For a few hours today, armed with a pile of prams, some placards and their babies, Friends, Families and Feminists Against Detention occupied the bottom floor of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, preventing the DIPB going about business as usual (their business being the detention and brutalisation of refugees).
Friends, Families and Feminists Against Detention is made up of people concerned about the separation of refugee families, parents who believe that all kids should be free, and women who oppose misogyny, sexual violence and victim-blaming in Australia, and on Manus Island and Nauru.
The temporary occupation was an opportunity for us to voice our demands and be heard. We want:
- ‘Abyan’ to be allowed to stay in Australia (if she wishes)
- an end to all sexual violence against refugees, and
- Australia to cease the inhumane system of offshore processing
The pram jam insisted that DIPB workers, and workers in the neighbouring offices, stop for a moment and reflect on the cruelty administered from behind those desks. It’s willful cruelty, knowingly exacted by our own government and its bureaucrats. It’s a cruelty that many of us can no longer stomach, and that compels us to act.
We take these dramatic actions because friendship and solidarity are difficult to build over the distance that separates us from refugees on Manus and Nauru, especially when visas for visits are prohibitively expensive and hard to acquire. When Facebook and other social media sites have been blocked on Nauru, we are pushed to use more creative means to convey messages of support. We are using these actions to disrupt the existing media discourse, and we hope the message is getting out past Australia’s borders.
Today’s gathering was organised in response to the abysmal treatment of Abyan. Despite requesting a termination early in her pregnancy, when it would have been a much safer procedure, both Abyan’s requests, and the requests of doctors on Nauru were repeatedly ignored by the DIBP. Returning Abyan to Nauru – an island with just twenty-one square kilometres of inhabitable land – is forcing Abyan to live in close proximity to her rapist (just as other refugees in a similar situation are forced to do). Indeed, some refugees are afraid to report rape and sexual violence. Their fears are not unfounded: of the confirmed cases of rape and abuse of refugees on Nauru reported to police, there hasn’t been a single conviction. Instead, personal details of survivors, and graphic accounts of assault, have been publicly released by businesses operating on behalf of the Nauran government. Despite independent reports such as the Moss review providing clear evidence of the widespread nature of abuse on the island, Naruan police deny that such violence is happening.
Refugees have a right to seek asylum. They have a right to live in safety, free from persecution and the threat of violence – because they are human beings. Abyan and others like her have legitimately sought asylum from violence and persecution, and have had their refugee claims accepted, only to face more of the same: more violence, more abuse, more persecution. Given the abuse outlined in the Moss review, the known tensions between refugees and others living on Nauru, the sexual violence occurring on the island and the culture of impunity surrounding it, refugees are clearly unsafe on Nauru.
The social, not to mention economic, cost of punishing refugees for seeking asylum is unconscionable. Abyan, and all refugees who attempted to seek asylum from Australia, should not be subject to offshore processing. Their claims should be assessed in Australia, and they should be resettled in the community here, where they have access to proper medical care, as well as communities and other social services. Offshore processing is untenable – and it’s a system cracking and breaking under the weight of its own ineptitude and failures.
Over the course of just this year, we have witnessed a small but steadily growing number of protests directed at ending the inhumane treatment of refugees. Acts of resistance within the Australian community have often been inspired by dissent from refugees in detention. Earlier this year, detainees on Manus Island and in Darwin sewed their lips together and went on hunger strikes; it was a reaction to the announcement that they would never be settled in Australia. Nearly 700 detainees, almost the entire population at Manus Island detention centre, were on hunger strike in perhaps the most powerful single moment of collective resistance in this movement to date. In a show of solidarity with the refugees denied a future, students in Australia went on hunger strike, too.
In January, refugee activists dramatically invaded the Australian Open, demanding an ‘Australia Open for Refugees’. Soon after, another refugee supporter took the Cricket World Cup by storm. When planes have been carrying refugees facing deportation, passengers have refused to let the planes take off. Doctors in Melbourne have refused to send children back to detention, concerned for their wellbeing. Following their lead, doctors and health workers in major cities around the country last week united to demand an end to children in detention. Members of superannuation funds have successfully pressured HESTA, UniSuper and NGS to divest from Transfield Services (now called Broad Spectrum), refusing to have their money finance detention centres.
Grassroots group mums4refugees, have been filming messages of support aimed at mums in detention. Grandmothers Against Detention of Refugee Children have lobbied and now agree that they will also engage in civil disobedience. Protests inside and outside the AGM of Broad Spectrum (formerly Transfield) disrupted one of the lead contractors making a profit from the mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Meanwhile Christian group, Love Makes A Way, are systematically occupying MP offices across the country in vocal opposition to the regime of detention and harm.
The list could go on, but the sentiment is clear: these acts do not exist in isolation. A movement is growing, a movement born out of the desperation of countless rallies and petitions that have had no effect, and the endless media reports of harm and abuse at the hands of our government.
Many people are tiring of the bipartisan support of boat turnbacks and the obsessive political anxiety around sealing the borders of a stolen land. A small but broadening range of communities are withdrawing their support from a system they oppose. We are refusing, if just for a moment, to be complicit in the silence and the systems that perpetuate violence.
In isolation these acts may be purely symbolic, and their flares brief. But as their reach widens and numbers grow, so too do their visibility, and the disruption becomes impossible to ignore.
True, not all of these groups agree on politics. While the health workers and the grandmas are calling for kids out of detention, Friends Families and Feminists Against Detention demand an end to all mandatory detention and offshore processing. Many of us have fundamentally different visions of the world that we’d like to see – but we have enough in common to form alliances and work cooperatively. Our actions show that we agree on one thing: to take power where we have it – in our communities, workplaces, professions, and faith groups – and to use that power to force an end to this cruelty.
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