Marchers in Australia defend refugees
BY LINDA HARRIS
SYDNEY, Australia--Some 800 people marched on the Villawood Detention Centre August 26 to protest the treatment of refugees being held in such jails across the country.
Chants rang out of "Free the refugees now!" and "Ruddock has got to go!" referring to the federal immigration minister Philip Ruddock. Many carried their own hand-painted placards such as "Fleeing persecution is not a crime," "Full rights not temporary visas!" and "Australia: remember signing the UN refugee convention?" Refugees arriving in Australia without visas are detained, often for years, in remote camps.
The big majority of people at the demonstration were immigrants from the Middle East, organized through the Muslim Refugee Support Group. Contingents came from mosques around Sydney. Sheik Tajaldin El Hilali, the Mufti of Australia, spoke at the rally outside the gates of the prison, calling on the government to "apply the laws with full respect for human rights and dignity."
Other speakers included human rights lawyer Nick Poynder, who pointed out that currently there are less than 10,000 refugees in Australia, compared to over a million refugees in Pakistan. In Australia, refugees are "kept locked up while waiting for legal process," he said. "The great turnout today shows the across-the-board support for asylum seekers."
Ray Jackson, from the Indigenous Social Justice Association, told the rally that like refugees, Aborigines face mandatory sentencing. "We say to refugees 'Welcome!' on behalf of Aboriginal Australia."
Among the refugees taking part in the protest was a group of four young Iraqis who had just been released from the Woomera prison in remote South Australia. "These protests are very important for the prisoners," said Azhar. At the Woomera Detention Centre, they were "allowed no interviews with immigration officials or lawyers. We had no human rights. No Red Cross visits were allowed." Azhar had been involved in the mass breakout from Woomera that took place in June, in protest at the conditions and length of imprisonment due to delays in immigration processing.
On August 28 the government reacted with force against a new protest at the Woomera prison, using tear gas and water cannons against refugees who were protesting the erection of a new barbed wire fence inside the main perimeter fence. The federal government is now looking at tougher penalties to be used against refugees.
Linda Harris is a member of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia.