My name is Stephanie O’Donnell, but I also go by “the girl from the plane”.
On December 19, my partner and I were at Sydney Airport on our way to Heathrow via Beijing. We had booked the cheapest flight available and were waiting to check in for flight CA174, when a plucky activist approached us.
She said a Chinese asylum seeker would be forcibly deported to China on our flight. She asked us to stand up for this asylum seeker. She meant it quite literally — refuse to sit down until he is removed from the flight. She said the success of an on-board protest like this was unprecedented in Australia.
Unprecedented but not impossible.
I was not familiar with forced deportations. But I have always felt very strongly about the treatment — or mistreatment — of refugees, quietly balling my fingers into angry little fists as our nation’s leaders race to the bottom, in a fight over which party can more efficiently and reprehensibly mistreat their fellow human beings.
Theirs was a seemingly determined and persistent quest to turn their backs on the responsibilities they had agreed to upon signing the Refugee Convention.
Australia willingly undertook the responsibility to resettle and protect victims of war, terrorism, displacement, injustice and persecution. They agreed that asylum seekers, vulnerable and desperate people, could legally seek asylum in Australia through any means possible and that we would safeguard them until permanent settlement can be organised.
Australia is obliged to not return refugees to danger.
The reality now is that Australia is breaking international law through their refoulement processes.
I often see Malcolm Fraser’s quote on Facebook: “If people are genuine refugees … there is no deterrent we can create which is going to be severe enough, cruel enough, nasty enough to stop them fleeing the terror which they face in their own lands.”
There is no more cruel response than to forcibly return refugees to the terror from which they escaped.
Upon learning that Chinese asylum seeker Wei Lin would be on my flight, I felt sad, embarrassed, disgusted with the idea of a refugee being forcibly deported. I was unwilling to be complicit in any of it.
When we boarded, I could not see Wei Lin. He was tucked out of sight at the very back of the aircraft, between two security guards.
Then that desperate, brave, stupid, but incredibly genius man ran up the aisle of the plane. Then everyone saw him. We saw him as the guards dragged him back, shackled wrists in the air and a face mask pulled down around his neck. He yelled out: “This is how they treat me.”
There was chatter and shocked expressions everywhere. I noticed a small group of passengers congregating by the attendant quarters. I shuffled over to see what was happening. He will be removed from this flight, I thought. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind. Everyone saw it — saw the shackles, the face mask, the inhumanity. The big dirty secret.
I sidled up to the group, as fellow passengers expressed concern about their safety. People have asked me if I think others raised concerns because they thought there was an actual security threat or because they disagreed with the situation. I really want to believe the latter but I don’t know. A bit of both, I suppose.
CAUSING A STIR
It was obvious there was no security threat. Wei Lin’s intention was not to bring down the plane. It was to cause a stir, raise awareness, ignite recognition and cause a reaction to his situation.
Seven passengers, including myself, continued to speak with Air China staff, pleading with them to remove Wei Lin from the plane, asking to speak to the pilot and refusing to sit down until we were heard that Wei Lin was taken off the aircraft.
A representative from Sydney Airport came on board. She said she understood our concerns but there was nothing that could be done because this was an immigration matter.
I explained that “we do not agree with what is happening and we’re standing up because we refuse to be complicit in this”. She said she would take our concerns to her superiors and would be back shortly. She didn’t return.
Over an hour passed while we stood waiting for another representative. The attendants secured the doors and the plane began to taxi.
Still refusing to sit down, we demanded to speak with the pilot, disgusted that we were not being taken seriously. The plane continued up the tarmac, fuelling our anger.
We continued to stand.
Other passengers called us wankers, told us to give it a rest, indicative of the continuing fight to shift public opinion to support refugees.
A flight attendant said if we did not take our seats, we would be removed from the flight. As paying customers and human beings exercising our civil rights, we were infuriated — and expressed this infuriation.
A message in Chinese came over the speaker. We asked the attendant what was happening. She said we are returning to the gate and the man in question would be removed from the plane.
Sceptical, I didn’t know whether to cry, clap or collect my own bags.
We pulled up at the gate and, still standing, watched as Wei Lin and his Serco guards were removed from the plane. We clapped and cheered. Others clapped and cheered for the situation to finally be resolved. Wei Lin thanked us. I felt elated.
My first act of political protest. My first win. Unprecedented but not impossible.
Wei Lin’s own account of that evening highlighted widespread concerns of the treatment of deportees. He spoke of the use of excessive force and abusive language from Serco guards.
He had been restrained in a face mask and shackles, tight enough to leave bruising on his wrists and forearms. He feared the next attempt to deport him would be much more brutal and inhumane.
The use of sedatives and straightjackets, gagging, shackles and physical force are a regular occurrence on deportation flights. Witnesses often report the violent abuse of deportees by police and security officers.
Deaths during deportation occur almost every year globally, the most common cause being “positional asphyxia”, suffocation caused by force, while the victim is being held down. In October 2010, forced deportee Jimmy Mubenga was killed in transit from Britain to Angola. Mubenga was in the custody of three G4S guards who were acquitted of manslaughter after Mubenga went into cardiac arrest.
Not only are forced deportations cruel and extreme, there is a complete lack of responsibility for their treatment during the process. For a man to have lost his life while in the care of supposedly trained professionals is incomprehensible.
I find it perplexing that no one was held accountable for Mubenga’s death, for the reckless conduct that sent a healthy 46-year-old man into cardiac arrest. There is no duty of care, no legal obligation on officers to adhere to any reasonable standards.
This is what happens on commercial flights where there is a degree of public scrutiny.
However, chartered flights have also been used when there are a number of refugees returning to the same destination or the destination itself is known to be dangerous. Apparently, not safe enough to land a commercial aircraft but safe enough for the refoulement of refugees. In these instances, transit is out of the public eye and the refugees are at further risk of persecution.
As Taliban terror in Afghanistan continues to intensify, Australian authorities continue to detain Hazara refugees in Australia with the threat of refoulement. In 2013, 30 MPs in Afghanistan signed a letter to the Australian government warning against returning refugees to the country's capital. Afghanistan is still calling on governments, globally, to stop returning refugees because it is too dangerous.
Wei Lin was deported on February 20. It was disheartening. It’s easy to feel that it’s hopeless. But we have to try because we do have wins, we do experience success and it’s these that make it worthwhile.
Change is happening globally. Most evidently with SYRIZA in Greece but also in seemingly isolated incidents all around the world.
In February last year, despite a court order preventing the deportation, South African immigration officials attempted to deport a Ugandan refugee, escaping persecution for his role in gay rights activism in Uganda.
Activists phoned the airline prior to departure, the refugee peacefully resisted deportation and South African Airways refused to carry him against his will.
On March 10, the removal of a Tamil asylum seeker from Melbourne to Darwin was cancelled after protesters gathered at the airport to oppose the move. SBS reported that a Qantas spokesperson said "an aircraft is not the right place for people to conduct protests".
I think it’s a perfect place. There is no wrong place to conduct a protest. It’s a civil right. They can try to deter us with threats of fines and no-fly bans but we need to utilise all approaches.
Airlines have no obligation to deport people against their will. We need to show that others will stand against it.
We need to flood people with facts and information, break down the common misconceptions within society and the lies told by our government. PM Tony Abbott says Australians are sick of being lectured to by the UN. I’m sick of being bullshitted to by a ruthless, entitled thug.