A fantastic breakout on Christmas Island, and dramatic scenes of fires and tear gas rounds as the Immigration Department, Serco and the Federal Police restored “order”, have pushed asylum seekers back into the headline news.

The Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has repeatedly condemned the protests, but the protests on Christmas Island have already won changes that the refugee campaign has been demanding for months. The 900 refugees  waiting for ASIO security clearances (most of them on Christmas Island), some in detention over a year, will have those clearances finalised by the end of April.

Extra reviewers have been promised to speed up the appeals of those whose initial claims have been rejected. But there are no guarantees for the future and the changes fall a long way short of closing Christmas Island and ending mandatory detention.

A taste of freedom followed by tear gas
For two days from Friday March 11, after bringing down fences, hundreds of asylum seekers freely came and went from the detention centre. They walked into the Settlement at the other end of the island, occupied airport runways, went swimming, gathered at the mosque, enjoyed the sunshine and visited friends and relatives—as much a festival as a protest.Asylum seekers celebrate after breaking out of Christmas Island detention centre, before a ruthless crackdown on them

Immigration Department spokespeople repeatedly described the events as peaceful. But on Sunday afternoon, Serco and the Federal Police decided there had to be a “show of force”. An orchestrated “snatch and grab” operation was approved by the department.

Serco even conscripted cleaners and kitchen staff to be a part of “security cordons” inside and outside the detention centre while they tried to capture and handcuff up to 20 “ringleaders”—of a peaceful protest no less!

Not surprisingly, asylum seekers responded to the arbitrary arrests. By late Sunday night they had broken into the high security Red Compound in an attempt to free the up to 15 people who had been taken away in handcuffs. It was then that the police used tear gas and fired the bean bag rounds.

Such was the brutality of the police action that an asylum seeker’s leg was broken by police after he was felled by a bean bag round.

The next night, asylum seekers assembled in a peaceful protest. They carried white sheets and strips of toilet paper as white flags—they even had flowers to give to the police—but the protest was again met with tear gas.

Events escalated from there. Fires destroyed the tent-city compounds of Aqua and Lilac, while police flooded the detention centre with more tear gas and fired more bean bag rounds.

The protests have been condemned as violent—but not one Serco guard, police officer or resident has been injured. It is the asylum seekers who have been the victims of police violence. One asylum seeker has had numerous teeth smashed after being shot in the chin by a bean bag round.

The Federal Police are now occupying and running the detention centre. The electric perimeter fence has been turned on.

Hundreds of asylum seekers are being moved off Christmas Island, after the government announced another massive expansion of its detention regime. A new 1500-bed detention centre is to be built near Darwin and the Darwin Airport will get an extra 400 beds.

Shifting asylum seekers from one remote crowded detention centre to another is no step forward. Detention centres everywhere reproduce the same horrors. It is the system of mandatory detention that has to be dismantled.

While the Liberals are stepping up their calls for the re-introduction of temporary protection visas and re-opening Nauru, opposition to mandatory detention is growing.

The Uniting Church called for the closure of Christmas Island, expressing its horror at the excessive use of force against asylum seekers. The Human Rights Commission President, Catherine Branson, called for an end to mandatory detention.

Snap protests supporting the asylum seekers were held in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane. It’s time to redouble the efforts to close Christmas Island, end offshore processing and mandatory detention.

At Easter, refugee supporters will converge on Curtin detention centre. In Sydney a major rally is planned for Palm Sunday, April 17, 1pm Town Hall.

Meanwhile, the Gillard government will use the Bali Process meeting on March 29 and 30 to push its East Timor regional asylum seeker processing centre. But opposition is growing.

See the Refugee Action Coalition’s “Open letter to President Ramos Horta and the people of East Timor” at www.refugeeaction.org.au

Week of shame
The protests at Christmas Island are just the tip of the iceberg of detention turmoil. Tragically, but almost unnoticed by the media, a 20 year old Afghan man hanged himself in Scherger detention centre in far north Queensland, after receiving a rejection notice.

In Curtin, 100 Afghans held a peaceful sit-in protesting over an asylum seeker being brutally beaten by six Serco guards. More than half of the 1200 Afghans in Curtin have received initial rejections and self harm incidents are a daily occurrence.

In Darwin, about 100 asylum seekers staged a peaceful protest on the main street after walking out of Asti Hotel detention. And at the main Darwin detention centre six Rohingya refugees staged a day-long roof-top protest after asylum seekers were beaten by Serco guards.

Legal rights being trampled on
Not content with brutalising asylum seekers the Federal Police (AFP) are now trampling on their legal rights.

As Solidarity goes to press, 150 asylum seekers on Christmas Island have been isolated in the detention centre’s gymnasium and are being interrogated by Federal police.

Refugee advocates and lawyers have expressed their concern that such interrogations are taking place without asylum seekers understanding their rights and without them having access to lawyers. The AFP has form in such circumstances.

In 2009, the AFP questioned 11 asylum seekers over a so-called riot. None of those charged understood that they did not have to give statements to the police nor that they were entitled to talk to a lawyer before they spoke to police.

In court, the police admitted they knew the detainees did not understand the official caution, yet they proceeded with the questioning and laid charges. Of the 11 charged, six had their charges of riot, assault and carrying weapons completely dropped. Five others received fines and suspended sentences. But all of them had spent a year in detention waiting for trial, living with the threat of being denied visas.

Chris Bowen is again threatening to use ministerial powers to deny visas on “character grounds” to anyone convicted of charges arising from the recent protests.

But such a penalty would be a life sentence for a refugee—a penalty out of all proportion to any imaginable charge.

The victimisation of the protesters has to stop. All asylum seekers must be released immediately from the gymnasium and the Red Compound.

Ian Rintoul

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