Woomera and beyond



Woomera and beyond

The Easter protest at the Woomera immigration detention centre successfully
highlighted the brutality of the Australian government's policy of mandatory
detention of asylum seekers. It has added momentum to the campaign to get
rid of this inhuman policy.

Not everything that took place during the protest had been planned,
including the detainees' dash for freedom. According to Melbourne Refugee
Action Collective activist Tom O'Lincoln: “The protesters intended a symbolic
action when they started shaking the fence. They thought they might pull
bits of it down, but not that it would lead to escapes. However, the initiative
for the escapes was taken by the refugees themselves, who were ready and
well organised. Given the refugees were breaking out, the demonstrators
offered solidarity.”

While there were differences among the protesters about what to do once
the break-out had taken place, the overwhelming feeling was to assist the
detainees in whatever course of action they decided to take.

The protesters' tactics of civil disobedience have generated enormous
sympathy for imprisoned asylum seekers, both here and abroad. As the Sydney
Morning Herald
editorial on April 2 conceded: “The 800 or so demonstrators
who journeyed to Woomera must be credited with a certain sincerity of purpose,
for it was no picnic. As acts of civil disobedience go, this one was so
remarkable that it cannot be lightly dismissed.”

In contrast, the April 2 Daily Telegraph described the protesters
at Woomera, and those who marched on the Villawood detention centre in
Sydney on March 31, as “feral freaks” who have “done nothing to further
their misguided cause”.

The Daily Telegraph avoids acknowledging the diverse character
of the growing movement for refugees' rights. What unites them all — young
and old, radical and “mainstream” — is outrage at the Coalition and Labor
parties' brutal and racist policies on refugees.

While the young and more mobile may have predominated at Woomera, the
1000 or so people at the Villawood march included many parents pushing
strollers, many older protesters for whom the Easter Sunday protest had
a spiritual significance as well as radical young people and large numbers
of migrants and former refugees.

The refugees' rights movement has a responsibility to defend those detainees
and protesters involved in the Woomera protest. Some of the escaped detainees
face jail, followed by deportation to countries where they will likely
face more persecution, possibly death. We must ensure this does not happen.

An important discussion on what tactics and strategy can force a change
in government policy is underway. It needs to continue in a non-sectarian
way. As one activist put it: “Not all activists are prepared to march to
what has been aptly called a ‘hell hole' and dismantle its gates. Restoring
a humane approach to refugees in Australia requires an approach at many
levels... Let's not split the scene into ‘good' activists and ‘bad' activists.”

While there are many ways to highlight our opposition to the major parties'
racist policies, large numbers attending rallies and marches do count.
Civil disobedience actions have their place in the campaign, but it is
a mistake to think that it is the shock value of such tactics that will
change politicians' minds.

Civil disobedience actions spark interest, debate and, often, the involvement
of larger numbers of people. Just as the anti-Vietnam War protest movement
used civil disobedience actions to build bigger mass protests, drawing
up to 100,000 people in Melbourne alone, the same approach can be usefully
applied in this campaign.

The government will only be forced to abandon its cruel policies if
it can no longer politically defend them against a growing tide of opposition
from diverse quarters.

The Australian ruling class is split on refugee policy, and the movement
can exploit this. To date, the movement's most important strength has been
its diversity and unity. While the 45,000-strong Palm Sunday rallies
may not have generated sensational headlines, we can be sure that the politicians
are counting the numbers.

This is why the campaign of escalating mass actions is so important.
Palm Sunday was an important benchmark here. Never before have so many
people come out on the streets against the government's policy on refugees.

The next round of national protests have been called for June 22 and
23 as part of International Refugee Week. With hard work and a clear demand
end to the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, we can force the government
even further onto the back foot.

From Green Left Weekly, April 10, 2002.

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