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Refugee advocates defend convoy protest as fears grow for detainees

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Refugees have been detained at the Mantra Hotel in Preston for several months (Image courtesy of Refugee Action Collective)

A protest was staged in support of refugees detained at Preston's Mantra Hotel out of concern for their wellbeing during the pandemic. Sarah Jacob reports.

THE LINE of stationary cars in a suburban Melbourne street is bordered by a row of traffic cones. Police officers carrying clipboards walk between the vehicles, talking to the solitary occupants of each car in turn. The scene resembles a random breath test station, but for the slogans emblazoned on placards taped to car windows, or handwritten across bonnets.

At 2 PM on Friday 10 April, while most Australians were at home enjoying the Easter break, two dozen refugee advocates drove their cars to the Mantra Hotel in Preston. Dozens of other supporters across the country held vigils out the front of their homes. Their intent was to raise awareness of the conditions that immigration detainees find themselves in during the global crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Protest organiser Chris Breen said of the asylum seekers and refugees in onshore detention:

“They are at enormous risk. There is no way for the men in the Mantra to practice social distancing. These detention centres are like cruise ships on land.”

Police arrested Breen before he could attend Friday’s protest, and sent the 26 advocates who did attend home with fines that collectively amounted to almost $43,000. Breen did not expect to be arrested and says he thinks the police response was “over the top”. The Refugee Action Collective activists had assumed they would be treated in a similar fashion to those who had participated in the cavalcade protest held by the United Workers Union in Sydney the day before, which had been allowed to proceed without any fines being handed out. Instead, Breen was held for nine hours and police seized his mobile phone and all computers in his house, which included his 15-year-old son’s computer.

Breen has defended the actions of the group, insisting that all necessary precautions were taken to prevent any possibility of virus transmission. Regardless, he says that he was not charged under the Stay at Home Directions of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act. He was instead charged with incitement under the 1958 Crimes Act. The protestors who took part in the demonstration, however, were fined under the Directions but say that they were acting on compassionate grounds, which is listed as an acceptable reason for leaving the home. The Preston police station was contacted for comment.

The Mantra Hotel detainees themselves were campaigning for release well before the COVID-19 crisis took hold. In early March, after seven months of incarceration without any sign that their situation would change, detainees appeared at the hotel’s windows, crossing their wrists in a gesture meant to represent shackles. The price tag for their stay has been estimated at more than $1 million to date.

One of the men detained within the Mantra Hotel, Ismail Hussein, says that life has become harder for detainees since the virus outbreak began. Previously, detainees were taken to MITA for two hours every day to get fresh air and exercise outside. This has ceased as part of suppression measures and detainees are now kept inside 24 hours a day. He says that detainees have close contact with a large number of Serco guards each day, many of whom are not practising recommended precautions like physical distancing. The men held in Mantra were brought here under the now-repealed Medevac law to receive treatment for health conditions.

Hussein said:

“We all have some chronic disease that makes us more vulnerable. If this virus catches us, it may cause death to some of us.”

In early April, a letter written by David Isaacs, an infectious diseases professor at the University of Sydney, and co-signed by more than 1,200 health professionals, called for the immediate release of immigration detainees on public health grounds. Labor MPs Ged Kearney and Peter Khalil and Australian Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow have also backed the call.

Supporters insist that the matter is urgent, after detention guards in Villawood and Kangaroo Point were diagnosed with COVID-19. Breen believes that the detainees could easily and quickly be accommodated by charities and individuals if they were to be released into community detention. “There is no shortage of support in that regard,” he says.

Cases of COVID-19 are now being reported in refugee camps and immigration detention centres across the world and, in some cases, the virus is spreading rapidly. The poor conditions in camps like those in Greece and northern France have aid and advocacy groups worried that the virus will decimate those populations, which already carry a high burden of illness. The same is also true for the asylum seekers and refugees in the care of the Australian Government, in both onshore and offshore detention.

Dr Celia McMichael, a Senior Lecturer in Health Geography at the University of Melbourne, said:

People living in immigration detention for longer than 24 months have been found to have extremely high rates of both physical and mental illness.

 

The health profile of some detainees – for example with heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disease – makes them susceptible to the coronavirus.

 

Crowding, inadequate sanitation, limited healthcare, and difficulty containing infectious diseases are well documented in immigration detention systems. There have been many examples of other disease outbreaks among people living in immigration detention, including measles, chickenpox, and influenza.

The United Kingdom’s Home Office released almost a third of its immigration detainees in mid-March after legal action was brought against the department, claiming that it had failed in its duty to identify vulnerable detainees who were considered at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. In early April, the United States recorded an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in immigration detention, prompting two Federal courts to demand that the U.S. Government either release families with children or justify why they are still being held.

Almost 400 refugees and asylum seekers are held in offshore detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru by the Australian Government. Both are countries in which the health system is already under strain.

Shamindan Kanapathi, a refugee being held in a hotel in Port Moresby, said:

The emergence of coronavirus in PNG has dramatically increased the anxiety among the refugees being held in the various hotels. Everyone is worried about catching the virus. We know how vulnerable we are and the health system in Port Moresby will not cope with any outbreak.

 

Precautions against the virus are non-existent. Hotel staff and security guards come and go from the hotels, but most don’t use gloves or masks. They don’t use sanitiser.

Back in Melbourne, Breen says that the Stay at Home Directions shouldn’t be used to stamp out the right to protest or provide support for vulnerable groups of people:

We are collecting funds for a community that has nothing and drawing attention to their plight. And also, for the refugees’ mental health, it makes a difference when people are supporting them.

 

Their lives matter as much as ours.

Sarah Jacob is an Australian freelance writer. She has a background in conservation science and education, and writes on environmental and human rights issues.

A refugee advocate explains her motivation for attending the protest in a video produced by RAC (Image supplied)

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