The immigration detention centre at Curtin airbase has again erupted in protests as hundreds of asylum seekers engage in a hunger strike. The centre, located 2500km from Perth in the remote west Kimberley region, was shut down in 2002 following a series of riots and incidents of self-harm by detainees. The federal government reopened it in June 2010.
The then immigration minister, Chris Evans, stated that the centre would be “upgraded” to hold 600 people. It is now extremely overcrowded, holding 1400 single men. The centre is on military land and is managed by Serco, a company notorious for deaths in custody in the prisons it manages.
Forty refugee rights activists from Perth, Melbourne and Sydney met with locals from Broome and Derby to visit asylum seekers inside the detention centre and protest in solidarity with them on the Easter long weekend. Several had only just obtained their MR (truck medium rigid) licence days before the trip to drive the bus to Curtin. In one stretch we drove 20 hours straight, stopping only for fuel and driver changes. The camp site on the way up was a buzz of activity, with energetic debates about strategy and tactics.
When we arrived at the centre, we passed signs warning us to turn back, that going any further was trespassing on military land. At a mesh fence and checkpoint blocking the road, we were confronted by the most officious characters either of us has ever dealt with. We were addressed by a representative from Serco, the Australian Federal police and the military via megaphone, telling us there would be severe repercussions if we were to trespass any further.
We had tried to get into the last visiting slot on Saturday, but were told that we couldn’t visit because the centre had no capacity to hold visits. We were also told that we’d misspelled names on our visitor application forms, there was not enough time, they couldn’t find the detainees and we needed to have included the numbers of the boats that the asylum seekers had arrived on. They had also told asylum seekers that we had changed our minds about coming and had turned the bus around.
This brazen deceit and wilful idiocy sparked a hunger strike inside the centre. We received emails from the asylum seekers that up to 200 people had engaged in a sit-down action and were on hunger strike. Some of the asylum seekers began to organise, and 700 signed a petition requesting a visit.
Serco denied that there was a hunger strike, but, feeling the pressure, decided to allow one-on-one visits, eight at a time. However, the asylum seekers had demanded to meet a delegation from the refugee rights activists and wanted to show us the whole centre so we could see the conitions they live in.
A number of us visited the centre on Sunday to make contact with the asylum seekers and determine what they wanted us to do. They emphatically told us not to accept one-on-one visits and that they would boycott any visits unless their demands for a delegation were met. The activists were unanimous in their support for the demands and submitted them in writing to Serco, which refused to cooperate.
We decided that it was necessary to raise the level of the protest and took non-violent direct action, placing a marquee on the road and sitting down linking arms, chanting “Let us in!” and “Free the refugees!”. For many of those present, this was their first protest, and they participated without any hesitation.
The protesters were completely peaceful. Within half an hour, two paddy wagons and a police car turned up. Police immediately began seizing people, bending their wrists and dragging them into the paddy wagons. We were both arrested along with 14 others and issued with “move on orders” prohibiting us returning to the site within 24 hours. The maximum penalty for breaching the order was $12,000 and 12 months’ imprisonment.
When we were arrested, we were driven through the centre, where we could see that it was being expanded and that some of the detainees were being held in shipping containers. We could also see banners made from white sheets with “Freedom” emblazoned across them. The next day we heard that 18 asylum seekers on hunger strike had collapsed. The remaining activists returned to Curtin again, storming out of the bus and rattling the fences until they fell over.
The protests made contact with asylum seekers and provided much needed solidarity. They have also strengthened the refugee rights activist network around the country, as protests were held nationally in solidarity. The preparedness of the asylum seekers to take action against the indignity they are subjected to impressed all who attended. For as long as there is mandatory detention, people inside and out of detention will continue to protest.
[Andrew Martin and Nicole Mousley are members of the RSP and refugee rights activists.]