Staff oppose RMIT detention centre bid



MELBOURNE — A forum convened on July 25 by the RMIT branch of the National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU) expressed vehement opposition to the university's proposal to tender for the delivery of "educational and recreational sporting activities" to asylum seekers imprisoned in detention centres.

As well as 35 academic and general staff members, the event was attended by two representatives of the Faculty of Education, Languages and Community Services (FELCS) — the academic unit responsible for the development of the tender. They attempted to justify the proposal on the grounds that:

* While FELCS is opposed to the policy of mandatory detention, it believes that until there is "an absolute ground-swell of opposition", it is legitimate to attempt to "ameliorate the daily suffering" of detainees;

* FELCS will negotiate with the federal government for detainee children to access educational and recreational opportunities within a community setting, rather than within detention centres;

* FELCS will not make a profit from the deal; any financial payment to the university would only cover the cost of resources required for the delivery of the services;

* FELCS believes that it can "work within the system" whilst continuing to "vigorously and robustly lobby for change to the policy [of mandatory detention] itself".

In discussion, department NTEU representative and refugees' rights activist Lisa Farrance argued that the campaign to end mandatory detention is beginning to reach the very "ground-swell of opposition" required for policy change.

To argue that detention centre conditions could be "humanised" would not assist detainees, Farrance argued, but would instead help the government to steer attention away from those conditions and prolong the policy of mandatory detention.

Other participants concurred, arguing that RMIT should not be "whitewashing the government's position", but should instead be putting its resources into supporting the campaign to abolish the inhumane policy it claims to oppose.

Staff at the meeting also pointed out that living in the despair and desperation of detention centres is not conducive to learning, regardless of where children access schooling.

Criminology lecturer Des McDonnell argued that it is not possible "to alleviate the subsidiary injustice without supporting the principal injustice". RMIT may not itself make a profit, McDonnell asserted, but it will nevertheless assist detention-management company Group 4 to profit from refugees' incaceration.

Attempting to defend Group 4, FELCS representative Scott Phillips argued that the corporation had "made a difference" to conditions in UK prisons through "the notion of dynamic security". During the first seven months that Group 4 'managed' Australia's Port Phillip prison, 60 staff members resigned and five inmates hung themselves.

The general feeling of the staff at the meeting was summed up by social sciences professor Rob Watts, who forcefully asserted that FELCS was "naive" and incapable of seeing that it was, in effect, supporting the existence of "concentration camps".

The meeting passed a motion calling on RMIT to withdraw from the tender process on the grounds that participation was "ethically indefensible", and calling on the federal government to close refugee detention centres, free the refugees and provide full welfare and educational services. It also called on the NTEU to "defend, by whatever means it can, the right of RMIT staff to not participate in the project". The RMIT NTEU will consider the motion on July 29.

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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