Refugee rights activists denied access to Curtin detainees despite protests, hunger strikes

Protest outside Curtin Detention Centre, April 24. Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

Forty refugee rights activists travelled by bus from Perth to Curtin Detention Centre in the remote Kimberley region of WA over the Easter long weekend. Several others joined the convergence at nearby Derby.

This was the latest convergence on a refugee detention centre organised by the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN).

Most refugee detention centres are located in remote locations to create a physical divide between refugees and the broader population. The convergence aimed to bridge this divide.

In the lead up to the trip, participants sent 100 applications to visit detainees, but received contradictory replies. This included the suggestion that all visits would be cancelled over Easter.

One person was even given the impression that he would be able to visit as long as he was not part of the RRAN convergence.

Even as the bus approached the Curtin prison — which is what the detention centre amounts to — activists were unsure about whether any visits would be allowed.

We also received information that the detainees inside had been incorrectly told that our bus had turned around and the convergence had been cancelled.

When activists got off the bus on the afternoon of April 23 we found that a temporary fence had been erected across the access road to the centre. Officials from the Australian military, the federal police and the state police gave legalistic warnings and purported to approve a conditional right to protest on the west side of the fence.

We were also told that not a single application to visit for that day had been received and that we would have to wait to see if visits would be allowed. Later we discovered that refugee advocates from NSW were inside visiting at that moment and that they had seen a visiting schedule with many of our names on it.

Locals who visit regularly told us that the normal process for visiting was much more relaxed and that the fence and other restrictions were created especially for us.

We also discovered that an electric fence around the prison was turned on in the days leading up to our visit.

After more than two hours of delays and excuses (and explicit lies), the visiting hours (artificially restricted for our visit) expired and we were told that no visits would be possible that day. We were also given no explicit promise that visitors would be allowed into the prison the next day either.

That evening we heard the shocking claim from NSW activists who had visited that day that quite a number of detainees had been bunked in dormitories made from shipping containers with up to 40 people in each. We also heard that 700 detainees (out of 1500) had signed a petition calling on management to let us visit, a hunger strike had commenced inside the prison and that detainees were calling for a group visit.

In contrast to the usual visiting arrangements, the private prison operator, Serco, had planned to host visits in eight rooms, isolated from the main compound and under the watch of detention guards.

We resolved to achieve the group visit detainees were calling for.

The next morning — Easter Sunday — was the main day of visiting and protesting. Serco guards greeted us with an invitation for the first eight activists to go in and visit. We soon discovered that the refugees inside were refusing individual visits in favour of the group visit they were demanding. The initial visitors were able to pass in a note explaining that we were supporting their demand for group visits and to bring out a message explaining the detainees' demands for a group visit.

In solidarity with the detainees, we also boycotted the one-on-one visits and began demanding the right to visit in the compound – as is the usual practice for social visits.

Serco guards then began encouraging non-English speaking detainees who had already received their visa (and who wouldn't want to upset their chances of passing security checks) to request individual visits in an attempt to undermine the solidarity of the hunger striking detainees. We resolved to continue our boycott of individual visits but to send a written message explaining our reasons and explaining that activists remaining in Derby would be able to visit in coming days.

Serco guards refused to pass on the written message.

After much delay, the Immigration Department officials decided to refuse any group visits.

Activists responded by organising a peaceful sit-in on the road leading into the detention centre. Despite having another access road and not a single vehicle wanting to enter the compound, police cleared the road arresting sixteen activists. Each received a move-on notice with a stipulation that they not return to the site for 24 hours.

Parallel with these protests and attempts to organise visits, lawyer Julian Gormly was organising legal visits with detainees. Para-legals assisting Gormly heard of the existence of the ``crying tree'' – a tree detainees climb when they need to cry in despair about the situation they're in.

They were also able to confirm that some detainees were housed in shipping container-like dormitories. Immigration spokespeople have vehemently denied the existence of these shipping containers but activists are confident – from several sources – that they exist.

If the government wants to deny their existence, a simple remedy would be to allow independent journalists to enter the prison with cameras and freedom to inspect the conditions and talk with detainees.

By April 25, the hunger strike had grown to involve hundreds of people. However detainees began collapsing in the extreme heat. Dozens required medical attention that morning to be joined by others through the day.

A small group attempted to visit the detainees in a non-protest environment in order to check on the situation and offer support. This application of the normal visiting arrangements was refused by the prison management. After refusal, activists responded with another protest during which part of the temporary fence fell down.

Despite the consistent themes of refusal and lies from Serco and the Immigration Department, the Curtin Convergence was an important and successful solidarity exercise.

Prior to the convergence, not much was known by refugee advocates about the situation at Curtin. As a result of the convergence, and the associated visits by activists and Gormly's legal team, the refugee movement is now in a much better position to campaign for the interests of the Curtin detainees.

Immigration officials have responded to the Curtin hunger strike (which has now concluded) with a promise that the processing of their applications will be sped up.

The whole visit (along with protests by detainees at Curtin, Villawood and other centres) received a lot of establishment media attention. Solidarity actions in Sydney and Melbourne and other locations were in part prompted by the Convergence as well.

RRAN, already a dynamic group, has been energised by the experience. Participation in the convergence by refugee activists from Sydney and Melbourne also strengthened the national coordination of the movement.

RRAN will hold a report-back meeting at the Citiplace Community Centre in Perth on May 10. Plans for another national refugee convergence next Easter are already beginning to take shape. For more information visit .