BY SARAH STEPHEN
During the past two weeks, refugee rights activists have been followed by undercover police. NSW police have been issued with photos of 46 men "on the run". Highways, ports and airports have been put on alert and 35 immigration officials have searched hundreds of homes in Sydney. All these efforts have failed to turn up any clues to the whereabouts of all but one of the 46 detainees who escaped from Villawood "illegal" immigrants' detention centre on July 19 and 22.
On July 19, 23 men escaped through a drain after tunnelling under the floor of a makeshift mosque. They used a hacksaw to cut through security fences. Starting at 1am on July 22, another 23 men crawled through four high-security fences around the Villawood detention centre, using hacksaws and cardboard sheets to slide under razor wire. Blood at the scene indicates that some were badly cut in the process. The escape wasn't noticed by guards until 5am.
It appears that the break-outs were sparked in part by a deportation order against Mohammad Saeed-Badraid, an Iranian political activist, and his family. His six-year-old son, Shayan, has spent the last two months in Westmead Children's Hospital where he is being treated for severe anxiety and depression. Traumatised after 15 months in detention, Shayan is under guard with his mother. Saeed-Badraid was persecuted for pro-Kurdish political activity in Iran.
In an attempt to undermine sympathy for the escapees, immigration minister Philip Ruddock has asserted that nobody in Villawood is an asylum seeker. The example of Saeed-Badraid confirms that this is a lie. Ruddock has argued that the 46 men who escaped are not refugees, just visa over-stayers and criminals.
It is true that many were caught and detained in Villawood for being in Australia for overstaying visas. However, seven of the escapees had claimed refugee status and three of these had had their claims rejected. One man was due to be deported on July 22, the day he and another 22 detainees escaped.
To overstay a visa is not a criminal offence. Tens of thousands of people, mainly from Britain and the US, overstay tourist visas every year. But none of them are treated as "illegal" immigrants, as are visa overstayers from Third World countries. For visa overstayers from countries such as Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, deportation from Australia can result in imprisonment, torture, even death.
On July 26, detainees at the Port Hedland detention centre protested with banners made out of bed sheets and pillow cases, following news that two deported asylum seekers, one Iranian and one Sri Lankan, were arrested on returning to their home countries.
In the aftermath of the escapes, the immigration department conducted searches of all detainees and their belongings in Maribyrnong, Woomera, Perth and Curtin detention centres, as well as in Villawood. In Maribyrnong and Villawood, it is rumoured that some people had their mobile phones and chargers confiscated.
During a three-hour search at Maribyrnong, telephone lines were cut off and visitors refused entry. Villawood has had extra security cameras installed, and visiting is periodically suspended.
Green Left Weekly spoke to Arsalan Nazarian, an activist from Free the Refugees Campaign, about repercussions for other detainees in Villawood. He explained that after the July 22 escape, 50 federal police conducted an intensive search.
"They went from room to room, separating women from men and doing body searches, particularly on women. Detainees I have spoken to confirmed that they took personal belongings such as forks, spoons, wallets, even money."
The new manager of Villawood, accompanied by two high-ranking immigration department officials from Canberra, interrogated detainees for information about the escapes. The detainees gave no information, but instead warned that more refugees could have escaped.
Nazarian continued: "The recent escapes are a direct result of the harsh mandatory detention policy. Detainees in Villawood and elsewhere are self-organising to demand their rights. They are uniting across cultures and nationalities to win their common struggle — for asylum."
Stephen Khan, a Kashmiri asylum seeker in the Perth immigration detention centre, spoke to Green Left Weekly about repercussions fellow detainees had suffered in the aftermath of the escapes. "At 8.30am on July 22, only hours after the second escape, guards spent two hours searching our belongings, including all our books and documents. They had conducted a similar search only a week before, in which they confiscated many things, including our extra blankets. They didn't have much they could confiscate this time, so they took things like paper clips and lighters."
"One of the officers was with me the whole time during the two hour search", Khan explained. "They checked my stereo and batteries, my radio cassette, even inside my shoes and in my mattress. This attempt to tighten security is like another form of demoralisation for us."
An independent review of security, conducted by Queensland firm Knowledge Enterprises, presented a report to the government on July 27 with recommendations which will apply to all six detention centres. In anticipation of its outcome, a spokesperson for Ruddock commented to the Melbourne Age on July 24 that increased security could mean visitors being searched with metal detectors and x-ray machines, night curfews, security at religious services and restrictions on movement.
As support for asylum seekers strengthens and mandatory detention loses more credibility, Ruddock has renewed his determination to punish those challenging the government's policy. He has threatened refugee supporters with jail terms for assisting the escapees.
Refugee rights groups, whose campaigning has contributed to a shift in public attitudes, are stepping up their activity.
Members of the Free the Refugees Campaign protested outside the gates of Villawood detention centre during a press conference called by Ruddock, hours after the second escape. Commenting to the media gathered there, FRC activist Paul Benedek said: "It wasn't an escape. It was a freedom run. 46 is a good start, but we want to see all asylum seekers free."
The FRC is calling on all groups and individuals who support refugee rights and oppose mandatory detention to offer support or shelter to refugees who have escaped. An FRC statement reads: "These people are not criminals — they should not have been locked up in the first place.
"At the same time, by joining the refugee sanctuary network, people are making a statement that we support these people in complete opposition to Ruddock's demonisation and inhumanity. The only solution is to end detention and close the camps."
Cyrus Sarang from the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) in Sydney has been amazed at the number of phone-calls he has received from people all over Australia, asking how they can help. A number of people in the Sydney area have rung with offers of food, money and spare beds.
Sarang sees Ruddock's threat of 10 years' jail for anyone who aids an escapee as a challenge. "I am prepared to go to jail for 10 years to help these people. I can say this because I am not alone. There is a lot of support within the community for these escapees. Ruddock would have to put many migrant communities in jail as well.
"The only way 46 men can completely disappear is if there is a lot of community support. There are doctors who are willing to help and treat them. There are families willing to house and feed them."
Ian Rintoul, also from RAC in Sydney, commented that the government's hysteria seems to have increased in line with the increase in community support for the refugees. He said that Ruddock's threats are not having any impact. "People are willing to break the law. The fact that 73 escapees [a number which includes two previous escapes from Villawood] can't be found is an indication of the breadth of support."
Melbourne's Refugee Action Collective is organising a "free the refugees solidarity tour", a bus ride to Woomera detention centre in South Australia from September 21-23.
Following the tradition of the anti-racism freedom rides of the 1960s in the US and Australia, Melbourne RAC activists say they aim to defy the government tactic of using fear and remoteness to "divide those of us living in Australia from those seeking peace and freedom".
Buses will be leaving from Melbourne and Sydney. Organisers hope there will soon be buses organised from Adelaide, Canberra and other cities as well. The freedom ride will include protest actions at the Woomera detention centres, and a public meeting and rally in Adelaide.
To pledge your support or add your name to the refugee sanctuary network, phone Paul on 0410 629 088 or Ian on 0417 275 713, email < free-the-refugees-A HREF="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org"><email@example.com> or < refugee-action-A HREF="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org"><email@example.com>.