“Saeed”, not his real name, is not a baby, we do not have cute photos to splash on the front pages of newspapers or to display in brightly coloured social media posts. We do not have photos that pull on heart strings that will elicit the sympathy of kind people. Saeed was a baby once. He was born onto land that was divided by imperial powers a century ago, land that has been drenched in the blood of the people oppressed by rulers whose wars have been fought over oil and territory. Australia has been complicit in those wars, firstly with the British Empire, and now as an ally of the United States. Meanwhile, the private corporations of the military-industrial-complex reap astronomical profits on the suffering of millions of people and on the destruction of the environment.
Australia is complicit in the death and destruction caused by those wars, however our government ignores its responsibility in the creation of conditions that see millions of people needing to flee their countries to seek safety in asylum. It acts in contravention of the UN Convention of Refugees. When it acts in contravention of Australian law, it simply introduces new legislation as a judiciary bypass to change that law to its favour.
When asylum seekers happen to reach our shores after a long and perilous journey, our government punishes and further traumatises them with imprisonment in detention camps run by government contractors: private corporations involved in profiting on human misery. As a neo-colonial power in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia shovels our obligations to asylum seekers to less powerful nations with bribes of foreign aid to warehouse them in bleak and dehumanising conditions such as the Pacific concentration camps of Manus Is, Papua New Guinea, and the Republic of Nauru. The government has attempted to broker various failed people trafficking deals with Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia. US president Trump has put a spanner in the works of a people swap deal that the Turnbull government had hoped would absolve them of responsibility for asylum seekers held as political prisoners in Manus Is and Nauru, thereby easing community disquiet and pressure domestically. Asylum seekers who are not detained on Manus Is and Nauru are held in immigration prisons in our suburban and rural backyards or in community detention.
Saeed is one of a relatively small number of people who have sought asylum in Australia. As a member of a persecuted minority, he made the dangerous journey with his brother across the ocean to seek safety. If humanity and justice had prevailed, they would have been welcomed with kindness and hospitality. Rather, they were imprisoned. As testament to the capricious nature of Australia's immigration and border protection policy, Saeed's brother's claim for asylum was accepted but Saeed's was not. Saeed speaks little English and was not informed about his right of appeal.
Alison Battisson, a human rights lawyer who is now representing Saeed, says:
“Saeed's case is another example of an asylum seeker getting lost in an unfamiliar legal system.
Australia's system for hearing and reviewing protection claims is so complex that many
find it impossible to navigate. All we ask is the Minister hear Saeed's full story.”
Accessing legal assistance for people seeking asylum is a minefield, especially for people with limited English skills. Successive governments have restricted funding and have privatised services. This limited extent of government-funded legal assistance means that people seeking asylum are often left to navigate the complex process of seeking protection alone or through stretched, under-funded services with high caseloads.
Saeed is a victim of this cruel system but he is not defeated. He has resisted the Department of Immigration and Border Protection's (DIBP) efforts to deport him quietly under the radar of community concern. The air flight ticket was booked and paid for with Australian tax dollars. He took the time-honoured method of resistance to oppression by going on a hunger strike and refused to sign any official documents. Weakened from the hunger strike, he was taken to a suburban hospital in Melbourne from the MITA detention centre in Broadmeadows, Victoria. In the hospital, nursing and medical staff sedated him and force fed him through a tube inserted down his throat against his will in preparation for deportation. Did the staff question this treatment under their respective professional Code of Ethics? Following medical treatment, Saeed was discharged and transferred back to MITA under private security company Serco guard.
On learning of Saeed's imminent risk of deportation to a country where he would be in danger of persecution and imprisonment in a prison notorious for torture of its political prisoners, community members rallied in solidarity with Saeed. A picket was set up at the gates of MITA where every departing vehicle was observed. The DIBP and Minister Dutton were put on notice that this deportation attempt was not unnoticed and would be resisted by the people.
The DIBP breached the community picket after four days. Shortly after return from the hospital and having kept Saeed isolated from other detained people, they bundled him in a white van with six Serco guards and a doctor, drove through a back gate that had been undefended for only a 20 minute gap, and drove the approx. nine hour trip up the Hume Highway to Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in suburban Sydney, NSW. The DIBP prevented Saeed's right to access to his solicitor during this time and would not confirm his location to her until the next day. Saeed described his experience as being “kidnapped”.
The community in Sydney immediately sprang to action. They mounted an around the clock watch at the gates with a picket to check departing vehicles that now continues into its second week. An airport activation plan is in place ready to picket departures of flights to the Middle East and to enlist support among travellers to resist Saeed's deportation.
Community engagement to stop deportations of asylum seekers to danger is growing. There have been protests and occupations of DIBP offices around the country in solidarity with Saeed combined with a growing groundswell of grassroots support as evidenced by the picket at Villawood and on social media. Significantly, RISE Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees, the first refugee and asylum seeker organisation in Australia to be run and governed by refugees, asylum seekers and ex-detainees, has fielded representatives as spokespeople to rallies and lent its support to the campaign. Mums4Refugees started a petition to airlines calling on them to desist from profiting from deportations of asylum seekers. Church groups, community refugee rights and social justice groups are participating with multifaceted contributions.
Close the Camps Action Collective has sought the endorsement of larger NGO refugee rights groups. The response has been disappointing but as expected - they have a donation base to protect in order to sustain their valued ongoing projects. Non-violent direct action of civil disobedience does not attract donors with deep pockets but it is the strategy that has mobilised masses of people to create change in the civil rights, feminist, anti-war and environment movements.
The response to calls for union solidarity has been lacklustre, if not unsurprising. There was a hope that the new ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus, would lend her bold support to the #stopdeportations #freeSaeed campaign as she did during the #babyAsha case. Were the unions to support the call to 'stop deportations to danger' and to 'close the camps' they would have to examine their Labor party affiliations given that Labor supports off-shore processing and detention of asylum seekers policy. Labor has not opposed deportations to danger and has remained silent in the case of Saeed. What the union bureaucrats fail to realise, in the words of the late Tony Benn, is that “...the way a government treats refugees (and Aboriginal people) is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.”
Union governance would also be held to account for the actions of their members in the refugee detention and health care industries. An embarrassing but honest proposition. However, the union movement does have a rich tradition of standing with the oppressed. We call on them to take up this issue and to take real action for justice in the fight to end Australia's cruel refugee policy. It is true that all social movements that create real and lasting change for the better in our society are powered by the people at the grassroots. People just like Saeed and people just like you and me. People who believe as Saeed's fellow political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, says: “We need to do more than what is right. We need to join together to right what is wrong.”
Written by Gaye Demanuele
Close the Camps Action Collective