Two hundred people joined a protest organised by the Refugee Action Collective outside the Mantra hotel in Preston on February 29 to call for refugees imprisoned inside to be set free.
The third floor of the hotel has become a detention centre for refugees who have been brought to Australia from Manus Island and Nauru detention centres for medical treatment under the Medevac legislation.
Refugees waved to protesters below from hotel windows, which could not be opened, while protesters held up placards that read: “Set them free. Let them stay” and “Welcome refugees”. Two refugees spoke to the rally via mobile phone.
Aboriginal elder Marlene Cummins told the refugees: "From an Aboriginal perspective, you are welcome here”. She likened the official treatment of refugees as “the same as what they did to my ancestors”.
Moz, a refugee who spent 6 years on Manus Island, thanked those outside, saying: “You are our hope, our voice. We could not survive without you/ For what crime have we been imprisoned for seven years? … We are people seeking freedom.”
Aboriginal activist and former Greens member of Victorian parliament Lidia Thorpe said when she visited Farhad, a refugee held in the Mantra, they shared “stories of injustice”. “They want to kill off the First People, and they treat our visitors with contempt,” said Thorpe.
June Mills, a Larrakia woman visiting from Darwin, said the Australian government “are the real criminals”, and that they are “murdering people in slow motion”.
Health and Community Services Union Victorian secretary Paul Healey said he is “horrified” at the treatment of refugees, who have suffered trauma from their escape and are now being further traumatised by being in detention. The union covers mental health nurses.
Ali Yousuf, an Iraqi refugee who was held in the Broadmeadows detention centre for more than 5 years, said there was no proper medical treatment there. He said the response to nearly every health issue was “Take Panadol”. Yousuf said his hand had been broken by guards who “got away with it”.
Yousuf was recently released by court order, but the government delayed acting on the order and is now appealing against it.
Ishmael, a refugee who spoke from inside the hotel, said most of the detainees are mentally and physically ill, and are not receiving proper treatment.
Darebin Mayor Susan Rennie and councillor Gaetano Greco also spoke. Darebin Council has passed a motion supporting the refugees and offering to provide library and health services.
Celine Yap sang several songs before the rally and the Riff Raff Marching Band struck up a good beat afterwards.
[Chris Slee is active in the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria).]