The Easter convergence on Darwin’s detention centres has set the scene for actions this year against mandatory detention. Darwin’s detention centres now hold up to 1000 asylum seekers, making it the detention capital of Australia.

Over four days, around 40 people from interstate were joined by Darwin locals to take to the streets of Darwin and to protest at Darwin’s three main detention centres.

The march on Easter Friday—the first refugee march in the city—drew around 150 people. More than anything else, it showed there was a significant local base for on-going refugee activities. More than 20 names were collected to stay in touch with the local refugee campaign group, Darwin Asylum Seekers Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN).

A quick (unscheduled) visit to the Darwin Airport Lodge, where around 400 families and children are held, revealed the shocking reality of the government’s so called “Alternate Places of Detention”.

Hundreds of faces, including scores of children lined the verandahs and pressed against fences anxious to both shout their welcome to the protesters and desperately appeal for help. Un-accompanied Vietnamese kids have been in detention for over a year. Another Iranian woman called out that she had been in detention for 11 months. In Farsi, Vietnamese and Arabic, chants of “Freedom, Azadi” and “Freedom, To Yor” filled the air for an hour or more.

Scores of notes were thrown over or passed through the fence. Some listed the names of parents and children in detention. Others, like that from a 10 year old, spoke of despair in broken English, “ I feel so sad, please help, I’m very boring I just 10 yeas old but I stay in detention 1 yeas. I want to be free please help me. Some time I very crazy. And I cut my hand three time but nobody know that.”

Immigration and Serco went to extraordinary lengths to try to prevent contact with asylum seekers. Visits were banned from Thursday evening until well after Easter. Four people, including Hadi Hosseini, an Afghan refugee who had been detained in Darwin, were barred from visiting asylum seekers at Wickham Point, even on Tuesday morning. When asked why, the Immigration Department’s area manager said, “You know what happened over the weekend.”

A plea from inside Darwin detention centre

Intimidation of refugees

Well, yes, we did know. The stark brutality of mandatory detention was on display everywhere we went. At NIDC, on the Stuart Highway, asylum seekers were threatened that if they even waved a hand their files would be sent to the Federal Police. Serco guards told asylum seekers that any sign of them supporting the protests and anyone “scheduled for release would never get of here”.

But as we chanted from the road side, climbed trees to get a better view and tied balloons that asylum seekers could see from inside, despite the threats, people did wave!

At Wickham Point, extra activities were suddenly scheduled to coincide with Sunday’s protest. Displaying unusual generosity, Serco guards played Easter bunny and distributed chocolate eggs and tried to get asylum seekers unprecedented music and dancing classes.

But they declined, staying in the accommodation blocks hoping to see or participate in the protest.

Seven people were arrested for trespass, when the protest walked around the perimeter fence to take to the top of the hill overlooking the sprawling detention centre. “We saw you and heard you,” came one message from inside, “thank you for coming.”

The convergence also coincided with the arrival in Darwin of the first 200 US marines for a permanent US base. An unscheduled protest at the gates of Robertson Barracks highlighted the hypocrisy of welcoming US marines who have served in Afghanistan while down the road Afghan asylum seekers rot in detention.

The convergence finished up with a round table discussion to improve networking among activists around the country and plan for meetings and the World Refugee Day rallies in June to mark the 20th anniversary of mandatory detention.

Even as we were meeting, ten Chinese asylum seekers arrived at Darwin’s Cullen Bay ferry terminal after sailing for 27 days from Malaysia. Initially declaring they were traveling to New Zealand to claim asylum, where there is no mandatory detention, they ultimately applied for asylum in Australia—and were promptly detained. For a few days the stark contrast between New Zealand and Australia was on display. Ten more reasons that mandatory detention has to end.

Ian Rintoul

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