BY JIM McILROY & NICK EVERETT
Three hundred people greeted the arrival of the refugee "Freedom Bus" in Brisbane on February 17, while 100 people packed into Sydney Trades Hall on February 25 to hear participants on the Freedom Bus describe their visits to immigration detention centres around Australia.
The tour finished with a protest at Sydney's Villawood detention centre on February 24, when the activists were "welcomed back" by 40 activists from the Refugee Action Coalition, Labor for Refugees and the Free the Refugees Campaign.
The Freedom Bus travelled for seven weeks, from January 5 until February 24. The activists onboard were able to visit asylum seekers in all of the detention centres with the exception of Woomera. Throughout their journey their access to the detention centres was frequently obstructed by both Australasian Correctional Management (ACM) and Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) staff.
Marie-Luz Robey from Bellingen Rural Australians for Refugees explained to the Sydney Town Hall meeting that "ACM's claim that anyone can visit the detention centres is false". Faxed applications would be regularly "lost" and phone calls rarely returned. However, the activists were successful in collating some damning evidence of the conditions endured by detained asylum seekers.
Addressing the Brisbane rally, Mandy McNulty of the South Brisbane Immigration Legal Services gave a vivid account of conditions inside detention centres including arbitrary bashings, and the regular corralling of asylum seekers in the middle of the night for a "head count". Freedom Bus activists told of how ACM guards and DIMIA confiscated documents, cameras, photographs and letters during visits to detainees in case they might "incite a riot".
At Port Hedland, three of the activists were able to meet with three detainees inside the centre. On their way in they observed three isolation cells, each with a dirty mattress on the floor and a vent blowing cold air. Two of the men they visited had never met an Australian before, with the exception of ACM guards and DIMIA staff. Their situation was typical of refugees. One had fled Iran after uncovering government corruption and feared both political and religious persecution if he returned.
After this visit, further access to Port Hedland detention centre was denied. However, the activists were able to make contact with asylum seekers at the rear of the centre through razor wire. Almost all of the 350 detainees pressed themselves against the back fence so that they could communicate their stories to the activists. Letters were exchanged and refugees chanted their demand "we want freedom" before police demanded that the activists move away from the fence and return to their bus.
Penny Birch, Natasha Verco and Merryn Kellie, as well as Robey's 12-year-old daughter, were arrested by the police. Their bail conditions prevented them from returning to the fence over the remaining two days in which they were in Port Hedland.
Verco and Birch visited detainees at Curtin detention centre, located on an RAAF air base north of Broome, after the tour had camped outside of Curtin for two days. Their visit occurred only after they agreed to allow ACM staff to confiscate all of their photos and fact sheets and have an ACM staff member recording everything said at their meeting.
Imran Alsi, an Afghan refugee who had been detained for nine months, explained to Verco that he has cut himself on razor wire, drunk detergent and been on hunger strike to draw attention to the refugees' plight. "I am 29 and already I am dead", he said to her. "Better to die in a prison in my own country than to die so slowly in a prison in this country. My government is honest — they kill you with a gun. Your government — they try to kill you with a pen."
From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
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