David Sheridan went to Woomera with 150 other protestors last weekend and reports back on what he says are the facts of the situation. And below that we’ve published a stinging attack on his piece by a reader.
The Woomera Detention Centre lies in the middle of a vast desert. Journalists, human rights activists and even SA state police are prohibited from getting closer to the centre than the front gate, approximately 600 metres from the camp proper.
Information of going ons within the camp is, therefore, exclusively controlled by the Federal Government and Australian Correctional Management, the company contracted to run the camp and control its 900 inmates.
On Friday afternoon a group of over 150 activists, under the banner of the Australian Refugees Action Collective, left Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide for Woomera to protest the Howard Government’s mandatory detention policy.
What followed raises the question; is the Howard Government embarking on a policy of official misinformation?
We arrived at Woomera Detention Centre at 9am SA time and set about the business of raising banners and assembling our PA system.
The gate was guarded by around 25 SA Police, mostly from Port Augusta, who chatted amiably with protesters. For many of them too, it was their first time at the Detention Centre.
One officer even asked to borrow a protesters pair of binoculars so he could get a better look at the camp proper; he too was not technically allowed closer than 600 metres to where the asylum seekers are held.
This is a result of the Centre being on Federal land. The area is subject to a raft of special security laws left over from the days when Woomera was used as a test site for Australia’s ballistic missile program.
Technically no photos or footage can be taken in the zone and trespassers can be arrested and tried in special secret trials. The penalty for trespassing is up to 10 years.
This seems a perfect place to hold asylum seekers by a government intent on controlling the flow of information about the treatment of inmates in the camp.
The term concentration camp, although apparently sensationalist, seems to fit this razor wire surrounded, isolated compound.
After an hour or so protesting at the gate, protesters noticed that an increasingly large number of asylum seekers had gathered at the perimeter fence of the camp proper.
The fence – from the best information at hand – is actually the secondary perimeter fence, so it must be presumed that the inmates had somehow managed to breach the first fence to get to a position where they were visible to the protesters.
What followed was a long distance expression of solidarity. Protesters raised a series of giant banners of letters forming the word ‘welcome’, while inmates waved white flags, scarves and banners of their own.
Chants of ‘free them’ echoed across the desert plain to the camp. Some protesters struggled to coordinate a chant of ‘welcome’ in Farsi, a language common in Afghanistan.
The number of inmates at the fence steadily grew and some got on the roof of the buildings within the camp – their banners echoed the sentiments of the protesters. One summed it up with the words ‘Close the Camps’.
At this stage protesters noticed more Federal Police, identifiable in their blue uniforms as opposed to the SA police’s tan outfits, assembling outside the fence until they numbered about 50.
There had been a small contingent of Federal Police earlier but they seemed to have been there as a last line of defence in case the protesters attempted to rush past the gate towards the camp’s fence.
A motion was passed by the protesters to request that a delegation be allowed to the fence of the camp to pass a bundle of letters of support to the detainees.
The SA Police relayed this to the Federal Police who immediately rejected it. They said they would pass the letters on themselves.
The protesters, sceptical of this offer, rejected it, dashing any hopes of meaningful communication with the detainees.
A line of kitted out Federal Police assembled half way between the gate and the camps’ fence. They wore body armour and had plastic feet and hand binds hanging from their belts.
At 12.30 pm a water cannon truck was deployed to the outside of the fence. As it moved it spewed black exhaust fumes giving some protesters the impression that some form of gas was being used on the detainees.
Screams of ‘stop them’ emanated from the protest group who, at this stage, were still behind the gate.
At 12.45 the water cannon was fired through the fence at the detainees, many of whom were women and children.
This caused a great deal of distress among the protesters. Many broke in to tears while others advanced 100 metres past the gate, as the SA Police managed to maintain a line in front of them.
It was apparent to the protesters, who vastly outnumbered the SA Police, that they could have easily rushed past the line if they desired. The menacingly armoured Federal’s, however, proved to be a successful deterrent against any such action.
