'Refuge Is Human'


Over the weekend refugees inside Darwin’s Airport Lodge (DAL) immigration facility hung a huge banner that read "Refuge is Human, Human is Free. Freedom." They were responding to dozens of refugee rights activists and campaigners from around Australia rallying outside as part of this year’s Easter convergence for refugees.

We came to Darwin to visit and witness its three detention centres and to let refugees know that people around Australia support them, welcome them and are fighting for their freedom.

We visited the DAL three times over the weekend in between a community rally in town and similar actions outside the Top End’s two other detention centres — the Northern Immigration Detention Centre and the new Wickham Point detention centre.

On the first day, Easter Friday, asylum seekers of every age — babies in their parents’ arms, toddlers, children and teenagers and dozens of adults — lined the veranda and stairs facing the road to see over the fence and chant, shout and sing for freedom. Children as young as eight, some from Vietnam and others wearing their hijabs, waved signs written on the back of their homework saying "SOS: Freedom for us" and "The people want to go to the community".

A shower of notes came over the fence. One note, scrunched up with gravel and hurled by one of the children, carried a desperate plea for help: "I’m 10 yeas (sic) old. I stay in detention 1 yeas (sic). I want to free. Sometime I feel so sad but I keep smile for the people … But in my heart I very sad. I always smile. I feel uncomfortable. 

"I was cut my hand three times but nobody know that … I don’t have chance, please help me please I very sad … I don’t know what I do. I very sad."

One note just read "love". Others had the email addresses and boat numbers of detained children. 

Some reached through the fence to hold our hands, others just hung their heads and begged to be out of detention. 

Among the many men and women coming to the fence to talk to us were the Vietnamese children and young adults who made news last year when their lives were uprooted without warning.

After arriving on Christmas Island and being moved to the Inverbrackie residential housing in Adelaide, some of the boys in the group left the housing several times. The "escapes" were used as a pretext to remove the youth from their network of friends in the local Vietnamese community to Darwin at less than 24 hours notice. 

Among them was an orphan who recently celebrated her eighth birthday in detention. DASSAN says another six-year-old girl is held in the DAL as well.

A woman approached the fence and shouted for help for her three-year-old son, who had been in detention with her for six months. Others said they had relatives in other detention centres, reminding us that families are torn apart by the immigration detention network.

We held back tears as everyone shouted "thank you" over and over again. What could we say to them to convey the small part we played?

Our presence was only just one example of the growing movement in Australia to end the indefinite detention of refugees that come to Australia by boat. We told them about rallies for refugees taking place in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth on Easter Monday and that there were many people in Australia fighting for their freedom.

At the DAL 3, a separate section where only single adult men are held, Tamil and Iranian refugees held a sign scrawled on A4 paper: "We are thankful for you".

Two men who were once detained travelled with us to Darwin. As we spoke with those still locked away, the ex-detainees translated through the fence between the activists and refugees. Activists told refugees: "Welcome to Australia". But they replied, "We are not in Australia, we are in the prison."

In Darwin, the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN) has grown since it formed in August 2010 to coordinate frequent visits to refugees in detention and send details of their plight around Australia.

DASSAN member Justine Davis said she got a string of emails from refugees inside. They were grateful and happy that many Australians knew they were there and welcomed them, she said.

DIAC’s communications manager, Sandi Logan, reported a different story. He tweeted that protests had "largely come & gone from the detention network with little interruption to Easter fun".

He said "client detainees" had shown "little interest".

Easter activities were organised to distract detainees from the protests. Our intention was never to "interrupt the fun" but the tokenism of putting on a jumping castle and face painting was not lost on the asylum seekers, who left the activities to join us.

In addition, a delegation from the convergence and two 10-year-old local children were escorted into the centre with toys, books and materials. While they were there, music from a nearby band playing stopped and the person on a microphone chanted "Azadi" — freedom.

These visits were about hearing the pain and consequences of being locked up from the moment refugees arrive in Australia.

One refugee after another came forward and told stories of their journey, survival and detention in Australia. The NT Police stood by and Serco stepped in several times to try to prevent contact but activists and refugees swapped names, emails and numbers through the fence. It was only for three short afternoons.

As we left for the last time, we could hear the laughter of a baby. A boy ran along the fence boundary waving before Serco guards pushed him away.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.