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Students protest asylum seeker relocation

Students protest outside the Villawood Detention Centre on Tuesday. Photo: Nina Blackmore

By Xiaoran Shi

A group of five protestors blocked off a main road outside Villawood Detention Centre on Tuesday, April 15, temporarily obstructing traffic and stopping two buses transporting 23 asylum seekers to facilities in the Northern Territory.

The direct action, organised autonomously by a group of students from the University of Sydney, UNSW and Macquarie University, was a demonstration against the final transfer of asylum seekers detained at Villawood to various remote detention centres across Australia.

The protestors originally occupied the exit of Miowera Road onto Woodville Road in anticipation of the buses’ established route, but were forced to act quickly when the buses turned prematurely onto a side street to avoid the blockade.

In response, protestors barricaded three lanes on Woodville Road, stopping all traffic on one side of the road and intercepting the buses.

Drivers sounded their horns as they zoomed past the protestors holding a banner reading ‘Free Refugees’ and chanting, “When human rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back”. The group of five protestors stood their ground until they were forcefully removed from occupying the road.

“[The police] shoved me. They picked me up and dragged me, “ said Sonia Feng, a student activist involved in the blockade.

Another member of the group of five, Young Greens NSW co-convenor Evan Van Zijl, echoed Feng’s disillusionment with the treatment of protestors by police. Mr Van Zijl was positive about the outcome of the direct action, but expressed frustration with “how easy it was for the police to intervene and stop us from protesting”.

The issue of police aggression has dogged the series of protest action taken against the relocation of asylum seekers from Villawood since the first transfer occurred on April 3, when eight people were arrested and charged with failure to comply after a sit-in outside the main entrance.

Tensions between police and protestors escalated further at a picket on April 5 when more than 60 people clashed violently with approximately 30 riot police officers, who received reinforcement from mounted police, police dogs and a police helicopter.

Mr Van Zijl also attended the April 5 demonstration and remains physically and emotionally traumatised as a result of the violence he experienced.

“I was afraid for my life,” he said.

While the Department of Immigration and Border Protection maintains that the asylum seekers were relocated due to “refurbishment” at Villawood, protestors are skeptical.

Refugee rights activist Marlene Carrasco, who has developed close bonds with refugees in detention after regularly visiting Villawood for the past two years, argues that the transfers are an attempt to isolate refugees from the legal representation, support networks and activist campaigns easily accessible in Sydney.

Ms Carrasco points out that the transfers come shortly after asylum seekers undertook legal action against the Department of Immigration for a data breach which caused the personal details of more 10,000 refugees to be publicly released, gravely comprising their safety should they return to their home country.

Xiaoran Shi is a student activist who participated in Tuesday’s action and the April 5 picket.

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