The protesters noticed smoke and then flames behind the fence. The detainees were burning something, reportedly mattresses.
They also noticed tear gas canisters were being fired over the fence into the group of detainees, most of whom stood their ground, some managed to pick up the canisters and hurled them back over the fence.
A detainee scaled the fence and appeared to get through, presumably to get to the group of protesters, possibly to pass on a message, or maybe in a misguided and doomed attempt to escape.
The protesters were getting increasingly upset and angry.
Through the leadership of certain RAC activists, and the heart felt requests of a representative of the Aboriginal traditional owners of the land they retreated back behind the gate.
The SA Police told protesters that the Federal Police had told them that the water cannon was only been used to put out the fires lit by the detainees.
This was greeted with derision by the protesters who pointed out that the fires didn’t appear until after the water cannon was used.
Others questioned the efficacy of tear gas canisters at putting out fire, and asked why the cannon was being aimed directly at the body mass of the detainees.
After the incident subsided SA Police admitted they hadn’t seen any sign of violence by the detainees or fires until after the water cannon’s deployment and use.
They also told the protesters they had been passed on information, that they deemed to be false, that detainees had attacked guards with iron bars.
This misinformation was being used, in their opinion, to cause an incident between themselves and the protesters. They were clearly unimpressed.
At about 1.30pm the protesters’ buses returned from Woomera where the drivers had been getting some well-deserved rest.
The water cannon was still at the fence and had been joined by more shield and baton wielding, armoured Federal Police.
The number of detainees at the fence had significantly decreased and the incident had for all intents and purposes subsided.
The protesters boarded the buses and made the trip back to Adelaide in stunned silence.
THE GOVERNMENT SPIN
After several hours on the bus a protester got a call from a friend in Melbourne who told him the disturbing news that the ABC’s 7.00pm bulletin had reported that protesters had let off a flare, precipitating the incident.
The same bulletin also claimed that two ACM guards had been hospitalised, one with a broken arm. This couldn’t have been the case as the only ambulance at the scene was attending to a protester who had suffered an apparent epileptic fit.
No vehicles from within camp had passed out the gate, making hospitalisation of the guards unlikely unless they had been taken there by invisible helicopter.
The next day Adelaide’s Sunday Mail reported the Minister for Customs, Senator Ellison, blamed the incident on the protesters. He cited the fictitious flare and repeated the line that guards had been seriously injured.
The Sunday Age, which ran the story of the incident on its front page at late notice, reported only minor injuries, to guards and detainees alike, and a denial by RAC that any flares had been let off by the protesters.
In the same article the Minister for Immigration, Mr Ruddock, was quoted as saying that the use of the CS gas and water cannon against the women and children detainees was justified to maintain the detention regime.
He said that the Federal Police had taken necessary steps to prevent a break out. This seems ridiculous considering the number of Federal Police present, all of whom carried feet and hand binds.
The Sunday Age article said that the protest had remained peaceful, while Monday’s Adelaide Advertiser stated that the protest had, in fact, been violent – another completely false claim from the News Ltd press.
No doubt this story is still developing with more government misinformation, more brutality, and more protests still to come.
This reporter is exhausted after 40 hours on buses.
Do ya best and goodnight.
Now let’s look at this email which took issue which much of what David wrote:
Sheridan piece bollocked by reader
I only just stumbled across your wonderful web site tonight, it was mentioned on one of the 9MSN boards of which I am a member.
I was prompted to write, however, when I read the article, “Lies, Damned Lies and Detention Centres: An eye witness account of Saturday’s incident at the Woomera Detention Centre”, available at http://www.crikey.com.au/politics/refomyths.html
The correspondent uses some rather inflammatory and sensational language, and does himself and his cause a dis-service by quoting some falsities.
1. “Technically no photos or footage can be taken in the zone and trespassers can be arrested and tried in special secret trials.”
