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Protest Can Free the Refugees Imprisoned by Australia’s Government

For decades, Australian governments have kept refugees locked up in detention centers on offshore islands and the mainland. But refugees and their supporters have shifted public opinion by exposing cruel conditions and challenging the racist government policy.

Protestors stage a demonstration outside the Park Hotel, where transferred refugees were being held, in Melbourne on April 19, 2021. (Diego Fedele / Getty Images)

On Easter in 2002, about a thousand activists converged on the Woomera detention center in the desolate South Australian desert. They tore down the center’s fences, helping thirty-five refugees who were facing deportation escape.

The Woomera breakout took place a decade after Paul Keating’s Labor government had legislated to allow for the indefinite, mandatory detention of any person who arrived in Australia without a valid visa. Many people see it as an early high point in the campaign for refugees’ rights. In combination with hunger strikes and riots inside the detention Center that the detainees themselves had initiated, the action helped to catapult the asylum seekers’ cause into the national spotlight.

Nearly thirty years after Keating’s move, the movement to free the refugees imprisoned by it celebrated another victory. In January 2021, fifty-six refugees who had been medically evacuated from offshore detention to the Australian mainland met their supporters on the steps of the Park Hotel in the heart of Melbourne to celebrate their newly won freedom.

However, many refugees remain imprisoned in detention centers around the country and offshore. It’s a crucial juncture for refugee rights activists and the Australian left. As these recent victories show, resistance led by refugees and solidarity campaigning led by their supporters outside can combine to challenge four decades of racism.

Demonization and Oppression

John Howard legislated to detain refugees offshore after his November 2001 election win. In August of the same year, the Howard government refused entry to Australian waters to the MV Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship that had rescued 438 refugees after their ship became stranded. In what became known as the “Tampa affair,” Howard seized the opportunity to justify the Pacific Solution, according to which the Australian authorities would detain all sea arrivals in centers in Pacific island nations. As Howard infamously declared: “We will decide, and nobody else, who comes to this country.”

Then, in October 2001, an Indonesian fishing boat carrying asylum seekers designated by Australian authorities as “SIEV X” capsized, drowning 353 people, including 146 children. Having recently ordered the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Federal Police to prevent refugees from reaching Australia by boat, Howard sought to shift responsibility for this tragedy onto the refugees themselves. He accused them of having thrown their children overboard to attract rescuers.

Howard’s rhetoric and hardline policy stance manufactured xenophobia toward refugees. And now, by removing them from Australian shores, he further obscured their humanity while making it harder for refugee advocates to support detainees. It would be almost two decades before public opinion swung back in favor of refugees, largely as the result of ongoing resistance by refugees in detention and a long-term campaign that their supporters waged.

Since at least 2001, the Coalition has benefited politically from intolerance toward refugees, using the issue to attack Labor and galvanize its own voting base. Labor itself often assisted these efforts to stoke up prejudice. Kevin Rudd sought to outflank the Liberals to the right in 2013, when he introduced the PNG Solution, under which asylum seekers arriving to Australia by boat would be detained in Papua New Guinea. Rudd declared: “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.”

Shortly after taking over from Rudd as prime minister, Labor’s Julia Gillard went one step further by excising the Australian mainland from the immigration zone. Now, the authorities would send anyone who arrived in Australia by boat to detention centers in Nauru or Manus islands.

There was no way Labor could win this race to the bottom. In 2013, the Coalition won in a landslide that was partly attributed to Tony Abbott’s campaign promise to “stop the boats.” This mandate allowed the Coalition to launch Operation Sovereign Borders, a zero-tolerance policy toward arriving asylum seekers and those in offshore detention, that remains government policy. Figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have sought to imitate the Liberal Party’s demonization of refugees and the immigration policies that it justified.

Resistance and Repression

Resistance organized by refugees themselves first precipitated a shift in public opinion. On July 19, 2013, more than a hundred refugees rioted at the detention center on Nauru. On Manus, detainees engaged in a series of protests that escalated into a riot in February 2014, during which seventy refugees suffered injuries. A court later convicted two Papuan men of murdering twenty-three-year-old Iranian refugee Reza Berati during the riot, although witnesses claim that others were also responsible, including two Australian guards who were immediately flown off the island.

Reza’s death is only one of the dozens of deaths that have occurred in Australian-run detention centers. That figure doesn’t include the many refugees who took their own lives after being released as a consequence of the trauma they endured.

Along with the impact of these protests, conditions inside offshore detention centers are so inhumane that they simply became impossible to ignore. Reports have revealed that three female detainees have been raped while detained on Nauru. A number of deaths have resulted from inadequate medical treatment. Two refugees died of burns after setting themselves on fire in protest.

