“Please fight strong.” Sally Hunter is inspired by the words of a man who was detained in an Australian immigration detention centre.
As a young woman growing up I felt a strong sense of justice burning inside me. It was evident to me that injustice was present right before my inquisitive eyes. I first became an activist as a teenager when I attended a protest in Albury in opposition to Pauline Hanson’s racist hate speech.
My footsteps have touched the streets of many cities in protest for the realisation of human and animals’ rights, and in solidarity with First Nations people, people seeking asylum, people of colour, the LGBQTI community, women, people with mental illness, homeless people, oppressed workers, animals and the planet.
I’ve held signs, marched, chanted, sung songs, written letters, started campaigns, written submissions for inquiries, held events and shared on social media. Standing tall on the streets contributing to amplifying issues that the media inaccurately and/or under reports is empowering and it connects people with shared causes together.
In the more than 20 years since I first became an activist, I never imagined that Pauline Hanson would continue to be given a platform in the public political space to spout her racist hate speech. I also never imagined that my move from symbolic activism to direct action would become a necessary aspect of my existence in this society.
I have completed a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Sociology, a post-graduate diploma of Education, and a Master of Human Rights. I have worked as a primary school teacher for 10 years, in Melbourne and London. I have travelled extensively across the world and have connected with people from all walks of life in many different countries. With each experience and journey my sense of the depth of injustice in the world grew until the links between oppression and the system within which we all live became illuminated.
The impetus for me to take direct action for the realisation of human rights formed through my exposure to the ongoing cruelty and torture being enacted in detention centres across Australia towards people seeking asylum.
Within the walls of detention centres many people are indefinitely imprisoned for seeking asylum despite Australia being a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states:
“Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
I first visited Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) to visit detained unaccompanied minors seven years ago. We played cards, music and ping pong in between cups of tea and conversation. I continued to visit when I was in the country. Two years ago, I began regularly visiting at MITA for at least 4 hours per week and two hours at Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre (MIDC). I travelled to Christmas Island detention centre and Yongah Hill detention centre in Western Australia.
During this time I became active in advocacy and activism, learning much and co-creating actions. Despite the immense efforts of thousands of people over the course of the 25 years since mandatory detention was legislated, the Immigration system is even more punitive, harsh and cruel than it has ever been.
Watching people being tortured, self-harming, attempting suicide and withdrawing as they lose a sense of self, life and hope is completely heart breaking. It re-shaped my sense of my individual and our collective safety in this society and caused me to re-examine my entire life.
One particular moment stands out for me; I was driving away from the Christmas Island detention centre on a bumpy dirt road in the middle of the forest when a van full of men who were being transported from the airport to the detention centre passed me. I saw pairs of wide eyes peering out of the window. As they took in their surroundings, they appeared scared and vulnerable. I couldn’t imagine what emotions these men were experiencing as they were being trafficked to a prison on a remote island in the middle of a dense wild forest.
In this moment I felt sick in my stomach as I witnessed the raw, real outcomes of the Australian Government’s torture regime.
It came to this: I cannot be silent while the Government actively tortures people and denies people the realisation of their human rights. The realisation of the rights of people seeking asylum represents all of our rights, rights that we share in theory but that are not being realised in practice.
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
(I acknowledge the limitations and shortcomings of the human rights framework, however, respect them as the most universal agreement to how people can co-habit the earth together harmoniously.)
It is from this premise that the necessity for direct action became self-evident. If we have rights, we also have the responsibility to ensure that our rights, and the rights of people whose capacity to demand their rights is limited, are demanded and upheld.
At this point of parliamentary bipartisan support for mandatory detention and offshore processing, I see direct action and civil disobedience as a necessary oppositional force to the brutal torturous immigration regime. In the struggle for refugee rights, working alongside people with lived experience is vital. People who do not have citizenship face harsh penalties for any activity that is deemed illegal and therefore direct action is out of the reach of many people with lived experience of seeking asylum. As a person granted Australian citizenship at birth I feel that my privilege of being a citizen is the best tool I can use in the refugee rights movement.
In April this year a group of activists entered Customs House, 1010 Latrobe Street in the Docklands, Melbourne, and occupied the foyer leading to the office tower. This building houses Border Force and is the central office of their operations on Manus Island and Nauru. We demanded to speak to a representative of Border Force senior management about the ongoing cruelty being inflicted on people in immigration detention centres, both onshore and offshore. We demanded that the camps be closed. Our request was denied and after seven hours the Victorian Police entered the building and carried each activist out one by one. Our details were taken and we were told we would be under arrest. Despite a number of the major media outlets being present for most of the occupation there was very little reporting in the media, leading us to suspect that there was a media blackout in place.
Three weeks later, we returned to 1010 Latrobe Street and occupied the foyer again. We remained inside for three hours before Victorian Police arrived and carried us out of the building. I was carried to the side of the building, placed on the ground and surrounded by a ring of police. An officer sat on the ground next to me and performed a pat down search before I was lifted and carried into the back of a police van. I was taken to Melbourne West police station and placed in a cell for three hours before being released on bail with the conditions that I do not go within 100 metres of the Border Force office at 1010 Latrobe Street or the Immigration Department in Lonsdale Street. Four other women activists were also given the same treatment and we are set to appear in court in August for the charge of trespassing.
At 6pm that day, I arrived at Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) to visit people in detention, as I have done almost every Thursday night for the past two years. Serco managers informed me that I was unable to enter the facility because of my involvement in a protest at the Border Force office several hours earlier. I asked for a written statement to indicate that I was banned, however, this was not provided.
After days of ‘phoning and emailing I eventually received a letter from Border Force stating that I “pose a risk to the good order of the facility” and that any future applications I make to visit will be denied. I am therefore banned indefinitely from visiting people in detention, after seven years of visiting without a single incident.
Aside from the personal sadness that I feel as a result of being unable to see my friends in detention, I am deeply disturbed at the high level of control and silencing that the Australian Government is able to enact towards an individual whose aim is to demand the human rights that this same government has agreed to uphold.
We are living in a system that produces propaganda that gives the illusion of a democracy, however, behind the facade we are living in an increasingly militarised state whereby we face the gradual erosion of the freedoms and rights that we are entitled to.
The singling out and punishment of one individual activist appears as a tactic to deter other activists and visitors from standing up to Border Force and the Australian Government. This prohibition by example highlights the lengths that the Australian Government will go to in maintaining their power. It patently demonstrates their recognition of the potential power that collective direct action has to challenge their institutionalised cruelty and to bring about system change.
“The power of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the power of ideas to change the world. It inspires us to continue working to ensure that all people can gain freedom, equality and dignity. One vital aspect of this task is to empower people to demand what should be guaranteed: their human rights”
My experience has strengthened my resolve to continue to participate in direct action and civil disobedience for the realisation of human rights for all. We have a moral duty to disobey unjust laws and we have the power, strength and right to demand our human rights be realised.
Please fight strong.