On Wednesday morning a large group of asylum seekers walked out of the Darwin detention centre and stood quietly by the Stuart Highway holding up bed sheets so that passing cars could read such messages as “Give us mercy.” Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, was there:

Like many small towns, Darwin leaks with information. Everybody knows somebody. The recent walkout by Afghan asylum seekers from the Northern Immigration Detention Centre was presented by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) as a response to visa rejections. But in a town such as Darwin, truth will out.

Immigration officials have now admitted publicly that they told the men that those who were refused at IMR — (Internal Merits Review — the second stage of the Christmas Island process) would be immediately sent back to Afghanistan. This raised fears in the centre. It also contradicts an agreement reached internally with DIAC that it would hold off on removals until after decision on the current High Court case is handed down.

These men were told before their transfer from Christmas Island, that  they would get their visas  5-10 days after arriving in Darwin. The minister reported publicly that they were “on a positive pathway”. Five months later they are still waiting and some have been refused.

Following the deportation threats, 80 men were told that they were to be transferred again, this time to Curtin Detention Centre. They refused. That night they decided that this proposal must be another trick. They believed that instead of Curtin, they would be sent back to Afghanistan. So quietly in the early hours of the morning they drew slogans on their bed sheets and decided to take their case to the Australian people and the media with a peaceful protest.

On Wednesday morning they walked out of the centre with their sheets and some sat quietly by the Stuart Highway while others stood holding the sheets up so that passing cars could read such messages as “Give us mercy.” Some men wept as they tried to make their case. The men in other compounds knew nothing about it until after it happened.

The protestors would not have been heartened by the threats and abuse from some locals as they drove by. Radio ran hot with calls for shooting, tasers and tear gas as well as calls for compassion and generosity.

At 9am as I walked past the men sitting on the ground, one man raised his cupped empty hand to his mouth in a drinking motion. I could see that he was wordlessly asking for water. I asked to see the senior officer on duty explaining that the men needed water. It was about 35 degrees with high humidity and they were sitting in the sun with cloths on their heads for protection. The police were passing bottles of water to each other in front of the Afghan men. I was told that the senior officer was busy and was then asked for my name and address.

When the senior officer arrived back to tell me to go across the road as I was standing in the media area, I asked again to ensure that the men were given water, pointing out that both police and media had water. I had also been handed water.

I checked with journalists later at 12.30pm when I had left to go to a detention facility. Again no water had been given even though ambulances had taken five men to hospital.

Sandi Logan, national communications manager for immigration, who happened to be up from Canberra, had explained to journalists that the men were being denied water as a “negotiating tactic”.

Logan tried to move away from this statement later, telling journalists that many of the protesters were fasting for the holy month of Ramadan. “Many of them refused the offer of water,” he said

But too many journalists had already recorded the “negotiating tactic” quote  in their notebooks.

Another 10 men suffering dehydration were taken to hospital later from the police station. The SERCO staff had given the men some water when they first walked out but were stopped by an order from immigration. Towards the end, a policeman was observed walking away, leaving four bottles of water lying on the ground as the temperature rose, whether by design or accident is not known. An Afghan man picked them up and passed them around.

So it was that a peaceful protest initiated by misinformation and mistrust ends up with 15 men going to hospital and another 80 carted off, first to the Darwin watchhouse, then in a convoy of caged vans to a specially chartered plane to Curtin Detention Centre. These men were taken without their medications and their few personal affects. Some of these men have been tortured back in their homeland and are in the middle of treatment plans with counsellors, which are now suspended.

There are no mental health facilities in Curtin as yet. Most importantly for immigration, the men have no access to phones and communication so if they are charged with writing on their bed sheets (wilful destruction of immigration property) or escaping from lawful custody (sitting 50 metres from their prison fences), who will defend them?

Immigration detention is now back at 2002 standards — cruel, arbitrary, indefinite and life-threatening. Australians are as divided as ever on the issue and the major party leaders  are vying  with each other as to who is toughest. Meanwhile, the people of Darwin are divided on the presence of the asylum seekers. Some locals  are remembering that it was Afghan cameleers who made the overland telegraph and Darwin possible as they rally to support the asylum seekers in their midst. Others are not so generous.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey