Activists from Western Australia’s Refugee Rights Action Network traveled more than 800 kilometres from Perth to the remote Leonora detention centre over January 27-29. The journey sought to draw attention to the 160 unaccompanied minors locked up in the detention centre.
Immigration minister Chris Bowen had previously promised that all children would be moved out of detention centres by June last year.
When the activists arrived and started a protest outside the gates, they were greeted with excited waves from the children inside. It was obvious the young refugees were overjoyed to see the protesters and wanted visits, even though the guards employed by prison operator Serco said the refugees had told them they did not want any visitors at all.
Serco guards soon parked a bus between the activists and the waving refugees inside.
But Serco eventually relented to the protests inside and outside the centre and agreed to let the activists visit the refugees the next day.
The visits were very stage-managed. Guards were present in the interview room at all times and took notes of the conversations. The refugees were clearly intimidated, feeling uncomfortable to speak out against their captors.
Despite this, some information did come out. There are about 160 refugees inside, most from Afghanistan, with some from Iraq and Sri Lanka as well. Most were aged 14 to 16. Many said they had been in the detention system for a year, some said two. Most had spent time in detention at Christmas Island and Darwin.
The refugees have 10 computers to share. They receive no newspapers.
Almost all said they were tormented by the waiting and uncertainty in detention. One refugee described it as “walking into a tunnel without light”.
Visiting refugee activists also observed that the Serco guards called the refugees by number, not by name.
On the night of January 28, the activists took Serco by surprise and clambered up the fence at the back of the detention centre. They threw tennis balls to the children inside that had messages of support written on them. With large smiles, the children ran past the watching Serco guards to the fence and gave the activists high-fives.
Later, the protesters marched to the front gate and started shaking it. As the detention centre management looked on, the crowd chanted “every child that cuts themselves is blood on your hands” and “how can you sleep at night violating human rights?”
The event successfully shone a light on the inhumanity of detention centres, and provided some relief and hope for those trapped inside.