communicating with refugees unfairly held in refugee prisons.
This is all part of the policy of isolating refugees in detention from the broader community. For instance, while Serco considers clinical depression and hunger strikes of less than 24 hours to be “minor” incidents, unauthorised access by journalists to detention centres is considered to be a “major” issue.
In the video below, protesters bang on gates after Serco told them refuges don't want visits. While this protest was happening, the refugees were clearly indicating through the fence that they wanted to meet with us.