When refugee activists found out about the imminent transfer of at least 83 asylum seekers from Villawood detention centre to a remote detention centre in Curtin in WA, a picket was hastily organised to try to stop the buses from leaving.
Even though there was very little time – about 10 hours – activists wanted to show the asylum seekers that there is broader support for them, and that the Abbott Government doesn’t speak for us.
Students Thinking Outside Borders, Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) activists and regular Villawood visitors arrived at the detention centre in Sydney’s western suburbs at 4.30am on 3 April. The buses started arriving at 6am, and didn’t end up leaving until 9am.
Around 30 activists turned up, some before work, others arriving later on, including some regular visitors who had not heard about the forcible transfers. Greens NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon also came along to give support. One former detainee, Iraj, was so worried about the detainees that he had camped overnight outside Villawood to show his solidarity.
At least 83 people were eventually bussed away. Our small action delayed the buses for an hour or so. The detainees were told that they were being taken to the remote detention centre in Curtin in WA or to Darwin.
There have been reports that those being forcibly transferred were being removed pending a case being brought against the Immigration Department for its release of up to 10,000 asylum seekers’ personal details including their full names, date of birth, location and arrival date. A last-minute attempt to prevent the transfer, which lawyers acting for the asylum seekers say will make their job “impossible”, failed in the federal circuit court.
One man, who’s been in Villawood for four years, has a girlfriend and other established relationships outside, but he was also forcibly moved. He self-harmed when he heard he was being moved. One person fought, and ended up being hospitalised. Many of the detainees were cuffed, and many were eventually dragged out.
The NSW police response was very heavy handed. There were only eight activists on the final moments of the picket line – five women and three men – yet some 30 police were detailed to move us and let the buses through.
We were sitting down, with locked arms and legs, chanting “Free the refugees”. The police applied pressure points to our wrists and thumbs and elbows. We were only passively resisting. Not one activist was violent, although we screamed a little because of the pain.
Eight of us were arrested for refusing to comply with a move-on order; most of us had never been arrested before. We didn’t prevent the 83-102 detainees from being bussed away – clearly against their wishes. But we did show them, and the world, that we will do what we can to hold this government to account, and we will not give up.
Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison want their cruelty delivered out of sight. We are determined not to let that happen. Some of the refugees inside Villawood have been told that all asylum seekers are destined to be sent to remote centres and that Villawood will only house those who overstay their visas.
The movement in support of refugee rights is deepening and broadening. Student groups are setting up on many campuses across Sydney, the Baptist Church had offered to house all the detainees from Villawood and the Uniting Church has offered to find homes for all unaccompanied minors in detention.
We hope the action at Villawood on Thursday will bring more people into the movement. RAC has called another action at Villawood for Saturday, 5 April, and the next major rally everyone can support is Palm Sunday, on 13 April.
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