Mandatory detention is the real crime

Image: norrie mAy-welby

Who were the actual criminals that sparked the refugees’ revolt in Villawood detention centre in late April?

There is no crime in climbing on top of a building and holding a banner saying “We need help”, nor asking for a meeting with immigration officials after 15 months in detention, as two Kurdish Iranian refugees did on April 20, sparking protests that lasted for more than a week.

It’s not a crime to resist injustice — the refugees who have taken it on themselves to revolt inside Australia’s mandatory detention system must be defended and supported for their stand.

It’s not a crime to seek asylum. Every single person with a well-founded fear for their safety that comes to Australia and requests asylum, even if they have the wrong identity papers or no papers at all, has a legal right to do so.

On the other hand, detaining people without charge, trial or sentence is criminal.

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It is an outrageous crime to carry out large-scale state violence against people who, under international law, are entitled to government protection.

Suspending asylum applications for people from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in April 2010 was illegal because it discriminated against people based on ethnicity — contradicting many of Australia’s own laws.

Many aspects of Australia’s migration laws, including the excision of islands from Australian territory, means there is a two-tired system for refugees in Australia.

In this system, “offshore applicants” — most refugees arriving by boat — are denied almost every basic political and legal right.

The federal government’s failure to carry out its duty of care to refugees is criminal, legally and morally.

Labor has steadily worsened conditions for refugees since it took office. Time in detention has grown unbearably long for thousands of people and rising rejection rates have understandably distressed asylum seekers.

The Australian government has taken its unlawful conduct a step further since more than 100 refugees in Villawood began their protest, which resulted in a prolonged hunger strike, torched buildings and a violent crackdown.



Twenty-two Kurdish and Iranian men held in Villawood were taken to Sydney’s Silverwater jail on April 23, accused of leading the protests.

They were not charged with any offence and have yet to see the inside of a courtroom. But they are being held in solitary confinement and subject to conditions that solicitor Stephen Blanks found shocking.

After visiting them at Silverwater, Blanks told the Sydney Refugee Action Coalition: “They are … locked down for 18 hours a day with no access to communication, either with each other or the outside world. There are no toothbrushes, no showers, not even any toilet paper.”

Refugee Action Coalition Sydney activist Mark Goudkamp said on April 24: “It is … highly ironic given many Iranian detainees fled the Ahmadinejad government’s crackdown on mass pro-democracy protests in 2009.

“That Australian authorities think treating people in this way is acceptable is nothing short of scandalous. Australia frequently condemns human rights abuses in Iran, including in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.”

At Villawood detention centre, as the protests and hunger strikes continued, the immigration department and prison company Serco stopped visits to refugees in detention over the Easter weekend because it was considered a “crime scene”.

Immigration minister Chris Bowen has promised changes to asylum application processing that again contradicts international and domestic law.

The federal government wants amendments to the “character test” that would result in refugees who “commit an offence” while in Australia barred from permanent protection.

This will result in a new temporary protection visa system, used by the Howard government and abolished by Labor for its draconian cruelty.

Further, it covers up and distorts the truth about why protests in detention are growing more violent and dangerous.

Refugees come to Australia with the hope of escaping state violence, conflict and suffering — it is the government’s actions that have pushed the humanitarian and mental health crisis now unfolding in Australia’s refugee prisons.

New protests have also erupted at Christmas Island detention centre, where a hunger strike began on April 27, and at the Curtin detention centre in WA, where a convoy of refugee supporters were denied access over the Easter weekend.

The moves to reintroduce a temporary protection system must be opposed. A united refugee rights movement must call for a total end to mandatory detention, the closure of all detention centres and freedom and protection for refugees.