When we again protest during Easter next year, it will mark 10 years since the refugee rights movement’s first Easter convergence— Woomera 2002 — when busloads of protesters from across the country met magnificent protests by detainees, many of whom leapt through the fence and literally into the arms of the movement.
A decade on, and four years into the Labor government, the level of self-harm and suicide in detention are, if anything, higher than they were during the worst of the Howard-Ruddock regime. As of 31 October 2011, 4223 people were being held in detention, the vast majority of them “irregular maritime arrivals”, as asylum seekers are called in DIAC-speak.
They included 1246 from Afghanistan (who’ve fled ethnic persecution and the chaos of the past 10 years of western military occupation), 1095 from Iran (who were heralded as freedom fighters when they dared to defy Ahmadinejad’s rigged election outcome in 2009), and a further 424 mainly Tamils from Sri Lanka (whose murderous head of state was recently feted by Julia Gillard at CHOGM in Perth).
370 children remained in detention, despite the promise in October 2010 to have all families out by the end of June. A further 1231 (including 512 kids) were being held under community residence determination, bringing the total to 5454. And this doesn’t include the 100s of Indonesian asylum boat crew (including scores of minors) being held in adult Australian jails.
Chris Bowen’s piecemeal bridging visa announcement of will barely make a dent in the monumental misery caused by mandatory detention. Far from dismantling detention, with the opening of Pontville in Tasmania, there are now detention facilities in every Australian state and territory other than the ACT.
Bowen’s phoney proposition to increase the refugee intake from 13,750 to 20,000 is tied to an acceptance of offshore processing—notably his near universally condemned Malaysia refugee swap plan.
Darwin is rapidly becoming Australia’s detention capital. Chronic levels of self-harm and protest have put the Northern Immigration Detention Centre (NIDC) in a state of perpetual crisis. And while numbers vary, since this convergence was announced, between 170 and 341 are languishing at NIDC, with scores more at the Darwin Airport Lodge “Alternative Place of Detention”.
As mental health nurse and former staff member at NIDC Ena Grigg told Lateline this week, “Being locked in a prison with not knowing how you are going to get out or when you are going to get out or why you are even there, and not getting any answers as to how they can get out is driving people mad.”
Within days, the government will open the first compound of the Wickham Point detention centre, located an hour outside Darwin in mosquito-infested swampland. 170-180 ‘clients’ are expected to be transported by Xmas to what is supposedly a facility for people on ‘positive pathways’, but which in reality is as bad as the worst that mandatory detention has created. It has two fences, the outer one with electricity, and the inner with a pressure sensitive alarm.
When asked why the site was so far from town (100 km round trip from Darwin CBD and 60 km roundtrip from NIDC, no public transportation available), DIAC responded that the “government has had facilities in very remote locations before.”
A convergence centred on Darwin, with simultaneous protests at as many other detention centres as our resilient movement can muster, can again focus attention on the reality behind the wire.
Darwin is set to become the military capital of Australia, with the massive new US military base announced during Barack Obama’s recent visit there. In addition, converging on Darwin provides the refugee movement with an opportunity to deepen our links with Aboriginal communities, who for more than four years have been resisting the hugely negative impacts of the NT Intervention.
Together with other national initiatives—from the events held around the 20th anniversary of mandatory detention on 6 May, to mass demonstrations on World Refugee Day around 20 June—the Easter convergence can ensure that the national grassroots refugee rights movement remains on the front foot against a government that is increasingly defensive about its punitive refugee and asylum seeker policies.