“Thank you for these protests. We love you and our hearts are with you in this moment.”
This message was sent from a refugee inside Northam Detention Centre in West Australia to activists who were protesting outside in 2014.
Messages like this inspire many of us to get active and persist with campaigns to make the world more humane.
A whole generation, to which I belong, has only known mandatory detention: it was introduced by “left” Labor immigration minister Gerry Hand in 1992.
In January 2011, I joined the “caravan of compassion” and travelled with 30 others 800 kilometres from Perth across the red, hot, dusty desert out to Leonora Detention Centre.
It was one of the first protests held outside a detention centre since the then Rudd Labor government was elected in 2007. As there was silence around the fact that children were in detention, one of the most striking moments was seeing parents holding their children over walls which had been boarded up with corrugated iron as the guards tried to stop them.
At the time, there were 55 children in Leonora. Our protest refuted government claims that no kids were in detention.
We flew coloured kites above the prison — our way of breaking down the barriers. We chanted and sang and received waves from the children inside. When some of us were eventually allowed inside, a young woman said: “Everyone is upset all the time. There is no other state than [being] upset”.
“Today has been one of the happiest days we've had in a long time”.
Studies into the mental health of asylum seekers in detention have shown that being able to see people protesting has a positive impact. It is one of the only things that does.
Another key reason to visit detention centres is to listen to the refugees' stories and then amplify them.
In the last visit during the convergence we managed to smuggle out a letter from one of the women. It detailed the shocking conditions — including continual harassment by guards — that pregnant women and kids under the age of 4 had to endure.
It finished with this: “If [there is] peace in my country [Afghanistan] I promise you I will go back … Please help us, please help us, please help us.”
There was not a dry eye on the bus on the way back.
Many refugees would go back to their country of origin if they could: many cling to the hope of returning one day.
Government talk about asylum seekers needing to apply for a visa “the proper way” through United Nations resettlement, or about the need to “stop the boats to stop deaths at sea” ignores the reality of fleeing persecution. More than 90% of asylum seekers who come to Australia via boat are found to be genuine refugees
In South East Asia, where there are a lot of island nations, including Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia, a boat journey is imperative.
Kaliyugan, a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka told me that during 2009, in the midst of the Sri Lankan civil war, he started posting videos on YouTube and Twitter of Tamils being massacred. At his family's insistence Kali left Sri Lanka when his friends started disappearing. Like many refugees Kali intends to return. But to this day Tamils continue to “disappear”.
Kali reached Malaysia and received his United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees refugee card. But his Malaysian visa ran out and he faced deportation to Sri Lanka. This is what made him start his journey to Australia.
Some asylum seekers who have UNHCR refugee cards have been waiting in Indonesia and Malaysia for more than 10 years, often at risk of deportation if they are caught, with no access to healthcare or education and with no right to work.
The Malaysian government has been known to round up and deport people waiting outside the UNHCR office. That is the reality of waiting in the “queue”.
Kali eventually ended up at Curtin Detention Centre in WA, a place he described as “a shithole”.
“It's designed to break you. That's what it is for. To let people know 'don't come to our country or we'll break you'.”
Remoteness is part of the cruelty
Curtin was very remote, making it hard to get any medical and humanitarian support. Refugees had been stuck there for more than three years. There had been accounts of people crammed in shipping containers — often 40 in each one with no relief from the sweltering heat.
In Curtin, an Afghan man was beaten up by Serco guards for trying to see his case manager.
In 2010, a 30-year-old man was found unconscious, transferred to a hospital 40 kilometres away and died the next day.
People also tried to commit suicide on an almost daily basis. Mohammed Asif Atay committed suicide on March 28, 2011.
In April 2011, I travelled with 40 others from the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) to Curtin. Serco officials prevented us from visiting the refugees, even though the paperwork had been submitted many weeks before.
The guards told the refugees that we had turned around and gone home. They staged a hunger strike in 40°C heat, under the “weeping tree”, to demand activists be allowed in. The strike grew to more than 200 people. Meanwhile, we held a sit-down protest outside one of the gates demanding to be let in. WA Police arrested us.
The next day, refugees started collapsing in the heat from dehydration. Authorities still refused to allow anyone in, even mental health professionals.
The protest became the spark for a national day of action outside detention centres across the country. It led to much greater scrutiny about conditions in these hell holes.
The policy of mandatory detention has continued — and is still supported by the major parties.
However, the refugee rights movement has also grown and become more politically powerful.
Leading up to the 2013 federal election, the major parties competed to be the best equipped to “stop the boats”. This led the then Julia Gillard Labor government to re-introduce temporary protection visas (TPVs), offshore processing and offshore re-settlement. This sparked some of the largest refugee rights rallies in some years.
Refugees describe the Nauru and Manus detention centres as “hell on earth”: people are crammed into tents; diseases spread quickly; there is a lack of clean water and many suffer regular abuse by guards.
Save the Children workers, who spent time on Nauru, have given testimonies that young girls suffer regular sexual harassment and a child is assaulted every 13 days.
Yet, because the Australian government has made it illegal to report child abuse, this news rarely gets out.
At least 20 women have been sexually assaulted on Nauru in the past year. There is widespread corruption in the police force and judiciary that to this day no-one has been successfully charged for sexual assault.
On February 17, 2014, Reza Barati a 23-year-old Kurdish man was beaten to death in Manus Island when Papua New Guinea locals launched an attack on the detention centre.
Benham Satah, the key witness in the ongoing trail, faces daily intimidation and death threats from local guards. His requests to be transferred to Australia, or even a safer part of the detention centre, have been denied.
Barati's murder sparked vigils and protests across Australia: thousands of people came out to express their outrage and grief. This was a turning point, and the movement started to grow. Artists for Refugees was formed and held dance performances outside detention centres. Documentaries, such as Mary meets Mohammad and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea were screened on national TV and at festivals.
Boycotts of the detention industry are now starting: staff are running campaigns to force their university to divest from companies profiting from detention. Students for refugees and Unionists for Refugees have formed and are taking the campaign into broader circles. Regional refugee actions are being organised. Local councils are setting up Refugee Welcome Zones. People of faith and religious leaders are taking action — including occupying MPs offices – and demanding the children are released from detention.
In March 2014, the first national march for refugees took place a week before Easter and it attracted one of the broadest crowds yet.
On February 3, the High Court ruled the federal government had the right to deport babies and women who had been sexually assaulted back to offshore detention to Nauru. When the Lady Cilento Hospital staff refused to discharge baby Asha unless they were satisfied she would not be deported back to Nauru, the campaign took another leap.
The whole issue helped humanised the refugees' plight and hundreds of people took part in an ongoing vigil outside the hospital.
This was the spark which started #LetThemStay. Since then, thousands have been organising photoshoots in their workplaces and communities demanding the government let the 267 refugees stay.
Baby Asha is now in community detention with her parents in Brisbane. However, she and the other 267 could still be deported. So the movement needs to keep on growing and demanding the government junk its inhumane policy.
The rapid response to the government threat to send Baby Asha back to Nauru shows there is a growing understanding that seeking asylum is not a crime.
The protests need to continue to bring an end to the bi-partisan cruelty. An end to mandatory detention would be a huge victory.
Join the refugee rights movement and march with Resistance at the national day of action on March 20 to demand that refugees are welcomed and mandatory detention is ended.
[See page 2 for a list of the national rallies for refugee rights on Sunday May 20. Get in touch with Resistance if you would like to get involved.]