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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