This mistreatment of refugees in detention is widespread and systematic. In 2016, the Guardian published the “Nauru files,” a leaked cache of two thousand reports that laid bare endemic assaults, sexual violence, and self-harm. More than half of the leaked reports concerned the status of refugee children.

Many children imprisoned in detention have developed resignation syndrome, a rare psychiatric condition that presents as a progressive withdrawal that can culminate in a catatonic state. One refugee child diagnosed with the condition had to be medically evacuated to Australia after he fell unconscious following social withdrawal, becoming unable to speak, eat, or drink.

Detention center staff have also played a crucial role in exposing the conditions inside as “like a concentration camp.” When the government passed laws that would prosecute staff who disclosed abuses at detention centers in 2015, workers threatened civil disobedience.

Bring Them Here and Let Them Stay

A growing solidarity movement has also played a pivotal role in shifting public sentiment. By 2016, authorities had evacuated nearly 270 refugees in need of urgent care to Australia on medical grounds. Hoping to prevent their detention following treatment, the refugee rights movement united around the demand of #LetThemStay, arguing they should be released into community detention.

This pressure helped save a refugee baby, Asha, who had been medically evacuated from Nauru to a Brisbane hospital when she was five months old. The medical staff treating her refused to allow her return to Nauru, in defiance of the immigration department. With the full backing of their unions and a community blockade, the campaign secured Asha’s release into the community.

A High Court judgement upheld the legality of returning refugees to offshore detention by April 2016. But escalating #LetThemStay protests secured the release into the community of half the refugees evacuated on medical grounds.

After the Australian and PNG governments moved to close the Manus Island detention center in late 2017, the refugee rights campaign broadened its demand, calling on the government to “Bring Them Here, then #LetThemStay.” This shift was guided by the struggle of refugees on Manus island who refused to leave over concerns for their safety amid deteriorating conditions exposed by detainee journalists like Behrouz Boochani.

Many of the asylum seekers imprisoned in Manus secured asylum in the United States as part of a deal signed by the US and Australian governments in 2016. Others escaped in 2019, when parliament passed the “Medevac Bill” on February 12, 2019. Made possible by a short-lived period in which Scott Morrison led a minority government, it was the first time Australian MPs had passed a law against the will of the governing party since 1929.

Medevac and Solidarity

The Medevac Bill had support from the Labor Party, the Greens, and crossbench MPs. It was a victory that reflected the success of refugee resistance and the solidarity movement in shifting public opinion in favor of refugee rights. Although the Morrison government responded by reopening offshore detention centers on Christmas Island and subsequently repealing the legislation in December 2019, the transfer of refugees to Australia created a vital opportunity to escalate solidarity campaigning.

The Department of Home Affairs did not generally house the medically evacuated refugees in standard processing centers, instead opting for “makeshift detention centers,” including hospitals, aged care homes, and hotels. Although many of these sites are shrouded in secrecy, abuses against asylum seekers did not abate.

At the same time, the increased visibility of the people detained, as well as improved access of supporters and advocates, created a new urgency in the refugee solidarity movement. For example, Mostafa Azimitabar, a prominent activist among the detainees in detention, worked closely with supporters in coordinating actions at the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne.

Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown raised barriers to campaigning. However, the authorities’ transfer of refugees at the Mantra Hotel to the Park Hotel in Carlton, where they were subjected to crueler conditions, sparked off daily vigils, weekly protests, and rolling direct actions that have continued for months. As a partial result of these protests, refugee advocates won a number of court cases, securing the release of fifty-six of the detainees into the community. Similar local campaigns have sprung up demanding freedom for refugees housed at Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point Central Hotel and the Adelaide Immigration Transit Accommodation.

Community support has rallied behind a Tamil family known as the Biloela family, after the Queensland town where they lived prior to being detained, to prevent their deportation to Sri Lanka. In response, the Department of Home Affairs has conceded that they may soon be released from the Christmas Island detention center into the community on Christmas Island.

As of March 22, 2021, 1,223 refugees are being processed in Australia while 239 remain in offshore detention centers. Although it will be a hard fight to secure their freedom, these recent victories are proof that the pro-refugee movement can win public support for the demand that all refugees be released into the Australian community for processing. Beyond this, there is a clear case that the most monstrous features of the immigration regime must be abolished until it can be dismantled in full, and that government support for asylum seekers should be increased and not cut.

The experience of the past two decades shows that Australia’s detention system will only be dismantled when the backlash against inhumanity is more powerful than the forces of indifference and racism. To win freedom and dignity for refugees, it will take mass rallies, direct action, resistance, and — above all — continued solidarity.