For decades Australia has been the subject of international institutional condemnation that has focused on Australia’s policies of mandatory detention and off-shore processing of asylum seekers. In 2002 in the aftermath of Tampa, SIEV X, the spurious ‘children overboard’ allegations and beginning of the ‘Pacific Solution,’ the UN High Commission for Refugees articulated concern about the vilification of asylum seekers in public discourse and called on the government to provide more honest and accurate information. In July 2002, UN reports outlined that Australia had breached numerous international obligations including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In October 2012, the UN Committee on Arbitrary Detention stated in its scathing report on Australia’s detention centers:
one could reasonably assume that if public opinion were fully and specifically informed about the conditions to which human beings are being subjected in Australia and the negative consequences for the image of a democratic country, public opinion would change.
This criticism by UN bodies and international human rights bodies intensified after the reopening of off-shore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island under the ALP government in 2012. Damning reports have been released by Amnesty International, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and there has been strong criticism from the UN Committee Against Torture. Again and again, report after report, investigation after investigation has condemned in the strongest terms the conditions of detention, the traumatising effects of indefinite detention, and recommended closure of these camps. This month the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez submitted a report to the UN Human Rights Council that found Australia’s policies on asylum seekers, that involves mandatory and indefinite detention on two off-shore detention facilities on Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea (PNG)) breached the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The official response by Prime Minister Tony Abbott was to attack the messenger, declaring that Australia’s ‘sick of being lectured by the United Nations.’ His government carried out a similar sort of disgraceful bullying attack on the Australian Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. Her report The Forgotten Children was the result of a national inquiry into children in immigration detention and found unequivocally that the prolonged detention of what is currently 800 children leads to serious negative impacts on their mental and emotional health and development. The findings of this report are confirmed by the recently released Moss Report that details the rapes of women detained on Nauru, women being forced to expose themselves in order to access showers and a climate of fear.
Since the recent mass hunger strike on Manus Island in January, a different type of international response to Australia’s policies of mandatory detention has taken off. Many Australians living overseas have started holding vigils in cities around the world, working to build an internationalised grassroots movement that stands in solidarity with those in the detention centres to support their struggles and make sure their voices and news of their experiences reach an international audience beyond the UN. It is a different model of international condemnation, organized from below, through transnational networks of solidarity rather then from official institutions, and one that aims to build grassroots connections with other struggles against racism and the violence of the border.
Last week the recently formed network Australian and Allies Overseas Against Mandatory Detention (tumblr) released a video message that was shot by over 100 people in 33 cities across 21 countries including Iceland, Palestine, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Indonesia, the United States, Chile, Australia, and East Timor.
The video begins with the words ‘Dear Australia’ that two detainees on Manus Island have written across their own backs. The text of the video message reads:
On Palm Sunday the 29th March and for as long as it takes thousands of people will take action around the nation and around the world. We demand an end to mandatory and indefinite detention. End torture of asylum seekers and refugees. Bring back community processing. We will not be silenced. In solidarity.
Vigils or protests have been planned in cities around the world.
This movement started on a freezing New York City evening on January 21st, when a group of Australians and allies gathered for a candlelight vigil outside the Australian Consulate in solidarity with hundreds of asylum seekers who were then on hunger strike in an Australian-managed detention center on Manus Island (PNG). What followed was an eruption of vigils worldwide protesting Australia’s draconian immigration policies and illuminating what the United Nations Committee on Torture calls ‘the unlawful and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers’ at Manus Island. To date, vigils and rallies have taken place in New York, San Francisco, Boston, Houston (Texas), Austin, London, Cambridge (UK), Leeds (UK), Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sheffield, Dublin, Belfast, Berlin (DE), Brussels (Belgium), Geneva, Amsterdam and The Hague, Paris, Santiago (Chile), the West Bank, Hong Kong, Chang Mai (Thailand) and Japan. This wave of activity highlights growing discontent among the Australian and broader global communities with Australia’s illegal border protection policies.
These vigils have provided opportunities to talk to the public in all of these cities, to educate them about the deliberate damage that Australia’s policies are inflicting on people already fleeing persecution. They also provide opportunities to build alliances with social movements for refugee rights and freedom of movement in all these locations. Australia is certainly not alone in its cruel and unjust treatment of migrants. The United States, Canada and states in the European Union also have immigration policies designed to deter undocumented migrants with detentions and deportation. These vigils provide a point to connect the Australian government’s deliberate brutality towards undocumented migrants to the global crisis in which migrants are interned in refugee camps for lengthy periods of time if they seek resettlement through the UNHCR, or risk death, detention and/or deportation if they travel without the right papers. Australia has only had the policy of mandatory detention since 1992, but there is evidence that governments worldwide are looking to Australia when formulating policy in response to an increase in refugees. This context presents further imperatives to draw international attention to the current crisis in Australian detention centres and to show international solidarity with those detained and participating in hunger strikes.
These vigils also provide an opportunity to point to the transnational aspects of the regime of mandatory and indefinite detention, operationalised by private companies and services providers while at the same time drawing attention to the actions of the multinational corporations that are contracted to run the detention centres. The Australian government’s detention centre contracts mean that the establishment and running of these camps have been outsourced to various companies in what has become a multibillion dollar business. These companies have international shareholders and stakeholders who all seek to profit from cruelty. For example, the superfund HESTA, whose motto is ‘Being there for others isn’t just a profession, it’s a choice,’ is one such shareholder, owning substantial shares in the company Transfield, who currently hold the contract to run the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. Pushing for immediate divestment from any business associated with this industry of detention and death is a tangible, effective and therefore highly important political strategy. It is also a movement that will need to be international to succeed.
Those of us Australian migrants who are organising in our respective worldwide homes hope to see the same freedom of movement that has been afforded to us, granted to those who arrive in Australia seeking asylum. We will do what we can to amplify the voices of those who are detained and express our solidarity through creative dispersed actions in the hope that our small — but global — contribution can help end the devastating abuses by the Australian government.