They stopped traffic, more than 200 people carrying banners that said “End detention now” and chanting “Free the refugees.”
But despite their efforts, one still got that sense that no one was listening. Or at least those in power.
The Refugee Action Coalition’s rally in downtown Sydney on Sunday was by all accounts a success. Vocal volunteers canvassed people on the street to sign a petition against offshore processing, the government’s latest strategy as part of a regional solution to preventing people from paying human smugglers to get on boats in Indonesia or Malaysia.
An expert panel recently recommended re-establishing detention centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island; that’s in addition to increasing Australia’s refugee intake from 13,750 to 20,000 immediately and working with United Nations High Commission for Refugees and Indonesian and Malaysian authorities to find better resettlement solutions for refugees.
At the rally, a line of speakers, including Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, stood atop the bed of a truck and listed off the casualties of mandatory detention. The suicides, the self harm, the lasting psychological damage, the billions of dollars spent.
Already, there has been one suicide attempt on Nauru, amid a climate of frustrated asylum seekers who have been told processing on their protection claims might not begin for months. And 500 asylum seekers arrived in Australian waters over the weekend alone, raising questions about the effectiveness of offshore processing as a deterrent. Refugee advocates say no government policy can stop someone who is fearing persecution and fleeing a country to save their lives.
The protesters stopped traffic, with police escorts allowing them to march down the left side of busy George Street from Sydney Town Hall to Central station.
But what does it all mean if no one is listening? Certainly the Canadian government isn’t listening as it brings in its own policy of mandatory detention for so-called “irregular arrivals” following the arrival of 492 Tamils aboard the MV Sun Sea in August 2010.
The tougher refugee reforms under Bill C-31 will mean mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, with an initial review after 14 days and then every six months thereafter. Canada doesn’t have any immigration detention centres designed to hold people for long periods of time, which likely means boat migrants would be held in provincial prisons, as was the case with the asylum seekers from the MV Sun Sea and the Ocean Lady.
“Mandatory detention … hasn’t worked for the refugees, and it also hasn’t worked as a deterrent,” Hanson-Young said in an interview after the rally. “So any country that is looking to replicate mandatory detention, I’d say it’s a big failure.”
Jalal Hossin, a refugee from Iran, spent 20 months in detention, on Christmas Island and in Sydney’s Villawood, both of which were the scenes of fiery riots in early 2011.
Hossin is angry that he has friends who remain in detention after three years. Angry that detention has left him a damaged person. But even more angry that rallies like Sunday’s will just fall on deaf ears.
“The Australian government is too powerful than these people here,” Hossin said.
Katie DeRosa is a Times Colonist journalist in Australia researching the mandatory detention policy, in light of the Canadian government bringing in similar policy under Bill C-31.