Detainees call for their release from Mantra prison

A pro-refugee protest outside the Mantra Hotel in Preston, Melbourne. Photo: Refugee Action Collective Victoria / Facebook

More than 120 people took part in a safely distanced protest outside the Mantra Hotel in Preston on May 16 to show solidarity with the detainees inside and to call on the authorities, who have extraordinary powers, to release them.

One floor of the hotel is being used as a prison for between 65 and 70 refugees who were brought to Australia from Manus Island for medical treatment. Yet, adequate medical treatment is not being given.

Moz, who had been brought to Australia from Manus Island detention centre, spoke from his room. He told those outside how much the detainees appreciated the gathering.

“I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for all the brave people who are standing up for us and fighting for our freedom. It is not easy to withstand 23 hours a day in a room. We are deprived of sunlight; we don’t have any outdoor space for breathing.”

The refugees were medically evacuated from Manus Island and Nauru. They are being confined to what health care workers have described as a “very high-risk environment” for a coronavirus outbreak. Their physical and mental health is deteriorating.

“A few days ago, one of our brothers attempted suicide. He is in hospital. If he hadn’t been forced to live in these conditions and received proper medical treatment from a caring doctor, he would have been safe,” Moz said.

“You have all been in a state of isolation for a few months because of COVID-19. We have been locked down and in prison for seven years and our ‘lockdown’ remains indefinite.

“Why does the Australian government imprison innocent people? They are trying to bury us so that you forget we are here. But you have not forgotten us, and I thank you.”

Refugee Action Collective spokesperson Lucy Honan said the group wants the Prime Minister, the immigration department and the Victorian premier, to use their power to evacuate the detainees from the hotel.

“[Premier Dan] Andrews, where are you?”, she asked. “Evacuate this prison and lift the charges on protesters who have been protesting for the freedom of the refugees!”

Due to the COVID-19 emergency regulations, no more than 10 protestors could gather outside the hotel at any one time. Hence, a relay system was used, whereby 10 people stood outside the hotel for five minutes and were replaced by another group of 10. Participants registered in advance, were notified by text message as to the time they should arrive and respected the distancing rules.

Volunteer marshalls asked protesters to stand on chalk markings, measured 1.8 metres apart. Police harassed protesters who were waiting their turn to join the protest, forcing some to walk away and come back a few minutes later. However, no fines were issued. This contrasts with a car cavalcade protest on April 10, when police imposed fines of more than $40,000.

Protesters chanted: “Free, free the refugees” and their signs read “We won’t be silenced, stand up for refugees”, “No Border Force, no turn backs — close Manus and Nauru”, “Full citizenship for all refugees now” and “Refugees are not criminals”.

Despite the threat of arrest, we defended our right to protest and although we could not physically stand together, we sent a powerful message of hope and solidarity.

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