Sydney detention centre protest ends
Sydney Morning Herald
September 21, 2010
Eight asylum seekers ended a torturous 30-hour stand-off with Australian authorities after they climbed down from the roof of a Sydney immigration detention centre.
Some of the asylum seekers had threatened to jump and kill themselves if the Immigration Department did not agree to review their refugee applications by 5pm (AEST) on Tuesday.
Shortly before the deadline, an Iranian and an Iraqi ended their protest, descending from the roof, and a Sri Lankan followed them less than two hours later.
Some of the initial group of 11 protesters had cut themselves on the arms and chest during the day, smearing blood on their bodies and a sign which read: “We need help and freedom”.
At times they cried, clinging to each other for support on the windy roof, and a fight broke out after one detainee who threatened to jump was forcibly restrained by the others.
About a hundred onlookers, including children, watched as the man teetered at the edge.
After spending a cold night on the roof, two of the men collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration as the day warmed to more than 23 degrees Celsius.
Their desperate situation spread to the ground, with frustrated supporters protesting angrily outside the centre's barbed wire fence.
Cars going by sounded their horns in support of the men's plight while others yelled: “Go on and jump”.
Several negotiators appealed to the men and large inflatable mattresses were placed at the foot of the building to cushion them should they jump or fall.
A cherry-picker was also in place to bring the men down.
At about 7.15pm (AEST), the eight remaining men started to leave the roof.
Activists outside the centre cheered as the last asylum seeker waved and disappeared over the side of the building as he was taken down in a crane.
The protest had started about 2pm (AEST) on Monday after Josefa Rauluni, a 36-year-old Fijian man who was facing deportation, killed himself earlier in the day at the centre.
Nine Tamils, an Iraqi and an Iranian, all thought to be in their twenties or early thirties, took to the roof to demand their cases be reviewed.
All of them had exhausted the application process for asylum status in Australia and were facing deportation to their countries of origin.
“We are genuine refugees and came to Australia to seek protection, not to be detained in an unlawful way,” they said in a statement issued by the Refugee Action Coalition on Tuesday.
The protesters asked to be resettled in Australia or any country signed up to the Refugee Convention, and to talk directly to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative.
“This is a peaceful protest for freedom for refugees all around Australia and we will continue it,” they said.
Jamal Daoud, from the Social Justice Network, told reporters outside the centre the men had been given reassurances they would not be penalised for protesting.
“There are no guarantees, but the UNHCR has said they will be more involved in their cases,” he said after the protest ended.
A spokesman for the Immigration Department said no special deals had been made with the detainees.
“We are pleased they have chosen to end their action without incident … options surrounding their visa applications were not part of the discussions,” the statement said.
“The detention services provider has been asked to provide a full report of the incident.”
Refugee advocate George Georgiadis, who has visited one of the Tamil men regularly since May, said their actions were a “cry for help”.
“His brother and sister have both been killed and he's actually quite desperate up there,” he said of the 24-year-old.
“They're appealing to the Australian people now because this country has lost its compassion.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Immigration Minister Chris Brown said the asylum seekers' actions would do nothing to prevent their deportation.
“Our immigration officials determine who gets asylum after a very rigorous process,” Mr Bowen told Fairfax Radio Network.
“And it's not determined by a protest, and a protest won't change an immigration outcome.”
Earlier this month, about 80 Afghan asylum seekers broke out of a Darwin detention centre to protest over conditions after days of riots.
Meanwhile, WA Premier Colin Barnett said he feared asylum seekers housed at the Curtin detention in his state would emulate those at Villawood.
“You do get copycat behaviour in these circumstances,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
“Villawood is a nice city facility. It's well designed and not overcrowded so you can understand, therefore, why I'm concerned about the prospect of 1200 single men in the Curtin base, near Derby.
“That's a very, very volatile and dangerous situation.”
The Curtin detention centre currently houses about 600 men, but the federal government has announced it will be expanded to accommodate 1200.
Bala Bigneswaren, from the Australian Tamil Congress, said the men would be taken to Villawood's medical centre for treatment.
He said the wounds caused from self-harming were not serious, but the men were weak from dehydration and exposure to the elements.
“We hope and believe things will happen in the right way, but there were no promises I understand,” he told reporters outside the centre.
“They are showing goodwill by coming down and good faith.
“They are hoping they will be taken care of properly.”