World Refugee Day: Thousands march against 20 years of mandatory detention

Melbourne: Breaking through the banner for refugee rights

Protesters tore through a giant run-through banner that read "free the refugees" as part of World Refugee Day rally in Melbourne. Below the slogan, symbolic bars were broken representing the breaking of the fences imprisoning refugees.

More than 2000 protesters took to the streets in Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra on the weekend of June 16-17 to say 20 years of mandatory detention is 20 years too many.

The rallies mark the annual World Refugee Day and highlighted the fact this year is the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the policy of mandatory detention.

Prior to 1992, refugees who arrived in Australia had their applications for asylum assessed without detention centres, razor wire or denial of their rights to free movement in the community. Refugees who seek asylum after arriving by plane are treated the same way today.

The refugee rights movement struggles against what Marcus Hampson told the Perth rally has been a 20 year-long "hate campaign and a fear campaign"' conducted by "successive Australian governments with the assistance of the commercial media".

"But for those twenty years, we've also had refugee rights advocates and activists fighting against this racism, fighting to uncover the truth, to correct the myths and to smash the racism," Hampson, an activist with the Refugee Rights Action Network, said.

"And that's why we come out on the streets, standing in the rain today, to say that 20 years of mandatory detention is twenty years too long of this abuse. We call for an end to this barbaric policy right now."

Brisbane rally. Photo: Tony Robertson.

World Refugee Day rallies are traditionally the broadest mobilisations for refugee rights. The Melbourne organisers made a particular effort to encourage a wide range of groups to attend and to bring banners to mark their participation.

West Papuan and Tamil communities, Jews for Refugees, Greens, socialist and church groups were some of those represented. University student refugee support groups also took part.

There was a notable support from the union movement at the rallies, reflecting an ACTU motion explicitly opposing the mandatory detention policy that was passed at its national congress in May.

Unions SA president Jamie Newlyn gave a fiery speech to the Adelaide rally, saying it is no crime to seek asylum. He spoke about the role of unions, including the Maritime Union of Australia of which he is state secretary, in supporting refugees.

John Battams from the Queensland Council of Unions spoke at the Brisbane rally and Louise Connor from the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance spoke in Melbourne. Two union speakers addressed the Perth rally which also included a notable presence of members from the tertiary education union (NTEU).

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young spoke in Adelaide and Libby Connors represented the Greens in Brisbane. Some ALP state parliamentarians supported the Brisbane and Melbourne rallies.

While the Labor government's reversal of its ostensibly pro-refugee policy of 2007 has succeeded in consolidating a significant racist opposition to refugee rights, the movement for compassion towards asylum seekers is only going to continue and to grow.

Perth rally: Free the refugees

There is no way to impose such a brutal and inhumane policy as mandatory detention against innocent people who have every legal right to come to Australia by any means at their disposal without provoking also a determined movement for human rights.

Hampson, who has visited all detention centres in WA, Christmas Island and the Northern Territory, said: "You can see when you visit people in detention the damage that is caused by this destructive machine that is mandatory detention.

"What they get is imprisonment in conditions that we know cause people to attempt suicide, that cause mental health problems."

"You can see no better example of just how inhumane this system is than when you go to Leonora detention centre."

Leonora is a "prison for children" where the they are "called not by their name, but by number".

This means "we have far more in common with refugees who fight for the safety of their families than the governments who imprison them or the companies such as Serco that profit from their misery by running these detention centres," Hampson said.

Eventually, he said, "the fences will come down and we will win".

[The Sydney World Refugee Day rally will take place on June 24. A series of anti-racist "walk together" actions will take place in various centres on June 23.]

Green Left TV national roundup

Photos from the Melbourne rally by Ali Bakhtiavandi

Photos from the Perth rally by Zeb Parkes