It was like a momentary flash so unexpected that afterwards you question whether it actually happened. A sudden fracture in the solid wall of escalating cruelty that has been Australian refugee policy for two decades. That day last February when doctor and independent MP Kerryn Phelps, with the Labor Party and other crossbenchers, managed to pass through parliament the Medevac Bill despite not having the support of the government.
The law said that if doctors assessing Australia’s detention centres felt someone was in need of medical treatment in Australia, they should be moved here to receive it. No fearmongering, no abstractions about hordes of boat people ready to exploit our generosity. Just a recognition of human need and responsibility to our fellow brothers and sisters.
Inevitably, the moment didn’t last. Scott Morrison, the immigration minister who oversaw Operation Sovereign Borders turning our dislike for asylum seekers into a full-scale military operation, was re-elected as Prime Minister in May. By December, with the help of a secret deal made with Tasmanian MP Jacquie Lambie, the Medevac Bill had been repealed, Australia’s usual cruel indifference to suffering restored, and everything back to normal.
In the meantime though, hundreds of asylum seekers had trickled into the country – unsurprisingly given six years locked up in a remote prison camp is not a pathway to optimum health. The medical treatment was not necessarily forthcoming – I spoke to one medevac transfer who said he had been in the country eight months but was yet to see a doctor – but there was at least an unusual development.
Instead of being held in remote detention centres as had so often been government policy, the medevac transfers were housed in nondescript motels. In Melbourne at the Mantra Hotel in Preston, and in Brisbane at the Kangaroo Point Central Apartments. It wasn’t quite a holiday – they are under constant surveillance, unable to leave the facility, with multiple people to a room. But it did mean that these people, after years hidden away as far as possible from the eyes of the public, were now in the middle of the city.
Eventually, this was something they took advantage of. The 120 men in Kangaroo Point were frustrated at being locked up, at the lack of medical care, and at the fact that when COVID-19 hit they were at high risk without having any control over their circumstances (one of the guards employed to keep them there tested positive). They decided to use what voice they had. Each day, at 4:30pm, they would stand on their balconies for an hour holding signs protesting their treatment.
Brisbane refugee advocates tried to work out how best to show support. Visits had been stopped with the COVID laws, and even a solidarity gathering on the street was illegal under social distancing regulations. Since exercise was one of the few public activities allowed, the creative solution was to don the activewear in solidarity. People walked or rode laps around the motel, waving and shouting messages of support.
The impact was powerful in a couple of ways. For the men detained, it showed them that despite everything, Australians do care about them and want to support them. After years of isolation, they got to experience some human warmth from the country they had come to seeking help. In communication, they expressed immense gratitude for the people innocuously walking around the block; said it gave them hope for the future.
Those walking meanwhile got a chance to show face-to-face solidarity with refugees, to show up the lie of our supposed national refugee policy. While both political parties have contributed to a policy of official cruelty to asylum seekers, while the concentration of corporate media pushes relentlessly xenophobic messaging on the issue, the truth is vast numbers of Australians are completely welcoming of refugees and are looking for opportunities to show that support in a tangible way. At times refugee activism feels like bashing against a wall, but there has never been a time when Australians have stopped trying.
Even walking around the block had its difficulties. Police would arrive to absurdly enforce social distancing restrictions. While refugee pleas for a COVID safety plan went unanswered, police handed out $1300 fines to people for attending a protest and straight-facedly claimed it was for health and safety. In Melbourne, a drive-by solidarity protest didn’t even allow for any physical contact between participants yet police handed out an astonishing $43,000 in fines. The authoritarianism that has for so long been forced onto refugees in this country was just waiting for a chance to be applied to anyone else who doesn’t fit the mould of the good “quiet Australian”.
After two months of daily balcony protests and solidarity vigils; last Thursday Farhad, one of the refugees locked up at Kangaroo Point who has been particularly vocal and articulate in speaking to the media, was told with twenty minutes notice that he was going to be moved to the BITA detention centre in Pinkenba. One more attempt to squeeze the life out of these people who have endured so much.
Farhad called friends he had made through the solidarity walks. They came straight to Kangaroo Point, where they blocked the transport van from moving him. Two people were arrested, but amazingly they succeeded in stopping the transfer. The next morning a van with police and security reinforcements managed to move him and three others, but by that point protesters had vowed they would not be allowing any more forced transfers.
In scenes reminiscent of the community blockade of the Lady Cilento children’s hospital for “Baby Asha” in 2016, a 24 hour vigil was established outside the motel. A roster was drawn up to ensure people were always monitoring the three exits. Donations of food and shelter started coming in from supporters. On Saturday an emotional rally climaxed with the appearance of the wife and son of one of the detainees. They have not had physical contact for two months. “Let him hug his son!” was the chant from the crowd, but there was no happy reunion.
After everything had died down, local councillor Jonathan Sri was arrested, supposedly for contravening a police direction. He had not done anything different to hundreds of others at the rally, it seems the arrest had more to do with his profile and social media reach. He was given bail conditions prohibiting him from returning to the site. But plenty of others did return. A downpour of rain on Sunday didn’t disperse the group. Around the clock they monitor the gates. Food delivery vehicles are searched with a spotlight before being allowed to leave, the group ready to block their path should they be found transporting a person.
On Monday afternoon, dozens of police turned up with a few council workers. Theoretically they had arrived to say the tents and gazebos that had sprung up needed to be removed. But almost immediately they arrested one of the organisers who had been in regular contact with the men inside. It certainly seemed to be a targeted arrest. Other move-on notices were issued, but people mobilised quickly to remove the structures but keep in place the blockade.
These kind of spaces can sometimes be a bit tense, so you have to appreciate levity when you can get it. There was a grim humour in the police interactions, as the cops said with an admirably straight face that we were being moved on because we were “causing anxiety” to the people inside. I’d never heard of causing anxiety being a crime before, and it’s a shame it only applies to beefy security guards being paid to stand around a dozen strong doing nothing; and not to the innocent people locked up for seven years and counting in what psychiatrist Pat McGorry famously described as “mental illness factories”.
After the rush of packing up tents was over, the refugees emerged once more onto their balconies. Shunted around by the Australian government with seemingly no objective other than to break their resolve, they still manage the spirit to get up each day and politically use what voice they have. At all times of the day, you can seem them waving and calling out the windows to the blockaders below.
Another momentary crack has appeared in that seemingly impenetrable wall of refugee cruelty. It has allowed for an exchange of human solidarity between isolated refugees and exasperated supporters, inspiring both to keep going. With the blockade demanding an end to forced transfers and release from detention by christmas, and a year that continually seems to produce the unexpected, it just might lead to something more permanent.