Last week three University of Sydney students were arrested outside Villawood Detention Centre as part of a protest held against the transfer of 83 detainees to remote centres in Western Australia.
The protest effort began at 4:30am last Thursday when around 40 protestors, including 15 USyd students, arrived at Villawood in an attempt to prevent the transfer of 16 detainees to the Yongah Hill and Curtin detention centres in Western Australia. Witnesses described violent skirmishes between protesters and police throughout the morning. One woman was allegedly dragged along the ground and received bruising to her back, and others suffered lacerations from handcuffs. Of the USyd students in attendance, Brigitte Garozzo suffered a dislocated wrist, and Tristan Ofner and Steven Kwon were allegedly roughly pulled by police officers.
The protestors were unable to prevent the buses containing the detainees from leaving the Villawood complex.
Police disbanded the group of protesters shortly after 12pm and arrested eight, including Garozzo, Kwon and Ofner, for “failing to comply with police orders,” according to a NSW Police spokesperson.
The protests continued early on Saturday, when a second group of refugees was slated to be moved. Buses and police arrived at 1am in an attempt to circumvent demonstrations, only to find 50 protesters already mobilized. Details of the transfer were not disclosed to media outlets, with news of the midnight transfer raised on Twitter by RISE Refugee, an alliance of past and present detainees in the Australian detention system.
On Saturday morning, crowds of up to 100 protestors clashed with specialist police units, mounted officers and riot dogs for approximately eight hours. By 10:15am, three buses carrying more than 40 detainees finally broke through picket lines, after which three protesters were detained for “failing to follow move-on orders.”
USyd student and Students Thinking Outside Borders (STOB) member Kitty-Jean Laginha attended the protest and witnessed what she described as numerous fierce attacks carried out by the police.
“I saw my friend get hit hard in the head intentionally. [The police] don’t stop and pause if someone is being injured,” she said. NSW Police would not disclose the number of deployed police officers, but said “the number matched the volatility of the scene”.
The plans for relocation were announced last Monday, along with a declaration from the government that future asylum seekers will not have the right to legal representation.
A spokesperson for Mr Morrison said the transfers were “to enable refurbishment works to be completed at Villawood”.
However, a number of protestors suggested the refugees were moved in order to prevent them from obtaining legal advice for legal proceedings due to be heard last Friday regarding an information leak from the Department of Immigration. “I’m not sure why they couldn’t place them in temporary housing until the renovations were finished. Why move them to the middle of nowhere with no access to their lawyers?” USyd student Clo Schofield said.
16 Villawood residents recently sought legal action over the DOI leak, arguing that it constituted a breach of the Migration and Privacy Acts.
A spokesperson for Morrison asserted that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection had “no intention” of removing any of the asylum seekers involved in the legal proceedings. However, of the 83 detainees who were transferred on Thursday and Saturday, three were involved in the data-breach case.
Michaela Byers, a defence lawyer for the refugees in the case, has argued that the transfer from Villawood constitutes an obstruction of justice, but failed in her attempts to obtain an injunction that would prevent the relocation.
Officials from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection have not revealed whether the detainees will be returned to Villawood. In protest, asylum seekers from two compounds within the centre have begun a hunger strike, according to the Refugee Action Coalition. Using the account @asylumseekers3, detainees within Villawood tweeted a message of support for those resisting the transfer: “we love you all brave people standing out there for us.”