Activists from the Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) confronted Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and opposition Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison at a Harmony Day event in Sydney on February 17.
"You've forgotten to tell us what you did this morning," RAC's Paul Benedek called out to Bowen after his speech.
That morning, Bowen had overseen the forced return of 22 survivors of the Christmas Island tragedy (including Seena, a nine-year-old boy orphaned in the incident) back to detention on the island after a short stay in Sydney to bury their dead relatives.
That same day, leaks revealed that Morrison had urged the Coalition shadow cabinet to tap into anti-Muslim prejudice. In inflammatory remarks several days before, Morrison questioned the "expense" of flying Christmas Island survivors to the funerals to farewell their loved ones.
RAC activist Mark Goudkamp confronted Morrison.
“What sort of harmony are you sowing in the community?" Goudkamp asked. "You sow racist lies, and I want to see you removed from the shadow front bench.”
On February 16, family members and supporters of the survivors protested at Villawood detention centre, calling for them to be allowed to stay. A letter signed by 16 of the 22 asylum seekers brought to Sydney was handed to Bowen.
"We are overcome with grief," the letter said. "Some have attempted suicide. Our suffering has been too much. Please allow us to stay in Sydney where there are families and community support to help put our lives back together."
The survivors told visitors they would resist being sent back to Christmas Island and refugee advocates organised a protest the next morning outside Villawood. However, Bowen organised for a bus to "smuggle" the survivors out in the dead of night — denying family members the final farewell they were promised.
Protests and calls from a wide range of commentators finally forced Bowen to give assurances on February 18 that Seena and his family would be released within a week into the community in Sydney.