Victorian police crack down on refugee rights campaigners

Detainees in the Mantra Hotel protest for their release on April 12. Photo: Refugee Action Collective Victoria/Facebook

On April 10, refugee rights supporters held a physically-distanced car cavalcade through the streets of Preston to demand freedom and medical care for detained refugees being held in the Mantra Hotel, until they were stopped and fined large sums by Victoria Police.

A statement released by the the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) Victoria on April 14 outlined the conditions the detainees are facing: "The situation for refugees in the Mantra is appalling, with up to three people sharing a room, no soap and no room for social distancing in common areas.

"The men are surrounded at close quarters by Serco guards without PPE during meals and other activities, in direct breach of COVID-19 physical isolation guidelines. Serco guards fly in from all over the country.

"The Mantra is like a cruise ship on land – if COVID-19 breaks out, it could affect every refugee. These men came to Australia under Medevac legislation and have conditions like diabetes, respiratory problems, kidney disease and Crohn’s disease."

The detainees are fearful that COVID-19 could spread rapidly if brought in by guards or hotel staff. Medical experts agree and have called for detainees to be freed for their own health and that of the community.

The solidarity cavalcade was organised by RAC. Participants remained in our cars throughout the event, respecting the physical distancing requirements, and each car contained a maximum of two people, both of whom were from the same household. We attached signs to our cars, or wrote slogans on the vehicles with liquid chalk.

Despite all these precautions, the police tried to prevent the cavalcade from going ahead. That included arresting Chris Breen, a prominent member of RAC, two hours before the event. Breen was detained in a police cell for nine hours. His phone and computer were confiscated.

But the cavalcade went ahead. As it passed the Mantra Hotel, police held it up and began taking the names of drivers and passengers. They later announced that 26 people would each be fined $1652 for supposedly violating the lockdown law by being away from their homes.

Breen was charged with “incitement” under an anti-protest law which dates back to 1958.

The protesters will challenge the fines and several lawyers have already offered to help.

A petition is calling for the Victorian Labor government to drop the charges and use its power to free the refugees.

Breen said in a Facebook post that he was “proud to be inciting support for refugees”.

“Our protest was safe, detention is not,” he said, adding that the authorities’ “hypocrisy is staggering” when it is legal to drive to Bunnings, JB Hi-Fi and in Victoria, it is still legal to drive to a holiday home. “But we can’t drive around the block to highlight the lack of safety for vulnerable refugees with underlying health conditions.

“The refugee movement will not stay silent; we will not cease our protests until the camps are closed and every refugee is free.”

[Chris Slee is an activist in RAC and was also issued with a fine for taking part in the car cavalcade. Make a donation to help RAC supporters fight the fines and charges.]

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