Although the Woomera Prohibited Area is covered under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, the Woomera township, of which the detention centre is part, is an open township and has been since the township’s gate-house was closed back in the 70’s. Bus loads of tourists stop in Woomera every day and snap away happily with their cameras, so I doubt if this section of the Act, 9(2), would be in effect in the township itself.
Technically, trials can be ordered held “in camera”, Section 31 Defence (Special Undertakings) Act 1952, if the, “judge, magistrate or other person presiding or competent to preside over the proceedings” is “satisfied that such a course is expedient in the interests of the defence of the Commonwealth”. I doubt this would be the case in this instance.
The author also fails to point out that, although the Act has been in existence since Gazetted in 1952, no trial has ever proceeded under this Act.
2. “The penalty for trespassing is up to 10 years.”
This too is sensationalist. There are no provisions under the Migration Act 1958 for trespass. The Detention Centre would certainly not be covered under the Defence (Special Undertakings) Act, and even if it were the penalty for trespass, under Section 9(1), is for 7 years. Need I remind you that no-one has ever been prosecuted under this Act since it’s inception, even though many occasions of trespass have occurred on Defence (Special Undertakings), for example, the old Nurrungar Base at Woomera, Pine Gap near Alice Springs, and the old North West Cape Joint Facility at Exmouth.
Therefore the only Act that could be applicable in this instance is the Crimes Act 1914, specifically Section 89. The penalty for trespass on prohibited Commonwealth Land under this Act is 10 penalty units. A penalty unit is described in Section 4AA of this Act as being $110. Therefore the penalty for trespass would be $1,100.
As this is not an indictable offence under this Act, the trial would be held in a Magistrate’s Court, and judging by previous demonstrations in the old days of Nurrungar, would be held in Woomera and be presided over by the local JP.
3. The description of the Federal Police is also sensationalist by the description that they had “plastic feet and hand binds hanging from their belts”.
Surely the simpler description of these articles as “cable ties” would have been sufficient, although less sensational of course.
4. The description “a water cannon truck” would have been less sensational had it been called a fire truck, which is exactly what it is.
5. And this, “As it moved it spewed black exhaust fumes giving some protesters the impression that some form of gas was being used on the detainees.”, is quite preposterous as it is obvious that the author knew that it was black exhaust fumes and not some form of gas.
Surely the inclusion of this type of sensational tripe does your e-zine no good, it is certainly, however, lies and damned lies.
Yours sincerely, Andrew
Now let’s look at a piece from the Centre of Justice and Community Education debunking the unreliable information on the boat people trying to reach our shores:
Debunking the refugee myths
Myth 1 – Boat People are Queue Jumpers
Fact: In Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no queues for people to jump. Australia has no diplomatic representation in these countries and supports the International coalition of nations who continue to oppose these regimes and support sanctions against them. Therefore, there is no standard refugee process where people wait in line to have their applications considered. Few countries between the Middle East and Australia are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and as such asylum seekers are forced to continue to travel to another country to find protection. People who are afraid for their lives are fleeing from the world’s most brutal regimes including the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq. Antonio Domini, Head of UN Humanitarian Program in Afghanistan, states that Afghanistan is one of the most difficult places in the world in which to survive.
Myth 2 – Asylum Seekers are Illegal
Fact: This is untrue. Under Australian Law and International Law a person is entitled to make an application for refugee asylum in another country when they allege they are escaping persecution. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” People who arrive on our shores without prior authorisation from Australia, with no documents, or false documents are not illegal. They are asylum seekers – a legal status under International Law. Many Asylum Seekers are forced to leave their countries in haste and are unable to access appropriate documentation. In many cases oppressive authorities actively prevent normal migration processes from occurring. ‘Illegals’ are people who overstay their visas. The vast majority of these in Australia are from western countries, including 5,000 British tourists.
