About a month ago Jacob Grech was talking with some friends about where to have the Melbourne Cup barbie this year when the idea came to them:
"A few of us had been sitting around having a few beers the night before thinking about how we needed to come up with a way to start putting the refugee issue back on the agenda amongst the broader left, and we put two and two together and thought, ‘Let’s just do it at the detention centre!’."
About four kilometres from Flemington racecourse, the Maribyrnong immigration detention centre sits behind a long driveway and high steel fences off a busy main road in Melbourne’s west. When the latest figures were compiled, on 9 November, the centre held 93 of Australia’s 7887 immigration detainees, 20 of them "irregular maritime arrivals".
On Tuesday around 200 people turned up at the detention centre for what was billed as a "welcome barbecue and festival" for refugees.
Bearing kids, dogs, umbrellas, sandwiches and socialist pamphlets, the colourful throng moved into marquees and spread across the grassy space outside the centre, settling in for bands, speeches, sausages and the broadcast call of the race.
Lucy Honan, from the Refugee Action Collective (RAC), described the crowd as "a good mix of old and new".
"I was on the RAC stall all day," Honan told NM. "There were quite a few people here who were active during the Howard era … and they were interested in getting re-involved. But there were also people who were just students, saying ‘What’s going on? I don’t get it’."
For refugee and human rights advocates the days since the federal government’s mid-year policy shift on boat arrivals have been dark ones. The return to offshore processing, the extreme conditions asylum seekers are being held in on Nauru and the government’s plan to excise mainland Australia from its own migration zone, rival the Howard government’s regime in severity, they say.
"We have a Labor government," Grech says, "that is surpassing a Liberal government in meanness, and I think we need to start acknowledging that and finally unhitching our efforts from the Labor party star, and saying the government is the government and we the people have our own agenda."
"The excision of the mainland, and all the stories that are coming out from Nauru are just such a major reminder of the black heart of the Howard regime. People are really pissed off about it," Honan adds.
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre campaign coordinator, Pamela Curr, told the crowd that the situation for asylum seekers on Nauru was "absolutely desperate".
"They’re on hunger strike. They’re sending us messages day after day. They’re pleading for our help because their claims are not being processed. They’re living in tents on the equator in 42 degree heat. They don’t have enough water to wash. They don’t have enough water for the toilets. They are living in the most appalling conditions," Curr said. "We’re a hair’s breadth away from deaths."
On Wednesday Fairfax media reported that Australian Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs had described the indefinite detention of people on Nauru as "an egregious breach of international human rights law", which she will be speaking to the government about.
Despite the harsh conditions for detainees sent to the tiny island, Curr believes the overall result of implementing "the Nauru solution" has been to attract rather than deter boats.
"We’ve put in place something that doesn’t stop people or save lives," she told NM after her speech. "They’re still getting in boats."
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship confirmed to NM that in the three months since the 13 August announcement of a return to offshore processing, 6845 people on 119 boats had arrived in Australian territory seeking asylum.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Chris Bowen denied the policy had failed as a deterrent, saying the government expected "real results" once more of the recommendations of the expert advisory panel report had been implemented. The spokesperson said the changed policy was not just about deterrence but also "providing better and safer options" and that it included an increase in Australia’s refugee intake of more than 6000 people a year.
Another issue deeply worrying to refugee advocates is the government’s intention to forcibly deport people whose asylum applications have been unsuccessful.
"We will see Hazaras sent back to Afghanistan and Tamils sent back to Sri Lanka," Curr says. "We know from the past that both face the risk of death."
The deportation of Anjan, a Sri Lankan man being held at Maribyrnong, was stopped last week by a federal court injunction just hours before he was due to be flown out. Anjan’s is one of two legal cases underway which asylum seekers and activists are hoping will stop the government ‘"removing" people from the country. The hearing of his case, by the full federal court, will continue on Friday.
Honan was one of the activists who tried to stop Anjan from being deported last Wednesday by forming a human chain across the exit of Maribyrnong detention centre.
"It was really good to make a stand," she says. "We got some media out of it and things like that, but if anything, it demonstrated that we need to be a lot stronger, because if the court action had failed, he would have already been taken."
The refugee movement is making a priority of strengthening and broadening its support. Both Hanon and Curr suggest activists need to find new ways to do so.
"I think it’s time we found different ways to communicate to people," Curr says. "Events like these are the sorts of places where I think we can engage the [uncommitted]middle ground and try to pique their interest so that they start looking at the news and the information they’re given in a more critical way."
There wasn’t a big refugee turnout for the Cup Day event, but Mohammad, a 25-year-old Afghani who spent time inside the Maribyrnong facility, drove across town with a friend to be there.
After three years in detention in Australia — on Christmas Island, in Weipa and in Melbourne, and eight months detained in Indonesia after the first boat he took from there sank — he still hasn’t got a visa and is living in uncertainty.
"My life is hard. I’m 25 years old. I don’t know about my future — whether I will be happy or not," Mohammad told NM.
But like most people who attended the event, he’s happy for the moment. It was good to be meeting people, he said, and despite not understanding the lyrics very well, he enjoyed the soulful sounds of country-rockabilly band Cherrywood — even though they were inundated with rain upon taking the "stage".
"It’s great to be playing on a steel truck in a lightning storm," the guitarist said, "but my hangover’s so bad I’d rather be dead anyway."
A bunch of enthusiastic punters formed a scrum under a green tarp, which they manoeuvred to the front of the stage to dance under.
Grech says the day will become an annual event.
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