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“No foreseeable end”

Clo Schofield writes about her experience at last Thursday’s action at Villawood.

villawood-detention
villawood-detention
Illustration by Anjali Vishwanathan

I ran behind the buses. Inside, they touched their hands to their lips and pressed them against the glass. They raised an arm in salute, or held them to their hearts.

“Thanks for trying.”

There is almost no opportunity to directly impact the detention system and the twisted ways it inevitably affects the lives of refugees in Australia.

The “refugee problem” is being exported, deported, outsourced, and then placed out of our reach. Out of state, out of mind. Thursday morning was an opportunity to put a foot in the door. We did, for a few hours, disrupt and delay the insidious operation of the Department of Immigration’s ice-cold bureaucracy. I watched the buses drive away. They slipped through our fingers.

Older, more experienced anti-detention campaigners tell me that centres with high concentrations of asylum seekers have been strategically shifted in the past decade to suppress protest.

They are now geographically positioned to avoid being subject to both everyday scrutiny, and to the mass actions of detainees and civilians that physically destroyed Woomera and Baxter Immigration Detention Centres in 2002 and 2005.

There are a number of dehumanising discourses functioning within public debate. One that casts them as members of a self interested, poor, brown hoard, taking advantage of Australia and seeking to somehow affect the economic circumstance of Australian citizen, by stealing your job, or your children, or something. Or that they’re cargo — handled, processed, transferred — managed by an industry contracted by DIBP making huge profits on “detainees”, people referred to by number.

But the one that I’ve been thinking about recently is a discourse amongst “refugee activists”; discussions about the future of refugees, where refugees don’t have a seat at the table, let alone its head. Refugees aren’t given agency or subjecthood – they are victims of a determinist system, the exemplification of someone’s praxis. They are passive.

Yesterday reminded me that this is total bullshit. The people in the centre disrupted the transfer from the start. They refused to get on the buses, the people left in the centre conducted sit-ins and a hunger strike has been initiated. RISE, a refugee advocacy group run by refugees and detention survivors, reported that one asylum seeker slashed his wrists, but was swiftly bandaged, packaged up, handcuffed, and shoved onto the bus.

When the buses first arrived at Villawood, I was shocked. There were two huge coaches. Our source had told me that only 32 people were being forcibly transferred. It was only as we faced down the buses at the front gate that I realised why — there was more than one guard per person on board. Resistance and disruption had been so strong that a number of asylum seekers were cuffed on board and had two guards sitting on the seats in front of them, two behind, and one beside them. All of this whilst they were under constant threat of deportation to Manus Island or Nauru, had they engaged in anything the Department of Immigration and Border Protection considers unsavoury.

If you google “Villawood protest”, the news coverage of our action will come up. The focus is on the gate of the detention centre, not the inside. Eight of my good friends were arrested outside Villawood yesterday. It was hard for me to watch, and must have been a thousand times harder to experience. They screamed with pain as cops wrenched them apart. They made a physical sacrifice in solidarity with the people who sat watching in the buses, their cuffed hands raised above their heads. I’m proud to know these people, but I want to know why this action was lent so much visibility, from News Ltd., Sky News, the ABC, SBS, the Guardian, whilst the resistance of asylum seekers saw practically none.

I think it was one of the most effective refugee actions in the past while. It got a lot of media attention, and saw many other people planning actions energetically — noise protests to express solidarity to our brothers and sisters in Villawood prison, further obstruction to the forced transfers that will be carried out over the next few weeks.

But after it was over, I felt terrible.

Traumatised from seeing my closest friends whacked into the ground by huge cops, shocked from the fear and the violence of it all, and despairing that even after an eight hour blockade, after ten people put their bodies on the line to disrupt the Department’s move, asylum seekers will still be waking up in a remote desert prison day after day, isolated from their friends, their spouses, their families. There is no foreseeable end.

Visit the Students Thinking Outside Borders blog here. It is a space which provides critique of Australia’s “border protection” system, methods of disrupting it, and critiques of ourselves.