Refugees and advocates unite to demand freedom

June 27, 2014
Refugee supporters held up sculptures spelling freedom in the six languages of the refugees in Yongah Hill.

“Thank you for these protest. We love you and our hearts are with you in this moment,” a refugee in Yongah Hill detention centre told a member of the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN).

The message was passed on during a visit to Yongah Hill detention centre on June 21 organised by RRAN as part of World Refugee Week. It greatly encouraged the 150 activists huddling under umbrellas and pushing hands that weren't holding bright orange flags, placards, banners and candles deep into their jackets. The activists chanted “no crime to seek asylum, free the refugees” as they stood on top of a hill clearly visible from the centre.

Three buses and several cars made the trip from Perth to the remote detention centre, with many people onboard making the trip for the first time. This shows the rising concern and opposition within the community to the federal government’s policy of mandatory detention.

As the buses approach Yongah Hill, people who had never seen the detention centre before gasped in shock. It looks like a high security military prison, with at least three gates and checkpoints to go through to get inside, massive steel fences, industrial lights, security cameras everywhere and a solid line of police on foot and mounted outside the front gate.

Despite the intense security and harsh weather, hundreds of men inside the centre gathered on the football pitch and began their own protest with banners and chants of “freedom, azadi, freedom, azadi”.

People outside the gates could hear their chants, building a powerful connection between the people protesting outside and inside the detention centre. As the rain fell harder the chanting on both sides become louder and more determined.

A large banner with the words “Stop the budget, not the boats” was unfurled. People wanted to show that the campaign to end mandatory detention of refugees is a central part of the anti-budget movement because it is the government and not refugees who are responsible for attacks on education, health and other public services.

Protesters then marched from the gates to the hill overlooking the centre, where flags could be seen by refugees inside.

Several speeches were made. Kali, a Tamil refugee, spoke about his experience coming to Australia, being detained on Christmas Island and how important these protests are to him and other refugees.

Bowen Summerton from Unionists for Refugees explained why it is important for workers to be involved in this campaign.

Ashley McMillan from Amnesty International told her story of becoming increasingly concerned and active as the situation became more inhumane.

As it got darker, lights were set up and shone on large sculptures held up with freezing hands spelling out freedom in the six languages of the refugees in Yongah Hill.

A banner designed by refugees inside the centre and smuggled out on handkerchiefs was held up, illustrating the suffering of being held indefinitely in detention.

Another banner of freedom was made up of dozens of bright colourful lights.

A trio of dancers performed a dance on the muddy ground in front of a projection marking the years, days and hours of Australia's mandatory detention policy. The performance was dedicated to the men staging their protest in Yongah hill.

Through the cold, rain and darkness it created a powerful image with the simple demand — freedom.

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