When they come for the innocent without crossing over your body, cursed be your religion and your life. Anon
The quote above came to my attention as I followed the protests at Villawood Detention Centre on social media over the past few weeks. It seems apt to think about protest in these terms, as the act of standing firmly in the face of injustice at a time when the right to demonstrate and organise collectively is under such intense scrutiny.
The recent actions at Villawood have been aimed at disrupting the movement of refugees to remote detention camps in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. As news of planned transfers circulated, activists and supporters arrived during the early hours of the morning to blockade the road.
The largest demonstration, on Saturday, April 5, received broad coverage in the media. The majority of this was focused on the confrontation between police and protesters. Some commentators took a particularly negative view of the day’s events.
With last weekend’s Palm Sunday rallies marking twelve years since the first in 2002, it is worth reflecting on why protest remains an important form of collective action in the struggle for refugee rights and why vague legalistic clichés criticising those prepared to put their bodies on the line do nothing but normalise the machinery of violence maintaining the current system.
It has now been more than twenty years since the introduction of mandatory detention. In that time, there have been huge setbacks for refugee rights as things continue to get worse for those seeking asylum in Australia. Current and former government policies have amounted to a denial of basic human rights and the criminalisation of the right to seek asylum. Those coming to Australia can now expect to be imprisoned indefinitely in offshore camps, to be denied access to legal services to help them apply for asylum, and to never be settled in Australia.
Meanwhile detention centre operators like G4S and Transfield enjoy rising share values and profits with each tax-payer funded contract for security and services they win.
It is within this climate that the federal government has begun transferring refugees out of Villawood to remote camps in Curtin, Yongah Hill and Darwin. Those being relocated have had to rebuild lives in detention. Many of them are close to being granted refugee status. Now, with little notice and without sufficient reason, they are being torn away from the connections they’ve built.
Eleven years ago, Richard Harding, then inspector of custodial services for Western Australia, was interviewed by Tom Morton on Radio National for a Background Briefing report about life inside remote detention centres like Curtin. Harding, who routinely inspected WA prisons in the course of his everyday work, had this to say:
These places are worse than prisons. The detainees who commit an offence and end up in the WA prison system, all prefer the WA prison system, they prefer it in terms of the human interaction, in terms of the location, in terms of the relative respect with which they are treated by staff.
Asked to elaborate on why this was when centre contractors are asked to sign a duty of care for detainees and when that care is ultimately the responsibility of a federal government department, Harding replied:
They make a rather high-sounding statement about principles underlying care and security, but in reality they want to achieve the same thing, to keep this problem under control, to keep the problem out of sight, out of mind. There is no proper external scrutiny. We need external scrutiny, not an internal ‘danse macabre’.
Harding went further and compared the remote detention centres to ‘gulags’, saying:
Woomera and Curtin are in the middle of nowhere, with no normal social interaction. Obviously there’s not torture and starvation and so on and so forth, but this is a regime where new arrivals were segregated so that they wouldn’t become aware of their rights to legal representation. It may not be Solzhenitsyn gulag territory, but it’s something which in Australian terms has not been replicated since the second world war, when we put so-called hostile foreign nationals in camps.
The ‘danse macabre’ of the gulags Harding described in 2002 continues with the cruellest twists and turns. In 2002 centre employees were not obliged to tell asylum seekers about the availability of legal representation. Now, access to legal representation has been seriously compromised since the removal of government funding for the service on March 31, 2014.
In the weeks since the deadly violence in the Manus Island camp on February 17, 2014, the need for external scrutiny has never been greater nor more threatened. Governmental inquiries initiated by Australia and PNG have so far not led to charges against those responsible for the attacks or for Reza Barati’s death, and no findings have been released.
More disconcerting, the PNG government, acting ‘in partnership’ with the Australian government, has shut down two independent inquiries initiated by PNG’s Justice David Cannings.
Not only has this physical and psychological violence against asylum seekers been committed by successive governments, but we are now faced with a state that will spare no measure to conceal the truth about these crimes.
This is the context in which recent protests at Villawood took place. While the orders to move asylum seekers may have come from the highest authorities within the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, others were brought in to execute those commands. Riot police, dogs, mounted police and helicopters moved protesters off the road to let the buses pass. Bus company operators drove handcuffed refugees to the remote camps on buses funded by taxpayers. Some have argued that those executing the commands were ‘just doing their job’. But the machinery of cruelty that is destroying peoples’ lives is operated by people doing their job. Without the labour of the many who keep this system in place, it would fall apart.
The actions of protesters who blockaded the road at Villawood must be seen in this light. These protesters were prepared to put their bodies on the line to stop the machinery of cruelty from turning as though this were just another day. Their actions must be seen as necessary labour in the struggle for refugee rights. They are acts of defiance against the inhumanity of the current system and the web of silence around it that continues to serve indifference and brutality to the most vulnerable.
This is the lesson of civil disobedience and of all the world’s people who have fought injustice. Some of these people are imprisoned behind the bars of Villawood and Woomera. They are fighting in every way they can to be free. Their lives and bodies are already on the line.
Everyday life and consumer culture sometimes blind us to exactly what is at stake. When we begin to think that this system will be changed with order and polite behaviour that keeps us in our place, then the supermarket queue has become our point of reference. But rights and justice are not commodities and the fight to secure them is much harder and more fraught than issuing a shopping list of demands to a relevant authority.
The present is a battle ground and we will lose what we are not prepared to fight for.