Youth campaign to free the refugees

March 27, 2002



Refugees, often fleeing war, poverty or government repression, risk their lives getting to Australia. They are then locked up in detention centres for months, sometimes years, in totally inhumane conditions. Australia is contravening international law, which states that it is perfectly legal for refugees to come to Australia without visas if they are fleeing government repression and apply for asylum when they arrive. Instead, they are treated like criminals.

The hunger strikes launched by the Woomera detainees in January drew attention to the desperate plight of Australia’s refugees. These brave protests spurred the socialist youth group Resistance into activity — we launched snap actions around the country and went on hunger strikes in solidarity.

Resistance was a proud part of the growing protests for refugees’ rights in the early part of the year — we helped build the February 2 protests which mobilised 6500 people around the country and the 4000-strong protest outside Parliament House in Canberra on February 12, as well as protests outside the Coolum Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in March, and other community actions across the country. Picture

The government’s refugee crisis has polarised Australian society — many people’s eyes have been opened to the Coalition’s lies — and we have seen the growth of a huge campaign to free the refugees. I spoke to Resistance activists from across Australia about the next steps in the campaign.

“It is a simple matter of basic human rights. I am ashamed of the hypocritical, cowardly government which claims to represent me and yet continues to turn a blind eye to abuses of human rights. It is everybody’s responsibility to defend refugees' rights”, Jo Hunt, an activist in Canberra said.

“To free the refugees, we need thousands of young people protesting”, Amy McDonnell, a Resistance activist on the University of New South Wales explained. “So Resistance has initiated inclusive refugees’ rights campaigning groups on campuses around the country.

“We think these groups can make it easier for students to get involved in campaigning. Right now, it is really important that the campaign keeps its momentum”, she added.

“It is clear to me, just from being a refugees’ rights activist here in Canberra, that heaps of young people are opposed to what the government is doing and want to help stop it”, Stuart Munckton, a member of the newly formed Australian National University Refugee Action Committee (ANU RAC), asserted. Munckton is the Canberra Resistance organiser.

He is passionate about the campaign: “There are people younger than us who are being detained inhumanely, and that is why we, as the young people on the other side of the razor wire, need to do everything in our power to build the broadest possible campaign to free the refugees”.

Many students have already joined ANU RAC. According to Munckton, this “shows that young people tend to be the most supportive of refugees because they have a high anti-racist consciousness. We didn’t live through the White Australia policy.”

Perhaps the most active campus refugees’ rights group has been the Free the Refugees Campaign (FRC) on LaTrobe University, which was formed six weeks ago at the initiative of the campus education officer, Kim Halpin. Halpin is a Resistance member.

“FRC has more than 40 members, has gone on an 'exposure tour’ to Maribyrnong detention centre, held a forum and speak outs, and secured funding for students to attend pro-refugee protests at Woomera and the Second Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference”, Halpin explained.

FRC is now discussing a referendum for students around the question of “Should the refugees be free?” in second semester. But the group's main focus for now is building campus walkouts on May 1, as part of Melbourne’s M1 protest, which demands, among other things, freedom for refugees.

“Thousands of young people came to last year’s M1 action”, Halpin said, “and this year we want thousands more. We will also be protesting the US-led 'war on terrorism’, and the growing US nuclear threat.”

The University of Queensland Refugee Action Collective, also formed this year, is another example of growing youth anti-racist anger. Ninety people attended the first UQ RAC forum, titled “Myths and facts about refugees”. According to UQ RAC activist Chris Kerr, the discussion at the forum explored the reasons why the government lies. “The Liberals keep trying to stop us sympathising with asylum seekers. They present them in a way which strips them of humanity.”

Forums discussing refugees’ rights have become a common way to raise awareness on campus. ANU RAC has already organised a successful refugee rights forum, and is planning on having another one when activists return from planned protests outside Woomera detention centre at Easter.

The first refugees' rights forum on UNSW, McDonnell says “was about taking people beyond [opposition to mandatory detention] and looking at the reasons why the government is fanning racism and xenophobia. [Prime Minister John] Howard and [immigration minister Philip] Ruddock are acting to detract attention from the real causes of social dislocation — corporate greed. They want to destroy our sense of solidarity with the poor, starving and overworked, our growing appreciation of the need for global solutions.”

That need for solidarity led resistance to support the Second Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conference, to be held in Sydney at Easter. Peter Robson, who manages to organise the Newcastle Resistance branch while being education officer at Newcastle University, secured $1500 in funding for students to attend.

“People from all over the world are going to be at this conference”, Robson explained. “Many are involved in campaigning for refugees’ rights. Holding the conference in Australia is particularly poignant — because the Australian government has such a bad reputation for persecuting refugees.”

On the Sunday morning, the conference will be suspended so participants can attend a protest at Villawood detention centre. “This is going to be big”, Robson promises. “It's a chance to really give the government hell — because that’s where they sent the refugees”.

“The conference is also important because it will discuss the reasons that people are forced to flee halfway across the world”, Robson added. “Solidarity with struggles in the Third World will help to guarantee people a decent life. That’s much better than bombing them into oblivion, as the US government wants to.”

Resistance believes that campuses can become organising spaces for refugees’ rights campaigning. In the last few years, the National Union of Students, which has mobilised students in defence of their rights and progressive causes, has lost much of its ability, or willingness, to mobilise students. We think building these refugees’ rights collectives on campuses is a step towards rebuilding progressive activist networks.

According to Resistance’s national coordinator, Simon Butler: “The main task that lies ahead of us now is convincing more people to get involved in the refugee rights campaign, while still preparing ourselves for an escalation of [US President George] Bush’s war. We need to explain the links between war, corporate globalisation, the growing number of refugees and their exclusion from First World countries. We must convince people that if we work together, another world — a world without war or racism, a world that doesn’t create refugees — is possible.”

[Kate Wilson is a member of the Resistance national executive. For details of campus club meetings around the country, phone Kate on (02) 9690 1230, or email <>.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 27, 2002.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page. 

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.