About 300 pro-refugee activists converged upon the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) centre in the outer-Melbourne northern suburb of Broadmeadows on Saturday, April 2. The protest was organised by the Refugee Action Collective and was intended to raise awareness about children in detention. The centre is located within the grounds of the Maygar Army barracks, and although it is opposite a residential area, the existence of the centre, the sole purpose of which is to detain children, is not widely known.
Colleen Hartland from the Greens spoke at the start of the march, and at the rally outside the barracks speakers were Hyder Gulam, president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, Nicole Mousley of RAC (see accompanying text), Gilios Kogoya, a West Papuan activist and refugee, Kumar Pathmanathan of the Tamil Refugee Council, Wayne Klempel, AMWU Northern District secretary, Alex Bhathal of the Greens, North-East Region, and Jacob Lay, a high school student.
The MITA facility currently holds approximately 150 asylum seekers, many of whom sought refuge in Australia as unaccompanied minors. Most of these young men, predominately from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, arrived by boat, often after a long and dangerous journey. Many of these young people have been in detention for well over a year awaiting a decision on their refugee cases.
For many refugees, the Broadmeadows centre is just the latest in a long list of relocations that have been forced upon them as they progress slowly through Australia’s immigration gauntlet. The mental strain of this process is compounded by the widely different conditions the detainees face in each facility. Some areas these detainees have been passed through follow a community detention model in which refugees are not locked up but report regularly to immigration officials. To be moved on and re-incarcerated for no logical reason or with no explanation drives many of these young people to despair.
Three jump fence
During the protest three detainees managed to evade their captors and get over the fence to join the action. The three teens, from Iraq and Iran, received minor injuries while scaling the razor wire that encloses the compound. Speaking through an interpreter, they expressed frustration over their treatment by the Australian government.
“He’s saying all they’re asking for is freedom. They just want to have a good life like everyone else, like a human .. .They say we’re not animals, we’re human, we want to live like a human – that’s all.”
The young men were given legal advice and ultimately decided to return to the detention centre. However, the incident highlights the need for more choices for refugees. The young men who joined the protest had only two options (neither of which is desirable): to wait indefinitely in mandatory detention or to live on the run, with no legal status.
Use of capsicum spray
Conflict between the police and activists escalated when a wheelchair-bound activist was sprayed twice in the face with capsicum spray in a move that police claimed was for the man’s safety. The man had been attempting to lock onto the fence by securing his head to the structure with a bike chain lock. A young woman who was assisting him was also sprayed as she held the fence. Obviously a man in a wheel chair bound to a fence doesn’t actually present a danger either to himself or to others.
According to Rob Stary, a human rights lawyer who viewed footage of the incident, the actions of the police are of great concern. Stary stated: “Capsicum spray was introduced as an alternative to the shoot to kill policy, as an alternative to lethal force”. According to a 2005 report on the inquiry into the use of capsicum spray (and pain compliance techniques) against public gatherings, the use of capsicum spray against people exercising their right to protest is also a violation of the Human Rights Act of 2004. The actions of police during the Broadmeadows protest were an unwarranted and excessive use of force in a situation that was definitely not life threatening. Those sprayed intend to make formal complaints.