Kat Pinder describes a three-day protest outside Baxter Detention Centre for refugees, which is situated in a remote part of Australia.
On Wednesday 22 March I left Perth and set out on a 41-hour coach journey across the Nullarbor desert to Baxter Detention Centre.
I have only recently moved to Australia and the trip was a good introduction to the country. But my reason for embarking on such a journey (and I thought Manchester to London was bad) was to take part in a three-day Easter weekend demonstration to end mandatory detention for refugees and asylum seekers in Australia (including children… still?). Strategically placed in the middle of the Australian outback, Baxter is a five hour drive from Adelaide, the nearest city.
Activists from the Free the Refugees network told me that Baxter is politically as well as geographically hidden in Australia — the government doesn’t want anybody to know what is going on there. However, in the short time I have been over here, I have seen Baxter in the news on several occasions.
The West Australian newspaper recently reported a case where the immigration department detained a woman in Baxter for nine months, suspecting her to be an illegal immigrant from Germany. In fact she was an Australian citizen with severe mental health problems who had been missing from a hospital for several months. This case gives the outsider some indication of the lack of care, communication and efficiency that these hellholes establish with their “inmates”.
Roof top protests and hunger strikes by detainees have taken place. By all accounts they don’t need to go on hunger strike, as they are under-fed already. Many other physical and emotional abuses have also been documented.
Detainees can be banged up Australia’s detention centres for several years before a decision is made to either release them into the community or send them from prison to a possible death sentence in their home country.
I spoke to a Perth-based activist who had been in touch with a man who was deported to Iran last year. He has never heard from him again. This is a story all too common in Australia, Britain and other western countries that employ racist, barbaric and unnecessary immigration policies.
I was one of the first people to arrive near the detention centre at 9am on Friday morning, along with 70 other Perth activists. We were later joined by 400 activists from all around the country who merged in solidarity to express anger and outrage at the inhumane treatment of the refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.
We came across the first roadblock six kilometres from the detention centre. Police demanded that we leave our vehicles behind the roadblock and set up camp within two kilometres of the centre or we would be arrested. A couple of hours later a meeting took place which began with a “welcome to country” from indigenous Bungala land owners, who set up camp alongside activists to show their support. Despite their support the police arrested three activists for “trespassing” or setting-up camp on so called commonwealth land. This is land which consists of several thousand kilometres of colonised shrubby desert, land which is almost closed off to human travellers or inhabitants. We were taking up about 30 square metres of this land!
The first demonstration took place early on Friday afternoon. Demonstrators demanded that Baxter be closed down and detention centres abolished. Later on, protesters assembled at the gates and the outer gate was taken down.
On Saturday we met with severe police brutality — riot police attempted to confiscate balloons and kites. We made our way to the gates again but were almost outnumbered by aggressive police officers. Three people were injured. One woman was trampled by a horse, another activist was punched in the head and a man had his arm broken whilst being arrested for attempting to tear down a fence. Police passed these injuries off to the media as “minor soft tissue damage”.
On Saturday afternoon, a flag white-washing ceremony was held. Another five activists were arrested on Sunday for throwing a grappling hook over one of the outside fences. Around 16 people were arrested during the three-day protest.
The demonstrations were successful in raising the profile of the campaign internationally. Media coverage was mixed, with a high level of police disinformation and distorted images of activists, but some papers gave positive quotes from protesters.
In the future campaigning will be a struggle especially because of the re-election of John Howard. However activists have accomplished minor victories over the last couple of years. Refugees whose country of origin cannot accept them are now living in the community (although they can still be deported at any time).
Activists are determined to keep challenging mandatory detention and racist immigration policies through further demonstrations, trade union involvement, student union activity and raising the media profile internationally.
By Kat Pinder