Australia’s refugee policy over the past 25 years has resulted in a detention process best described as “Hell on Earth”.
Mandatory detention was first introduced in May 1992 by the Labor government with the support of the opposition and has been marked with increasing human rights abuses including deliberate medical negligence, sexual assault by guards, self-immolation and murder.
It suffocates people’s hope, as many people have been in detention for more than four years with no certainty of ever being released.
The past 25 years have also been marked by inspiring acts of resistance, both inside and outside of detention.
A refugee detained in WA’s Northam detention centre said in 2014 after a protest at its gates: “Thank you for these protests. We love you and our hearts are with you in this moment.”
Here are some moments of resistance:
Within days of announcing mandatory detention in May 1992, human rights activists protested outside Sydney’s Villawood detention centre.
The Villawood complex had been established as a migrant hostel after WWII. It was where the iconic Australian band the Easybeats was first formed by musicians from three nationalities.
But in 1992 the centre was surrounded by double barbed-wire fences. Inside were mostly Cambodian refugees, some who had spent the past 15 years in refugee camps after fleeing the Pol Pot regime.
Despite being told not to engage with the activists, the refugees came out of their huts and met the activists through the fences. The origins of the refugee rights movement can be found in these protests.
Woomera 2002: Festivals for Freedom
The conditions in Woomera detention centre, in the middle of the South Australian desert, were becoming increasingly traumatic by 2002.
Refugees had dug several graves in the detention centre’s desert earth, climbed into them and said they would not come out until they were given freedom or died. Others sewed their lips together and more than 100 took part in a mass hunger strike.
Over the Easter weekend, 1500 activists converged on Woomera detention centre as part of the “Festivals of Freedom” protest. It was a historic protest, as people banded together and walked a kilometre through the desert to pull down one of the outer fences of the detention centre, as refugees 200 metres away protested on rooftops waving and holding banners.
Activists then descended on one of the main compounds and managed to shake hands with refugees through the barbed wire fence and say “azadi” (freedom) to each other.
Refugees managed to pry a gap in the fence, allowing some to jump over the police line and escape. Some were caught and returned to Woomera, but others were smuggled out and hidden in the sanctuary network for several years before the government finally gave them permanent protection.
You can read a personal account of helping a refugee escape here.
And a watch a film of the convergence here.
Closure of Nauru in 2008
In 2008 the Kevin Rudd Labor government closed the Nauru detention centre, signalling the end of John Howard’s “Pacific solution”. The last refugees were brought to Australia and resettled in the community.
After a decade of dedicated refugee rights campaigning — from convergences to detention centres in the middle of the desert, to mass rallies of thousands of people and dozens of organisations from a diversity of faith, community, NGO and political organisations — it was a major victory for the movement.
Since the introduction of mandatory detention, the policy had only become worse. The closure was a significant step and showed the movement could win.
But the government did not completely dismantle the detention system. It kept Christmas Island detention centre functioning and kept mandatory detention enshrined in law. People remained in detention centres in Australia.
However, many people who were on Nauru were ultimately resettled in Australia and inspiration should be taken from this. If the movement grows strong enough it can force the closure of the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres.
Convergences to detention centres in Western Australia 2011–2014
Despite dismantling elements of Howard’s “Pacific Solution”, Labor, kept detention centres in Australia. One of these, called an “alternative place of detention”, was Leonora.
In 2010, Labor said there were no children in detention. A group of refugee rights activists from Perth’s Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) drove a bus to Leonora and witnessed children in detention there.
On repeat convergences to Leonora activists flew kites over the detention centre, threw balls to people inside with messages written on them, smuggled out a letter and visited people inside, among efforts to break down the barriers.
In 2011 RRAN drove a bus to Curtin detention centre, in the far north of Western Australia. Upon arrival, Serco and detention centre management did their best to prevent activists from communicating with refugees. At one point they told the refugees that activists had not showed up, while telling activists that refugees did not want visitors.
This led to a mass hunger strike inside Curtin detention centre under the weeping tree. Activists sat down outside the perimeter fence demanding to be let in, leading to several arrests.
Other convergences involved hoisting a banner reading “freedom” with helium balloons outside Northam detention centre and sharing chants with refugees inside.
You can watch videos of the convergences here.
Let Them Stay
Last year the Human Rights Law Centre lost a High Court challenge to the Australian government where they argued that it was illegal to deport 267 asylum seekers and refugees to Nauru.
This led to the Let Them Stay campaign as thousands of people and organisations from around Australia came out calling on the government not to deport them. This involved photos at concerts, football matches, hospitals, schools and many more, posted under the hashtag #letthemstay.
The campaign coalesced around Baby Asha, who was being treated in the Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital in Brisbane. Medical professionals refused to discharge her while she and her parents could be deported to Nauru.
As community members maintained a constant vigil outside the hospital, the government eventually felt the pressure and moved Baby Asha and her family to community detention instead of Nauru.
One of the most courageous acts of resistance is by the refugees and asylum seekers in Nauru detention centre, who protested last year for more than 240 consecutive days.
Photos regularly circulated social media, showing children in the front line holding banners with slogans such as “Seeking asylum is not a crime”, “Aussies let us live in Australia”, “Turnbull it's not just us — listen to your people — lose the offshore now!!!” and “1000 days in detention”.
Intimidating guards paced in front of them as refugees chanted “close down offshore” holding up their crossed arms.
Watch a video about the protests in the lead up to a solidarity action in Australia made by refugees in Nauru here.