Why we tried to stop the forced transfer of asylum seekers

Friday, April 4, 2014
Protesters outside Villawood detention centre on April 3. Photo: Rachel Evans.

When refugee activists found out about the imminent transfer of at least 83 asylum seekers from Villawood detention centre to a remote detention centre in Curtin in Western Australia, a picket was hastily organised to try to stop the buses leaving.

Even though there was very little time — about 10 hours — activists wanted to show the asylum seekers that there is broad support for them.

Students Thinking Outside Borders, Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) activists and regular Villawood visitors arrived at the detention centre in Sydney’s western suburbs at 4.30am on April 4. The buses started arriving at 6am, and didn’t end up leaving until 9am.

About 30-50 activists turned up, some before work and others arriving later, including some regular visitors who had not heard about the forcible transfers. Greens NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon also came along to give support.

One former detainee, Iraj, was so worried about the detainees that he camped overnight outside the detention centre to show his solidarity.

Between 83 and 102 people were eventually bussed away. Our small action delayed the buses for an hour or so.

The detainees were told they were being taken to the remote detention centre in Curtin or Darwin.

READ ALSO: "Asylum seekers refuse transfer to remote prison"

There have been reports that those being forcibly transferred were being removed pending a case brought against the immigration department for its release of up to 10,000 asylum seekers’ personal details, including their full names, date of birth, location and arrival date.

A last-minute attempt to prevent the transfer, which lawyers acting for the asylum seekers say will make their job “impossible”, failed in the Federal Circuit Court.

One man who was forcibly moved has been in Villawood for four years and has a girlfriend and other established relationships outside. He self-harmed when he heard he was being moved.

Another person fought against the guards, and ended up being hospitalised. Many of the detainees were handcuffed when they were eventually dragged out. Up to 50 asylum seekers, including those scheduled to be transferred in coming days, also held a sit-in protest inside the detention centre.

The NSW police response was heavy handed. Given that there were only nine, mostly young, people in the final moments of the picket line — five women and three men — it took some 30 police to move us and let the buses through.

We were sitting down, with locked arms and legs, chanting “Free the refugees”. The police applied pressure points to our wrists and thumbs and elbows. It was brutal and completely unnecessary. We were passively resisting. Not one activist was violent, although we screamed a little because of the pain.

Eight of us were arrested for refusing to comply with a move-on order. Most of us had never been arrested before.

We didn’t prevent the 83-102 detainees from being bussed away — clearly against their wishes. But we did show them, and the world, that we will do what we can to hold this government to account, and we will not give up. Prime Minister Tony Abbott and immigration minister Scott Morrison want their cruelty delivered out of sight — we are determined not to let that happen.

Some of the refugees inside Villawood have been told that all asylum seekers are destined to be sent to remote centres and that in future Villawood will only house those who overstay their visas.

The movement in support of refugee rights is deepening and broadening: student groups are setting up on many campuses across Sydney, the Baptist Church had offered to house all the detainees from Villawood and the Uniting church has offered to find homes for all unaccompanied minors in detention.

We hope the action at Villawood on Thursday will bring more people into the movement. We need to grow it massively if we are going to stop Abbott and Morrison.

RAC has called another action at Villawood for April 7, and the next major rally everyone can support is Palm Sunday on April 13.

Click here to read Green Left Weekly's liveblog and photos of the protest. Watch the video below of the New South Wales police arresting activists.

[Rachel Evans is a long-time refugee rights activist and was one of the eight arrested. She is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

From GLW issue 1004