The 19 July marked seven years since the Rudd Labor government infamously declared that no asylum seeker who arrived by boat and was sent to offshore detention in Manus Island or Nauru would ever be settled in Australia.

Rudd’s disgraceful shift to the right was the last in a long line of concessions to Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party’s relentless campaign to “Stop the Boats”. Rudd lost the 2013 election and gifted the Liberals with a policy that enshrined offshore detention, to which they ruthlessly added the turning-around of asylum boats.

This began seven years of detention and uncertainty that has been described as “tantamount to torture” by Amnesty International. Of the 2700 victims of that policy, there are around 380 asylum seekers and refugees still on Manus and Nauru. Another 200 refugees brought from offshore for medical treatment in Australia are being held onshore in closed detention in hotels and detention centres.

But pressure has been building on the government to free the hundreds being held onshore. Hundreds of refugee supporters held physical and online protests in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne on 19 July.

Two days later, the Brisbane demonstration was followed-up with the Queensland Council of Unions calling for union members to join an evening picket of the hotel. Unionists are convening again on 28 July to re-launch “Unions for Refugees” in Queensland.

Pressure is set to escalate with refugee activists, who have been blockading Brisbane’s Kangaroo Point hotel since 11 June, declaring a demonstration and sit-in to block the Storey Bridge on Saturday 8 August. 

The Brisbane blockaders are demanding “free movement” for all those detained to exercise and walk outside the compound, and for their release into the community by Christmas.

The blockade is also calling for the end of forcible transfers from Kangaroo Point, where refugees hold very visible protests from the hotel’s balcony, to Brisbane’s detention centre where they are invisible behind the detention fences.

The Brisbane protests have also won support from local Labor MP, Peter Russo, a state MP, who called for the federal government, “to free the detainees into the community.”

Darebin City Council has also voted unanimously to begin an investigation of whether the use of the Bell City Mantra Hotel in Melbourne to detain refugees is in breach of local planning regulations.  Among other things, the council is questioning the use of hotel rooms as COVID-19 isolation cells and its general compliance with quarantine regulations.

“This place [the Mantra Hotel] has metamorphosed from a hotel into a prison,” Darebin Councillor Gaetano Greco told local media following the passage a council motion that has also called for a commercial boycott of the Mantra hotel group.

The UNHCR has also broken its usual silence on offshore detention, revealing that its shadowy agreement with the Australian government to facilitate the US resettlement deal included an understanding that Australia would resettle “some” cases, particularly those with close family ties, in Australia. The UNHCR says that Australia had finally told them that they had reneged entirely on any undertaking to resettle in Australia.

The UNHCR had also flagged Australia’s undertaking in 2017 with the Turnbull government, to no avail. But it helps explain why there are refugee fathers from Nauru in Australian detention still separated from partners and children.

“Eight Years Enough” was one of the chants on 19 July, re-stating the movement’s determination to free the refugees, onshore and offshore.

Unions for Refugees re-forms in Queensland

Unionists have been playing an increasing role at the Kangaroo Point hotel protests. The ETU Youth crew mobilised for the 21 June rally, and were there again on 21 July, as part of a union-called rally and blockade with around another 50 unionists from ETU, Together, NTEU, IEU, MEAA, CPSU, Queensland Nurses and Midwives and other unions.

In Queensland, unions played a crucial role in 2016 blockading Lady Cilento hospital to prevent baby Asha and her family from being returned to Nauru.  In 2018, teachers in Victoria and Queensland became the first unionists in Australia to explicitly take industrial action over refugee policy, as part of the movement demanding “Kids Off, Everyone Off, Nauru”. The open support for the Kangaroo Point blockade has been a shot in the arm for the campaign to free the refugees.

By Ian Rintoul

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