Myth 3 – Australia Already Takes Too Many Refugees
Fact: Australia receives relatively few refugees by world standards. In 2001 Australia will receive only 12 000 refugees through its humanitarian program. This number has remained static for three years, despite the ever-increasing numbers of refugees’ worldwide. Australia accepted 20 000 refugees each year at the beginning of the 1980’s. According to Amnesty International 1 in every 115 people on earth are refugees, and a new refugee is created every 21 seconds. Refugees re-settle all over the world. However, the distribution of refugees across the world is very unequal. Tanzania hosts one refugee for every 76 Tanzanian people (1:76) Britain hosts one refugee for every 530 British people. (1:530) Australia hosts one refugee for every 1583 Australian people. (1:1583)
Myth 4 – We’re Being Swamped by Hordes of Boat People
Fact: 300 000 refugees arrived in Europe to seek asylum last year. In contrast, 4174 reached Australia by boat or plane. In 2000, Iran and Pakistan each hosted over a million Afghan refugees. The real burden of assisting refugees is borne in the main by the world’s poorest nations.
Myth 5 – They’re Not Real Refugees Anyway
Fact: 97% of applicants from Iraq and 93% of applicants from Afghanistan seeking asylum without valid visas in Australia in 1999 were recognised as genuine refugees. Therefore, under Australian law they were found to be eligible to stay in Australia. Generally, 84% of all asylum seekers are found to be legitimate refugees and are able to stay in Australia.
Myth 6 – They Must Be ‘Cashed up’ to Pay People Smugglers
Fact: It is alleged that people who have the resources to pay people smugglers could not possibly be genuine refugees. The UNHCR disputes claims about ‘cashed up’ refugees saying that payments made to people smugglers in fact range from $4000 – $5000 AUD. In reality, many families and communities pool their resources in an attempt to send their relatives to safety. People smuggling is a crime that the international community needs to combat. However, this does not negate the legitimacy of asylum seekers’ claims, nor their need to seek refuge. The international community, in eradicating people smuggling, is also required to address the growing numbers of asylum seekers throughout the world. As a Western nation, Australia has a role to play.
Myth 7 – There is no Alternative to Mandatory Detention
Fact: Asylum seekers claims need to be assessed for legitimacy. Australia is the only Western country that mandatorily detains asylum seekers whilst their claims are being heard. Asylum seekers are not criminals and detention should be minimal. At a cost of $104 a day per head the policy of detention is very expensive. Community based alternatives to mandatory detention can be found internationally and within the current Australian parole system. A select Committee of the NSW Parliament has costed alternatives to incarceration including home detention and transitional housing. The average cost of community based programs are (per person, per day): Parole: $5.39. Probation: $3.94. Home Detention: $58.83. These options are clearly more economically efficient, and much more humane. Sweden receives similar numbers of asylum seekers as Australia, despite having less than half the population. Detention is only used to establish a persons identity and to conduct criminal screening. Most detainees are released within a very short time, particularly if they have relatives or friends living in Sweden. Of the 17,000 asylum seekers currently in Sweden 10,000 reside outside the detention centres. Children are only detained for the minimum possible time (a maximum of 6 days).
Myth 8 – If We Let Them In, They’ll Take Our Benefits
Fact: A common misconception is that refugees arriving in Australia will ‘steal’ the entitlements of Australians. The reality is that refugees, like migrants, create demand for goods and services, thus stimulating the economy and generating growth and employment. A recent UCLA study has shown that unauthorised immigration boosts the US economy by $800 billion per year.
Taken from Edmund Rice – Centre for Justice & Community Education 90 Underwood Rd Homebush, NSW AUSTRALIA 2140. Phone: 61.2.9764 1330 Fax: 61.2.9764 1743 Email: [email protected]
* Crikey is Australia’s most successful independent ezine with 1700 subscribers who for $55 get a tee-shirt, 5 sealed section emails a week and access to our 800,000 word searchable archive so why not join the Crikey army by clicking here.