For refugees 2020 has been book-ended by Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie. In January, Lambie voted with the Coalition to repeal the Medevac legislation. Then in October, the government dropped its attempt to get legislation banning mobile phones from detention centres, when Lambie finally declared her opposition to the laws.
In between, throughout the COVID crisis, with determined protests by refugees inside the hotel-prisons, the refugee movement has doggedly fought for the right to protest outside.
The demonstrations outside the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne and Kangaroo Point hotel in Brisbane have kept the appalling treatment of the hundreds of refugees transferred under the Medevac legislation on the political agenda.
The situation has grown more desperate. The government has forcibly relocated people they regard as “troublemakers” from the hotels to detention centres in an effort to stifle the protests. One of them, Iranian refugee Farhad Rahmati, has been forcibly shifted from Kangaroo Point to BITA and then to Villawood. Another four were forcibly shifted from Kangaroo Point to BITA in mid-November.
Meanwhile the mental health situation grows worse, with increasing numbers of attempted suicides and “resignation syndrome” as people give up hope.
Yet there are cracks appearing. As Solidarity goes to press, ten refugees and asylum seekers transferred from Nauru to a Darwin prison-hotel on 4 September were released into community detention. Similarly, people needing medical treatment who were transferred from Nauru to Villawood detention on 25 September are also being granted community detention.
When Jacqui Lambie used her website to ask for opinions about how she should vote over the mobile phone bill, she got 100,000 replies; 96,000 telling her to vote against the government ban.
There are few campaigns that could mobilise 96,000 people to a Senator’s online poll. The response is one indication of the reach of the refugee movement. The challenge ahead for the refugee movement is to mobilise even a proportion of those 96,000 in active opposition to the government.
2020 has been a period of trench-warfare against Morrison and Dutton for the movement. Over the past few months, the movement has held the line with continuing protests to end detention and free the refugees.
Sometimes just holding the line is a victory against an enemy with superior forces. And it can lay the basis for the movement to go on the offensive. That is the challenge for 2021. If we can get all the Medevac refugees out of closed detention, it will be a major blow against the government’s vicious anti-refugee policies.
Saif’s family separation shows refugee torture
Saif Ali, a 27-year-old Somali man, has become well known as the refugee in Kangaroo Point hotel separated from his wife and son (Sabah and Sammi) who are living just 29 kilometres away in a Brisbane suburb.
Saif was transferred from Nauru to Australia more than 16 months ago, in June 2019, under the family reunion clause of the Medevac legislation. His wife and son were brought from Nauru in 2017 when Sammi became sick shortly after his birth. The family has been separated for three years.
Saif’s plight drew national attention when a demonstration outside Kangaroo Point in June pressed against the fence chanting, “Let him hug his son.”
Since detention visits were cancelled in March, Saif had only seen his wife and son from the hotel balcony when they were able to come to stand outside the fence that surrounds the hotel-prison.
In October, in a moment of desperation, Saif attempted suicide. He was subsequently transferred from Kangaroo Point to BITA – behind even higher fences, and even further away from Sabah and Sammi.
Border Force could easily have arranged for Saif to see Sabah and Sammi, but no visits were allowed.
What wasn’t so well-known was that Sabah had needed surgery, and Saif’s request to be with her and look after his son while she was in hospital had been declined.
Sabah is due for more surgery at the end of November, and Saif’s request to be with her has again been rejected, for no reason.
Prisoners being held in Queensland corrective service institutions can now have a maximum of two visitors. Yet there are no visits for Saif and Kangaroo Point and BITA remain closed to visitors.
By Ian Rintoul