[ 28. Aug 2000 ]

Protests flare across Australia against the arbitrary internment

Rioting asylum seekers today burned down buildings at the Woomera detention centre following a weekend of trouble during which inmates were sprayed with tear gas after stoning staff.


Protesting detainees began chanting and causing damage to the centre on Friday night, with the noise able to be heard at least five kilometres away.

Water-cannons and tear gas have been used against prisoners in the refugee internment camp at Woomera in Western Australia in an attempt to put down protests that began early in the morning. They destroyed four buildings including the recreation building, dining room, school and ablution block.

Federal Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, has claimed that stones were thrown at security staff. According to the Minister, "The fences have been breached, they have taken pickets from the fences and using them as weapons. They have been stoning the administration building."

Local service station operator David Kirby says the protest has been building for a couple of days. "They"ve been building a secondary fence to keep them all in, and they"ve been pulling that down everytime the workers have been putting it up," he said.

On Saturday, August 26th, protests were held outside the Perth, Villawood (in Sydney) and Maribyrnong (in Melbourne) internment camps calling for the camps to be shut down and the internees to be released.

This follows a series of mass escapes from three remote internment camps (Woomera, Port Hedland and Curtin) in mid-June this year when over 700 internees escaped to make their way to town centres to stage protests in order to break out of their political and geographic isolation.

Prisoners in Woomera -- as in the other refugee internment camps
-- have been incarcerated without charge, without trial, without any
ability to access the courts to review the length or merit of their incarceration. Most of those held at Woomera have been there for over seven months, most of whom face the prospect of being forcibly
returned to Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is Australia"s system of "mandatory and non-reviewable
detention", where anyone who arrives by boat without papers seeking asylum is automatically imprisoned. Since January, and after
increasing restrictions on who may eventually qualify for a visa, the
small proportion of those who are granted visas can only, at best,
look forward to a 3-year "temporary protection visa", with limited
access to welfare and health care.

Australia"s is the only western government that practices a
system of automatic and non-reviewable incarceration. It also
receives and grants fewer applications for asylum, both on and
offshore, than any other western country.

On the eve of the Sydney Olympics and the World Economic Forum"s
Asia-Pacific Session in Melbourne, as the Federal Parliament debates
a bill that will give the army "shoot to kill powers" against
dissent, it has become clear that the only movement that is not
subject to repression is that of money -- tourism, trade and meetings
of corporate executives.

Whilst the Minister for Immigration argued that those who were
engaged in the protests would no longer be able to apply for asylum
under the provisions that require applicants for visas be "of good
character", no one has attempted to stop Bill Gates" entry into
Australia as he prepares to speak at the World Economic Forum,
despite the fact that he, as head of Microsoft, has been found guilty
of breaking anti-trust laws in the US.

Calls for policy review
says the trouble at Woomera shows a review of Federal Government
policy on the handling of illegal immigrants is warranted. "We as a
nation need to look again at whether we do need to detain in remote
areas in spartan conditions all those people who come to us, albeit
without our permission, but nevertheless as refugees," he said.

The Australian Democrats say the riot at the centre is not
surprising given the Federal Government"s hardline attitude. Senator
Andrew Bartlett says the Government has tried to make the stay of illegal immigrants as uncomfortable as possible to discourage others
from coming to Australia illegally. "If you treat people like that
then sometimes, as one can see with a history of prisons in Australia
and around the world, if you overdo that sort of thing then you"re
almost guaranteeing unrest," he said. "Particularly when you"ve got people who have have experienced some of the suffering that these people have.