Refugee rights activists put mandatory detention in the spotlight

Setting out on Australia Day, the Refugee Rights Action Network (RRAN) travelled to Leonora, a remote town in the Goldfields of Western Australia. The tour, entitled “Boundless Plains to Share”, spent three days in Leonora seeking to expose the conditions of mandatory detention and included protests in solidarity and visits with refugees locked up in the detention centre.

Our accommodation at the local caravan park had been cancelled because it houses the guards of the detention centre, and the owners didn’t want to undermine their contract with Serco, which manages Australian detention centres. The shire council of Leonora generously offered us their sporting oval to camp at.

Leonora is extremely hot, dusty and arid, located more than 800km from Perth. This is why the federal government chose it as a place to detain refugees. The government wants to keep refugees as isolated as possible from the Australian community, in order to demonise them and limit any solidarity.

Prior to the visit, it was not known how many youths were locked up in Leonora, since neither the immigration department nor Serco release that information. Euphemistically named an “alternative place of detention”, Leonora detention centre now holds 160 unaccompanied minors. These are boys who have fled war and persecution, mostly from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, aged between 14 and 17 years. They have already endured much trauma, many being orphaned by US imperialism’s wars against their homelands, as well as the perilous sea journey to reach Australia.

Detention compounds this trauma. Many of the youths whom RRAN activists visited showed signs of self-harm, with cuts on their arms. Social workers and child development professionals who were part of the tour noted that some of the youths showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Serco obstruction

Serco initially refused visits and was unwilling even to communicate with the activists. It relied on MSS security guards (who are subcontracted to patrol the perimeter of detention centres) to conduct negotiations. When activists explained that they would picket the front gate, negotiations began directly with the manager.

Serco repeatedly lied, claiming that none of the youths wanted to see any of the activists or receive any of the gifts that had been bought for them. One of the Serco negotiators told me: “There is no bad news here; the youths are happy and are not interested in seeing you”. He claimed that none of them had been in detention for more then a few weeks and that they were “on a positive pathway”. When I asked him where they were from, he replied, “They are all from ... are stateless, Arabic”. Serco’s lies were exposed when RRAN began chanting at the front gate. The youths, tentatively at first, gathered at a fence set back from the gate to try to glimpse us. The fence quickly became crowded, and the youths cheered defiantly in support of our protest. Enraged, Serco officers parked a van between the youths and the gate, cutting off protesters from view. Faced with a possibility of disruption inside the centre as well as outside, after three and a half hours Serco finally agreed to facilitate visits, which took place the following day. The visits became frustrating stage-managed affairs, with Serco officers present and taking notes.

Tactics debate

These frustrations, combined with the heat, spilled over into discussions during lunch regarding what tactics to use. The visits weren’t really serving their purpose because Serco had too much control over them. No one was divided over taking some sort of action, but the form was disputed. Activists from Socialist Alternative advocated storming through the front gate, which, it being unlocked, wouldn’t have been difficult. This initially had the support from the majority of the tour, particularly the more experienced activists, some of whom have been involved in the campaign for over 10 years.

However, for some on the tour, this was their first experience of political activism, and they wanted nothing to do with the action and avoided the discussion altogether. There was no conception of what would happen once the gate was stormed. It would have just been a crude act of martyrdom that left people with bruises and charges of trespass. It is unlikely that contact would have been made with the refugees (if that was even the point): they were at the back of the centre, and the activists would have had to scale another fence to see them. It would also have weakened RRAN’s credibility by failing to include new activists in a united action, possibly alienating them from the organisation.

The justifications for the proposed action were bewildering and contradictory. We had apparently reached “a turning point” in the movement for refugee rights. It was also stated that we needed to push the system of mandatory detention (and our new recruits) “to the limit” because nothing had changed since our previous visit to Leonora a year ago.

The proposed action was debated again in the evening; tempers had cooled, and it was clear the action had lost some of its support. Two false counter-positions were raised by Socialist Alternative and some RRAN activists. One was a display of moralism focusing on the horrors of mandatory detention to bolster an argument over tactics; it was implied that if you didn’t agree with the more “radical” position, then you didn’t really understand the issue or care about the locked-up youth. The second false counter-position was that if you were opposed to storming the gates, then you were opposed to civil disobedience.

Surprise action

These two lines of argument divided RRAN and further weakened support for storming the gates. Socialist Alternative and the supporters of their proposal tried to save face by supporting what they claimed was a “compromise”. However, the idea adopted, of marching around the back of the detention centre and lobbing over tennis balls (which we had brought for that purpose) with messages of solidarity drawn on them, had already been proposed at a previous RRAN meeting.

The action took Serco and the police completely by surprise. The tennis balls were lobbed with cries of “Azadi!” (freedom) and then protesters spontaneously took to the colour-bond fence, climbing to the top, where they were able to see scores of refugees playing soccer. The refugees were delighted with our presence, running over, giving us high fives and warm handshakes. It was a touching moment that relieved much of the tension that had built up.

The protest continued to the front gates, where a police officer in panic mode tried to seize one of the megaphones and disrupt the gathering, without success. The Serco manager arrived looking very flustered. He stood on the other side of the gate, shoulders hunched, glaring at us as if his cold stares could somehow make us disappear. We all left the centre in high spirits.

Harsh conditions

For the refugees, what happiness they felt in knowing there are people in Australia who care about their plight was only momentary, for they still face endless days in detention with very little to stimulate them. While the visits were tightly controlled by Serco, they were still useful in revealing some basic facts about detention and should remain an integral part of the campaign to end mandatory detention. The visit also exposed the lie that the government was removing youths from detention, something it had pledged to do by June last year. Many of the youths told the visitors that they had been in detention for up to two years. Some, as they reach the age of 18, could be put into an adult detention centre or even face deportation.

The visits revealed the inhumanity of mandatory detention and the arbitrary and cruel behaviour of the guards, who often referred to the youths by number, not by name. Serco’s maliciousness in trying to cut refugees off from the outside world makes one wonder what occurs when it is not under close scrutiny. The youths receive very little support. Their schooling is limited to English classes, which are two-hour sessions three times a week. Without schooling, they are deprived of the opportunity to socialise with other youths and develop the skills to establish a sense of independence. The youths said that they had no idea of what Leonora looked like; their whole world was the prison of the detention centre.

The trials of youth are compounded by the misery of being arbitrarily detained. While Serco is the hard face of mandatory detention, it is the Labor government, the architect of mandatory detention in its current form, that should be held accountable for state-sanctioned child abuse.

RRAN is planning on joining refugee rights groups from around the country in a national convergence to Darwin detention centre at Easter for a weekend of protest activities.

[Andrew Martin is an activist in RRAN and a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]

Direct Action — March 25, 2012