A march and rally in support of the 140+ young refugees being held in long term detention at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA )in Broadmeadows was held on Saturday April 3. Despite poor weather 200-250 people gathered thanks to a good promotional effort from protest organisers Refugee Action Collective (RAC). After gathering in a car park on the corner of Sydney Road at 1pm the crowd marched down Camp Road to the entrance of MITA where speeches from a variety of refugee advocates, former detainees and others condemned the overcrowded conditions in the camp as well as the practice of locking up children in general.
Later in the gathering, some protesters began rocking back and forth on the gates to the entrance of the compound. Those running the stage requested they desist arguing that the rally and RAC had brought together a coalition of different groups together on the basis that such action would not occur. A small number of protesters left at this point.
Most of the crowd (including this writer) were unaware that those at the fence had spotted a young refugee running within the grounds of the compound. The first time many realized that a break out had occurred was when the young man clambered over a side fence cutting himself on barbed wire in the process. Two other teenage refugees who had escaped further down Camp Road then came running into the crowd looking for help.
Unfortunately no one appeared to have planned for this. The possibility that those inside the camp would take action should have been considered and prepared for, especially given the recent spate of refugee uprisings around the country. On the other hand a rumour had spread earlier that all the boys had been taken on an excursion for the day and at least some present were unaware that anyone was still inside.
Reactions to the escape were varied. A large section of the protest helped the exhausted and injured boys to a spot by a wall and then surrounded them to prevent any attempt at recapture by the police or security. Things became somewhat confused. Amongst the crowd some felt that if the boys wanted to leave then the protest should surround them and march off while the police were outnumbered. Others were concerned that in lieu of adequate support networks the boys would eventually have to return to custody and that leaving the site would affect their ability to claim asylum. For the boys’ part they seemed bewildered with many different people talking to them. As one of the boys had been cut by the barbed wire while scaling the fence an ambulance was called.
In the meantime those on stage did not address what had occurred and failed to suggest that the crowd surround and protect the boys. Their decision to continue with speeches as if nothing had happened was surreal given that three vulnerable refugees who had just freed themselves were sitting metres away. Whether those running the stage did this because they were worried about losing control of the protest (which had happened as soon as the boys broke out), because they were worried at enflaming the situation or because they didn’t know what else to do was unclear. However their response was at the very least inadequate and only added to the overall confusion.
In the midst of all this the small number of police who had earlier sealed off the entry road, as well as those stationed inside the gates, remained stationary. A small number of extra police were brought in, but made no move towards the protest. Whether anyone was negotiating with the police was unclear and once more in lieu of information from the stage, or anywhere else for that matter, rumours began to circulate.
After some musicians on stage failed to get anyone to join in on percussion and the speeches wound up the MC announced that the rally was over and that people would soon be marching off. No update on the boys’ situation was given and no explanation offered as to who would remain to assist them. Some of the protesters began firming up to leave while the rest remained with the boys. Around this time the paramedics arrived to check on their condition.
In the meantime some protesters dressed in orange overalls reading “Australia’s Guantanamo” attempted to take direct action. One made it through the fence via a fire equipment cupboard and began scaling a second, inner fence before being arrested. Two others attempted to lock on to the gates and shut the centre down. Before they were able to do so they were assaulted by police who sprayed them in the face with capsicum spray. Some protesters immediately went to their aid pouring water on their faces to alleviate the extreme pain they were suffering.
The paramedics announced shortly after that as the boys had not sustained major injuries they would not remove them from the site. They did not assist the people who had been capsicum sprayed although it’s possible they did not know that it had happened. The ambulance then entered MITA. What may have occurred inside the centre to require this remained unknown.
By this time some of the protesters had begun negotiating for the boys to be allowed to return inside so long as they would not be victimized or face major repercussions. Although MITA management were yet to respond and it remained unclear as to what the boys wanted to do or what their fate might entail, half of the remaining demonstrators chose to march off at this point with red flags aflying.
The 50 or 60 people who remained to support the escapees and injured protesters remained on site for up to an hour until an agreement was reached. Although MITA would not allow the boys to be accompanied on site by a lawyer and/or supporters they agreed that the only punishment would be a week’s suspension for excursions and that supporters would be allowed to check on their situation in the coming days.
No doubt the boy’s escape and the police violence, as well as activists’ reactions to these events, will be hotly debated in the weeks to come.