Detention facilities such as Yongah Hill are used specifically because they are isolated from the main population centres of the south-east part of Australia. Just like the remote detention centres of the Howard era, Woomera, Curtin, Port Hedland, Baxter, Nauru and Manus Island, the isolation is used to discourage public scrutiny. It is a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’, or rather, ‘Out of public sight, we can tell whatever lies we like and demonise refugees without the Australian public developing any sympathy for them’.
Under the current Labor government, the use of isolated and remote detention centres has been increased to levels even greater than under the previous Howard government. We are seeing more people detained in even more isolated places. Howard discovered that places like Woomera and Baxter in South Australia were not remote enough from the main population centres in the south-east of the Australian continent to prevent large and very successful protests.
Labor learned this lesson and we now see that the arc of detention centres stretches from Yongah Hill, to Christmas Island, Curtin, Darwin, Scherger and even Manus Island and Nauru.
The use of remote and high-security detention encourages and supports the idea that refugees who have broken no law in seeking asylum are some sort of a threat. Detention insinuates that refugees who arrive by boat need to be repelled or at least kept isolated from the rest of the community. Detention casts asylum seekers as the ‘other’, as being different to ‘us’.
Similarly the revival of the ‘Pacific Solution’ is an abrogation of Australia’s refugee convention and other human-rights obligations. These policies are expensive, inhumane and further weaken an already inadequate international system for protecting refugees.
These policies and laws encourage us to see refugees and asylum seekers as undeserving of our protection, respect or compassion because they are not like ‘us’. This type of thinking is the very foundation of racism. It diminishes and debases our society and community.
We now see a determination by the Coalition to whip up racism and xenophobia. We see that at the very least the complete cowardice of the ALP in not putting up any resistance to this. At worst it demonstrates a political and philosophical commitment to using and inciting racism and xenophobia for broader political reasons other than short-term electoral interests.
This all sets new lows for the standards of political behaviour and integrity in Aus- tralia. If discriminating against the vulnerable and removing basic rights becomes normalized because it’s politically useful, then that is a concern for us all.
There is no best way to oppose these ideas and policies. However, there is no doubt that to travel to detention camps directly challenges the very reasons they are sited remotely. This is making a strong statement of commitment and dissent. It also shows solidarity with those who are imprisoned. It lets them know that they have not been forgotten and that not all Australians are suspicious or fearful of them. More than a decade of experience tells us that this is one of the few things that pushes back against the oppression that refugees in detention are subject to. It gives the lie to all the negative messages that the system, the media and the politicians constantly bombard the refugees with. These convergences communicate to the refugees in detention in a very powerful and meaningful way.
Convergences in the past have also been very successful in communicating with the broader Australian community via mainstream media. News coverage is not all important but it would be wrong to consider it unimportant. Previous convergences at Woomera, Baxter, Port Hedland, Curtin and Villawood attracted people from all over Australia and received effective media coverage. This was damaging to the credibility of the policies and did shift public perception. It also lets the broader community know that there is dissent. This is especially important for those who disagree with locking up refugees, but feel isolated in their opinions because anti-refugee sentiment is so amplified by most of the mainstream media. Of course it’s not enough just to go. We have to be smart, weaving a message from our actions, images and symbolisms.
Covergences are also a good way to get more people involved in the campaign. Sharing this experience together creates bonds. It reinforces our commitment to this important social justice issue. It is an amazing opportunity to teach and learn, to meet new people and make new friends. On a personal level it can be a relief to be able to take some action against such blatant injustices. Convergences teach us of the power we have when we work together and encourage us to be bold and ambitious. They can demonstrate and do help us believe that we can achieve change and that we are not as alone as the mainstream media would lead us to believe.
There are more than enough reasons to go, we just have to defy the isolation, make the journey, challenge the ideologies, show our commitment and do it.
At the time of writing this handbook most of the refugees at Yongah Hill are Tamils and Hazara. Most have not been in detention for an extensive period of time, however an increasing proportion are in a limbo status of being subject to the ‘no advantage’ principle being applied to people who have arrived by boat. A significant and increasing number of people are in a situation where their processing has not even begun and they are vulnerable to being sent to Nauru or Manus Island.
The refugees know that we are coming and they know why. They know that some of us are the people who have been sending them dictionaries. This visit will be welcomed and should bring them some hope. To quote a former detainee from Woomera, “Without hope you have nothing”.
We should understand that in contrast to the system under Howard, the immigration minister can decline to grant a refugee visa on ‘character grounds’. The ‘character test’ has been so broadened and the minister has so much discretion that a visa can be refused on the mere allegation of the most minor misbehaviour. The refugees are extremely vulnerable to being singled out and persecuted for participation in any sort of protest. They are extremely vulnerable to being victimized by anybody in the system that decides to just pick on them for whatever reason. Therefore we can not expect and should not encourage those on the inside to take risks with their safety or chances of getting a visa. It is we on the outside who have some freedom and legal protections that enable us to protest or take risks.
At the same time, many people in detention are courageous, politically aware and independently minded people. They have their own agency and are capable of making decisions for themselves, even when those decisions involve terrible risks, such as getting on a leaky boat. We should respect this and not patronise them by thinking of them as helpless victims or as being unable to make their own informed decisions.
Historically it has been protests on the inside that have prompted activists on the outside to take action. Generally it has been the activists outside playing catch-up with refugees on the inside in fighting for their rights by hunger striking, lip sewing and by whatever other limited means that they have available.