Refugee-rights activists charged


Sarah Stephen, Sydney

Early on the morning of December 1, Refugee Action Coalition activist Mark Goudkamp got a knock on his door. He opened it to find eight Australian Federal Police officers and immigration department officials.

The AFP officers had a warrant to search his home. They summonsed him to appear in court on a charge of "making a false statement in the course of supporting an application for an Australian passport", that is, helping asylum seekers to obtain false passports so they could leave Australia and avoid being deported by finding a country that could offer them asylum.

"The Howard government is attempting to go on the offensive after winning an election that had nothing to do with refugees", Goudkamp told Green Left Weekly two days after the raid. "They've been tightening the screws on those held in detention, detaining more kids, attempting to deport people back to torture, and now they think they can get away with harassing refugee activists."

Goudkamp is one of four people who have been served notices to appear at the Downing Centre Local Court on January 11 asked to enter a plea for the same offence, conviction for which carries a maximum penalty of two years' jail or a $5000 fine. The fifth person will appear at the Parramatta Local Court on January 12.

On the same day as the Sydney raid, a dozen AFP and immigration department officers raided refugee-rights activist Ian Rintoul's house in Brisbane, spending almost eight hours searching through his belongings, and taking away at least 50 bags of literature. They also searched his Sydney house. Rintoul has not been charged.

According to Goudkamp, the pretext for these police raids was the escape of some 50 asylum seekers from the Woomera detention centre in March and June 2002.

"Many of the Woomera escapees were told they weren't refugees, yet many in similar circumstances who remained in detention have since been found to be refugees", he said. "It's criminal they were ever locked up in the first place and it's understandable why anyone with a heart would do whatever it takes to support these people, whether or not it is against the law."

At the time of the escapes, an editorial in the July 1 Canberra Times pointed to the morally just cause of those who assisted the escapees. "Those involved in helping organise escapes, and later in sheltering those who have escaped, are clearly and knowingly breaking the law", it said. "But they do not see that they are doing anything wrong, even in breaking the law. A higher moral issue is involved, and for most the thought of jail or other punishment is hardly likely to deter. That they are acting, as they and many others would see it, unselfishly clearly separates their civil disobedience from ordinary criminal conduct."

Citing the latest charges, the corporate media is working to portray refugee-rights activists as "criminals" involved in a "passport racket". Articles in the corporate press have carried headlines such as "Police crack fake passport racket" and "Homes raided in forgery probe".

The Refugee Action Coalition is planning a campaign in defence of the activists. If you would like to get involved, make a donation or offer your support, phone Sarah on (02) 9690 1220.

From Green Left Weekly, December 8, 2004.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.