Police arrest seven for trying to communicate with refugees in detention

Wickham Point protest April 8, 2012. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Seven people from multiple Australian cities were arrested today while climbing a hill to make contact with refugees inside the Wickham Point detention centre outside Darwin.

About 35 refugee activists from Darwin, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne were at the centre as part of several actions that took place outside the city’s three detention centres over the Easter long weekend for the annual refugee convergence.

The convergence visited the new Wickham Point detention centre, one hour’s drive from Darwin, to support about 500 refugees inside, highlight the hostile conditions and witness the scale of the facility, which will eventually hold up to 1500 people.

Some of the visitors passed the external fence to make it to the top of a nearby hill and photograph the huge compound. They said a couple of refugees saw them and waved. The seven were arrested for trespassing on the “private land” of the detention centre.

But Perth-based activist Victoria Martin-Iverson told the remaining protesters as we stood outside the gate: “Our message to the Australian public and politicians is this: that there are people in this country full of righteous rage that are prepared to be arrested in order to defend the basic human rights of asylum seekers and to highlight the atrocity and abomination that is mandatory detention in these mental illness factories.”

Wickham Point detention centre is a heavily fortified site. Internal fences circle the compound, rooms and facilities of detainees. Another barbed wire fence runs along the front, outside which the police said the protesters were “allowed” to demonstrate.

Police and private security had blocked the entrance to the centre as a convoy of vans and cars pulled into the car park.

Sydney-based activist Mark Goudkamp, among the seven arrested, said: “The ‘approved site’ for our protest at Wickham Point was out of earshot and out of sight from the people we’d travelled across the country to support. Our simple attempt to reach an elevated point where we could interact with the asylum seekers, albeit still from a long distance, is clearly not what DIAC, Serco or the police want us to do.”

Their attempts to see refugees and let them know people were outside supporting them were completely peaceful. They were arrested for trespassing on the “private land” around the detention centre. All were taken to a local police station and released.

Last night, sources inside Wickham Point detention centre told refugee advocates at the convergence a refugee had been hospitalised after an incident of self-harm.

The centre was opened in December last year and mostly holds newer arrivals. The immigration department has claimed it is better for detained refugees. But the site has been considered “unfit for human habitation” and too remote for adequate services and support for the refugees.

Sydney refugee advocate Ian Rintoul said the latest self-harm incident was proof that “a cage is still a cage”.

Last Thursday, representatives from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and private detention contractor Serco banned four refugee advocates from officially visiting the asylum seekers inside. They denied the previously arranged visit at the last minute, after they had already arrived.

Photos by Alex Bainbridge

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