‘We are watching’: Refugee activists occupy immigration offices

November 4, 2017
Refugee rights advocates occupied the Sydney offices of the Deparment of Immigration on November 3.

A solitary voice echoed around the banal foyer of Sydney’s Department of Immigration office on November 3: “We are here today”.

Two dozen voices chanted back: “We are here today”.

Signs were pulled from pockets reading “Bring them here: close the camps”.

Again, the voice echoed: “Because we cannot fathom.”

Security officers flooded the foyer.

A banner is procured and unfurled, “Manus in crisis. Turnbull, Dutton = Responsible,” with red blood dripping from the word Responsible.

With more vigour, the voices continued: “The repercussions still to come.”

Security guards locked the doors, stopping more people from marching into the foyer, including Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon.

“Because every day.”

Three women locked themselves together and refused to leave until immigration minister Peter Dutton ends this crisis.

“On Manus and Nauru.”

Photos of the action began circulating on social media with the hashtag #WeAreWatching.

“Is another day in Hell.”

The voices continued to describe the hell that the Australian government has created by sending 600 people seeking asylum to rot on Manus Island. 

A simultaneous occupation of the immigration department offices was held in Canberra, inspired by the occupation earlier in the week by Students against Detention in Newcastle.

The previous night I was up late talking to Behrouz Boochani, one of the men detained in Manus Island. He describes one of the worst human rights violations imaginable – and that is getting worse.

Boochani speaks of men digging wells to find water, the fear of locals coming into the camp with machetes and attacking refugees, a rise in cases of malaria, the suffocating tropical heat and the denial of medical services.

The next day Boochani posts to Twitter that authorities had blocked people from delivering food to the centre. People inside have been starving since October 31.

In previous conversations, Boochani had spoken of the resistance of the men inside Manus Island.

They are now entering the ninety-fifth consecutive day of protest, which began when the Australian government announced it would close the centre and leave the men stranded on Manus Island.

Protesters crossed their arms above their head, a symbolic gesture that has being used in refugee protests every day in offshore detention centres.

I took a photo and sent it to a refugee I know on Manus Island. He replied: “Thankyou”.

If there is one thing I have learnt from being involved in this campaign over the past decade, it is that seeing people protesting, known that someone cares about you and is watching, has always made a difference to people suffering in detention.

I read some of Boochani’s words out at the occupation. They echoed around the immigration department, which has long since adopted a torturers’ detachment from human suffering.

Moments later, the police arrested the three women that had locked on. Five police officers drag one of the women out, stomping on her hair as she yells “free the refugees.”

This defiance of the detention system – both inside and outside the barbed wire fences – has won victories.

In 2002, at the Woomera detention centre, activists tore down a fence and refugees managed to pry open another. Several refugees managed to escape and were hidden in an underground refugee sanctuary network.

The stories that came from Woomera reverberated around the country.

In 2008, Nauru detention centre was closed and the “Pacific Solution” announced dead. It came after the refugee movement swelled into the thousands during the John Howard years.

In 2016, the government sought to deport 167 people back to Nauru after they had been brought to Australia for medical reasons. The Let Them Stay movement began with thousands of people holding up #LetThemStay banners at concerts, workplaces, football matches, schools, churches and hospitals.

It culminated with people holding a vigil outside Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Hospital in support of medical professionals refusing to discharge Baby Asha who was been threatened with being sent back to Nauru.

Baby Asha is still in Australia.

Now we have the growing #WeAreWatching campaign. People across the world are watching what is happening on Manus Island, documenting the human rights abuses and taking action – in workplaces, universities and editorials in national newspapers.

Even celebrities are speaking out. Russell Crowe took to Twitter to write: “Manus. A Nations shame. Lives held in limbo. Lives lived in fear & despair. It's fucking disgraceful.”

This is one the greatest abuses of human rights in Australia’s history. It is one that is happening before everyone’s eyes.

Neither Coalition nor Labor politicians can say they were not knowingly complicit in the tragedy unfolding on Manus Island.

Later that night, hundreds of people sat down in the streets of Brisbane crossing their arms above their heads.

This action is being repeated across Australia, from big cities to rural towns. Growing numbers of people feel they cannot remain silent.

If urgent action is not taken, people will die in the coming weeks.

[Zebedee Parkes is an activist with the Refugee Action Coalition in Sydney and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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