Protests erupt in refugee jails

Villawood, July 19.

Federal police raided the rooms of asylum seekers in the Christmas Island detention centre in the early morning on July 22.

Refugee advocates said some refugees "have been beaten" and "dragged out of the compounds".

The brutal crackdown followed three days of protest.

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Refugees on hunger strike make public appeal
More rooftop protests at Darwin detention centre

Guards and federal police fired tear gas and “beanbag” bullets at a protest of about 50 refugees held in the Christmas Island detention centre on July 20, which followed a week-long lockdown and a string of smaller rooftop protests.

Refugee supporters said the forced removal of a detainee to the prison-like Red Compound for “behavioural management” sparked the revolt.

Federal police said one man was arrested. Immigration minister Chris Bowen said new and harsher “character” standards, created in April, would be used against those involved. He said the protesters “achieved nothing except potentially their release from detention and transfer into a prison”.

The use of “less lethal” weapons by police has become routine to quell protests, which have grown in intensity since a mass breakout took place in March. More refugees took to the roof to protest overnight on July 20.

Similar desperate acts have grown in number at the Northern Immigration Detention Centre in Darwin, where self-harm and suicide attempts are becoming daily ordeals.

A rooftop protest of Iranian and Iraqi men ended after six days on July 20. They held a banner that said: “Please help us to get out of [this] cage.”

Refugee rights campaigner Carl O’Connor visits and receives frequent emails from refugees in NIDC. He told Green Left Weekly many were “on their last legs”.

“It gets to be too much for people who are already in a bad condition when they arrive seeking asylum and then put in detention for an extended period of time.”

An Afghan man detained for 18 months “deliberately smashed his head against a sharp bit of concrete and split his head” on July 5. On July 10, “one guy climbed a tree and tried to hang himself.

“There has been self-directed violence for some time, but it didn’t get any media attention,” O’Connor said. “In only two-and-a-half weeks there were more than five suicide attempts; a 50-person hunger strike; a sit-down protest of 100; two people have overdosed on their medication.”

“Five Iranian Kurdish men sewed their lips shut.

“But we didn’t see buildings on fire in the detention centre, so it didn’t get on the news.”

A July 6 email from a detainee said that in the case of one Afghan man who overdosed, other refugees found him passed out in his room and an ambulance took 20 minutes to arrive.

The immigration department claims counselling services are available to asylum seekers. But O’Connor said: “There is a four week waiting list for torture and trauma counselling for asylum seekers in Darwin.”

Almost all protests have been against the long and unexplained length of detention. The department of immigration says there are about 6000 people held in refugee detention across the country and many detention centres are stretched to capacity. The average time for processing refugee claims is 200 days (6.5 months).

Almost 70% have been locked up for more than six months. About 30% have been in detention for more than 12 months. There are rising numbers that have been held for two years or more.

In places such as the Curtin detention centre in far-north Western Australia, the rejection rate for Afghan asylum seekers has risen to half, causing severe distress and more cases of self-harm.

The Human Rights Commission said this breaches international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Commission president Elizabeth Branson said that refugees cannot challenge their need for detention in court, and this is what causes tension and unrest.

“People in detention often express disbelief and a sense of injustice that in a country like Australia, they could be detained indefinitely without the ability to challenge their detention before a judge,” she said.

Refugees that act out over their long and stressful detention are punished. At the Christmas Island detention centre people that have harmed themselves, taken part in protests or shown signs of mental distress are moved to a higher security area.

A similar practice takes place at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney. Many Tamil refugees, that have fled state-sponsored genocide in Sri Lanka, have been in detention for more than two years.

They told refugee supporters that anyone who harms themselves is taken to the Stage 1, a maximum security compound with solitary rooms where an Iraqi man hanged himself last year.

Meanwhile, the Australian government has said it will go ahead with the widely-criticised human “swap” with Malaysia to send 800 people that came to Australia by boat for 4000 refugees registered with the UN refugee agency.

The move to sign the agreement in Kuala Lumpur comes despite two high court challenges against the plan and broad sentiment that it is unlawful and a breach of human rights.

ABC’s 7.30 said on July 20 that the Australia-Malaysia deal will only come into effect once it is signed. More than 400 asylum seekers have arrived on Christmas Island since the government announced the plan, but they now face being expelled to another, yet to be determined, country.

One of the high court challenges will contest that this “legal limbo”, arguing arbitrary detention is unlawful.

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