July 19 marks seven years since then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that people seeking asylum, arriving by boat, would never be settled in Australia, and be processed offshore. There are still 400 asylum seekers stranded offshore. Hundreds of others are being held in detention in Australia, including in the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne and Kangaroo Point in Brisbane, where solidarity protests have grown.
Green Left spoke to Brisbane Greens councillor Jonathan Sri and Socialist Alliance Moreland councillor Sue Bolton in Melbourne about the campaign to free refugees. Both said that they are optimistic that Australia’s draconian refugee policy could be changed, provided that the campaigns continue to grow and people continue to speak out.
Sri said the 120 men being detained at a hotel in Kangaroo Point in central Brisbane are in a “glorified motel converted into a prison”.
“These men are being held multiple people to a room, really cramped conditions and they’re largely confined to their rooms for most of the day. The hotel has a small swimming pool, but the government won’t let them use it.”
The detainees were brought to Brisbane from Manus Island and Nauru when the Medevac laws were in place. They did not receive specialist medical care. Many have been detained for around seven years.
At the Mantra Hotel, where about 70 refugees are being held in prison-like conditions, there is similar cruelty on display. “They’re being kept in these hotel rooms with no right to go outside and exercise” Bolton said. “There is no plan for a future for them in Australia.”
The refugees at the Mantra are meant to be allowed to exercise for an hour each day, but they are transferred by bus to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation. According to Bolton, it has become “much more like a prison than it used to be”. Once there, “they’re only allowed to exercise in a wire cage, like a prison, and it’s not even a very large cage”.
Campaigns have sprung up around both detention sites.
“Over the last couple of months, the men started protesting, holding silent protests on their balconies and residents responded by holding actions on the street,” Sri explained. “Those solidarity protests continued weekly throughout the COVID-19 shutdown and have now emerged into a 24/7 blockade of the site.”
The blockade was started when authorities started trying to relocate refugees to a higher security detention.
“We know that there are still open conversations about relocating some of these men back to Christmas Island, or other offshore facilities,” Sri said. “Part of the purpose of the blockade is to prevent those forced transfers.
“If the government tries to move some of these men to higher security facilities, we will physically block the roadway and cars from leaving the compound.
“The benefit of the blockade is that it provides moral support and solidarity with the men inside who, for years now, have felt like they’re forgotten.” Sri also said that the blockade had helped raise community interest and increased media coverage.
Sri is optimistic about the possibility of shifting government policy. “I feel like this movement is still growing,” he said.
“We do know that people are taking an interest in this and, for pretty much the first time in my lifetime, I’m seeing hundreds and hundreds of people who are willing to risk arrest and engage in disruptive civil disobedience over refugee rights.
“That’s not something we’ve seen in the last decade, at least in Brisbane. That kind of willingness to engage in civil disobedience is very difficult for the government to resist long-term.”
Bolton is similarly optimistic. “I think people power is absolutely capable of changing this policy.
“I would like to pay tribute to the refugee rights movement [over the last two decades] because the situation would be even worse for refugees if that movement had not existed.
“But, as we can see with the Black Lives Matter protests, there are certain moments when people can see through the government propaganda, or may feel that it is possible to change things. Those moments have to be seized.”
Bolton believes that now could be such a moment.
“In Melbourne, quite a strong alliance has been built up between the Aboriginal community and the refugees in the Mantra hotel”, she said. “One of the refugees in the Mantra hotel addressed the Black Lives Matter protest here via phone.
“The fact that statues of racists and slave owners are being toppled in other parts of the world — unthinkable 10 years ago — is now starting to be seen as acceptable.
“So, I think we can absolutely change this policy. We just need to not give up hope, and keep on mobilising.”
Both Bolton and Sri were scathing at the suggestion that refugee rights is not an issue for local government.
“Councillors who say that local representatives should stick to ‘roads, rates and rubbish’, never actually stick to this mantra themselves,” Bolton said. “Usually it is more right-wing councillors who make these claims, but they make statements on all sorts of broader issues to suit their agenda.
“We’ve got a lot of refugees in the Moreland community, including children of refugees who are denied the right to be able to go to university here. They’re paying GST, they’re paying taxes, but they’re denied the same rights as the rest of us.”
Sri said: “Not only is this a matter that every local councillor should be concerned about, this is an issue that every single resident and citizen should be concerned about, because this is our government enacting systemic human rights abuses against thousands of people on an ongoing basis.
“It doesn’t matter who you work for or what your level of responsibility is, you have a moral obligation to stand up and speak out against these kinds of injustices.
“It is particularly important for local councillors to speak out because we are connected to the local community. We also have the legitimacy of elected office. It is important for more city councillors to use their platform to recognise that human rights abuses are a whole of society issue, not a federal or state government issue.
Winning justice for refugees is connected to winning justice more broadly, Bolton said. The federal government is actively pushing to get people used to the idea that some sections of the population “don’t have the same rights as everyone else”. Unfortunately, there is bipartisan agreement on how to treat refugees, Bolton said, which makes it easier to scapegoat refugees for government policy failures.
“If working class people accept that some sections of the community can be treated as harshly as the refugees are, it helps justify how authorities are dealing with public housing tenants in Melbourne during the coronavirus.
“We can see that the politics of scapegoating is not limited to refugees,” Bolton said.